JFK's 1959 visit was big news

THE KENNEDYS — John and Jacqueline Kennedy were popular visitors to Louisiana before Kennedy, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts at the time, announced he was running for president.

Those of us who have been around long enough to remember President John F. Kennedy will never forget what at the time were remarkable years in national politics and also one of this nation’s saddest times. We have also never forgotten his visit to Lake Charles in 1959 before he announced his candidacy for president.

Visiting his presidential library in Boston recently was a special treat. Area residents who have seen the “American Visionary: JFK’s Life and Times” exhibit at the Historic City Hall Arts and Cultural Center in Lake Charles have found it extremely interesting and informative.

Mayor Nic Hunter was correct when he said of JFK, “Though he was assassinated in Dallas before finishing his first term, he remains as a global leader and one of the most studied American presidents.”

The Associated Press reported on Thursday, Oct. 15, 1959, that Kennedy, a Democratic U.S. senator from Massachusetts, would be flying to Baton Rouge from New Orleans to start a whirlwind tour of the state. His goal was to lure Louisiana back into the Democratic Party after it had supported Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956.

Eisenhower’s 60,000-vote victory in Louisiana shattered the state’s 80-year opposition to a Republican White House. The AP said the last time Louisiana had voted for a Republican president was in 1876 when Rutherford B. Hayes was elected.

Alexandria attorney Camille Gravel Jr. was Louisiana’s national Democratic committeeman who helped arrange Kennedy’s visit to the state. Gov. Earl K. Long said he hoped Kennedy’s swing through the state would be happy and pleasant. Long said Kennedy was in a position to do Louisiana a lot of good, whether he continued to be a U.S. senator or became vice president or president.

Kennedy was going to speak in Baton Rouge and fly back to New Orleans for two speeches there. He was then going to head to Southwest Louisiana on Friday for lunch at a Lafayette country club, visit the International Rice Festival in Crowley, where he was guest of honor, and wind up his tour with a news conference and speech at the Pioneer Club in Lake Charles.

While in Crowley, Kennedy wore an usual “rice hat” shaped like a cowboy’s hat. The New York Times said his willingness to wear the hat revealed his eagerness to win friends in Louisiana. The newspaper said Kennedy had almost always refused to wear unusual hats in public. He remembered a famous photograph of President Calvin Coolidge in a Sioux headdress, which Kennedy considered comical.

Gravel said, “We weren’t trying to break any new ground in areas where it was real tough. Therefore, when he went to New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Crowley and Lake Charles, he was doing a pretty good job of covering the southern part of the state where he could be expected to develop the most strength.”

It was reported that Kennedy’s Catholicism would make religion an issue in a presidential campaign, and Louisiana’s 33 percent Catholic population was one of the reasons he kicked off his campaign in the state. Kennedy won Louisiana in 1960 with 407,339 votes to 230,980 votes for Republican Richard Nixon.

Maurice Kushner was chairman of the committee in charge of Kennedy’s arrangements in Lake Charles. Mayor Sidney L. Gray, District Attorney Edward L. Shaheen and John A. Hickman welcomed Kennedy.

A press conference was held at KPLC-TV at 6:30 p.m. American Press Managing Editor Kenneth L. Dixon was the moderator. Newsmen on the panel were James McLean of The Associated Press, Robert Akers of the Beaumont Enterprise, Bill Mertena of the American Press and Pelham Mills and Frank Holloway, both of KPLC-TV.

When asked about his chances as a Catholic, Kennedy said, “The problems we are going to face in the United States in the 1960s are so significant and so important that I would think the American voters would be more interested in (a presidential candidate’s) views than in what church he goes to on Sunday.”

Kushner said Kennedy wanted to personally greet those arriving for the evening dinner. One of the guests was Charles Murphy, a local photographer who worked part-time for the American Press. Murphy was one of Kennedy’s classmates during high school in Boston.

The election of 1960 was one of the closest in American history. Kennedy earned 49.7 percent of the popular vote to 49.5 percent for Nixon. Kennedy won the electoral vote 303-219. Kennedy polled only about 100,000 more votes than Nixon out of 68 million votes cast. At 43, Kennedy became the youngest person ever elected president.

We will never know how successful Kennedy could have been because of his assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. The mourning period proved to be some of the darkest days in many of our lives after what had been an exciting time in national politics.

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