When John F. Kennedy Judged the Senate's Greats

tags: Senate, JFK, history, Kennedys



John T. Shaw is a congressional correspondent for Market News International and the author of JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency. (October, 2013, Palgrave Macmillan)


JFK while still a senator. Colorization credit: KraljAleksandar


Before John F. Kennedy became the charismatic thirty-fifth president of the United States and an enduring American icon, he served for nearly eight years as the junior senator from Massachusetts. From 1953 to 1960, he mastered the nuances of American politics from the Senate and carefully charted a path to realize his presidential ambitions. Kennedy used the upper chamber as a policy and political training ground and as a launching pad for the presidency. Unlike Lyndon Johnson, the Senate Democratic leader, JFK never aspired to be a dealmaker who kept the institution under his control. Instead, he envisioned himself as a historian-statesman in the mold of his hero, Winston Churchill, moving between the worlds of ideas and action.

One intriguing project Kennedy embraced during his Senate years was the chairmanship of a special committee to determine the best senators in American history. The project demanded his time and energy during a busy season in Kennedy's political career, but he relished the opportunity to immerse himself in one of his great loves: the study of history.

JFK's passion for history began as a young boy and continued though his adolescence and into adulthood. His wife, Jackie, marveled at his love of reading and of history. "He would read walking, he'd read at the table, at meals, he'd read after dinner, he'd read in the bathtub. He really read all the times you don't think you have time to read," she recalled in a 1964 interview.

Jackie reported that her husband rarely touched a novel. "He wasn't just reading for diversion. He didn't want to waste a single second," she said, adding that every Sunday he studied the New York Times Book Review and circled the books he wanted her to pick up for him. When he met with academics, he often asked them for a reading list.

Kennedy also wrote history, first as a Harvard undergraduate when he turned his honors thesis about England's foreign policy into a best-selling book, Why England Slept. Nearly fifteen years later, while convalescing in Palm Beach after major back surgery, then Senator Kennedy decided to expand an article he had written about political courage into a book. Kennedy assembled a small research team for the project, overseen by his aide Ted Sorensen. Sorensen’s group gathered background materials and sent Kennedy memos and draft chapters which JFK honed into a manuscript.

Profiles in Courage was published in January of 1956, became a best-seller, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and established Kennedy as the Senate's preeminent historian. The book came out just as Senate leaders were looking for someone to chair a special Senate committee to determine the five best senators in American history. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson created the committee in 1955 and served as its first chairman, believing it would capture the attention of the nation. Johnson also thought the panel’s findings would help educate an influx of new senators about the Senate's history and encourage them to embrace role models. However, early in 1956 Johnson decided he needed to focus on his packed legislative agenda and handed the chairmanship to Kennedy. On April 11, 1956, Vice President Richard Nixon, in his capacity as president of the Senate, formally appointed Kennedy as chairman of the prestigious panel.

Kennedy presided over a committee that was largely comprised of Senate elders. Democrat Richard Russell of Georgia was the leading senator on the Kennedy Committee and arguably the most respected man in the Senate. Expert in agriculture and national security, Russell was widely revered in the upper chamber despite being a devoted segregationist. Mike Mansfield of Montana was the other Democrat on the panel. He had been a history professor at Montana State University for nearly a decade when he decided to run for Congress. Elected to House in 1942, he served for a decade before winning election to the Senate. He entered the Senate with Kennedy in 1953 and was respected as a foreign policy expert. Styles Bridges of New Hampshire was the senior Republican on the Kennedy Committee. Shrewd and effective, Bridges was a Senate power who mediated between the GOP's internationalist and isolationists factions and also struck deals with Democrats such as Johnson and Russell. John Bricker of Ohio, a hard charging Republican conservative, rounded out the committee. Bricker was elected to the Senate in 1946 and resided firmly in the conservative wing of GOP. He was a major foreign policy figure in the mid-1950s as the sponsor of a controversial constitutional amendment that sought to limit the impact of treaties on domestic law and prevent the use of executive agreements as a substitute for treaties.

As the committee chairman, Kennedy's first task was to create a credible selection process. He sought the advice of Allen Nevins, one of the nation's most popular and respected historians with whom Kennedy had worked on other projects. Kennedy asked Nevins to head an advisory board of nine eminent historians and political scientists to establish criteria for selecting the outstanding senators and to identify the nation's top historians and political scientists who would be surveyed to identify nominees. Kennedy also consulted with the executive directors of the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association, the National Archivist, and other scholars. While determined to get the best advice from the academic world, Kennedy made it clear the final selections would be made by the senators on his committee.

The Kennedy Committee settled on simple criteria for the outstanding senators in American history: each should be chosen without regard to their service in other offices, they should be distinguished for acts of statesmanship transcending State and party lines, and their statesmanship could include leadership in national thought and constitutional interpretation as well as legislation.

In early 1957 Kennedy sent a survey to more than 150 historians and political scientists seeking their advice on who should be selected as the outstanding senators. Almost all responded; some wrote elegant, carefully reasoned essays while others submitted cryptic notes that simply listed their top five senators. The Kennedy Committee also asked for recommendations from current senators, prominent former senators and other public figures including the two living former presidents, Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman. Truman wrote Kennedy a long memo with 42 candidates; Hoover sent a terse note in which he identified two senators and a law as his recommendations for the Senate's so-called Hall of Fame.

For the Kennedy Committee's final deliberations, the senators drew on detailed biographies prepared by the Library of Congress as well as their own independent research. They received more than 600 letters from the public and reviewed newspaper editorials opining on the Senate’s greats. As deliberations intensified in the spring of 1957, the members easily agreed on three of the five greatest senators: the "Great Triumvirate" senators of Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, Henry Clay of Kentucky and John Calhoun of South Carolina. These three senators dominated American politics and government in the decades before the Civil War and were widely regarded as the gold standard as effective and consequential senators.

Then the Kennedy Committee then debated their final two selections. After much discussion, they selected a leading conservative and progressive from the 20th century: Robert Taft of Ohio was the conservative and Robert LaFollette, Sr. of Wisconsin was the progressive. Kennedy preferred George Norris of Nebraska over LaFollette, but agreed to drop his personal choice in the interest of achieving a unanimous vote within his committee and to avoid likely resistance from other senators.

As the Kennedy Committee neared agreement on its selections, Kennedy wrote an essay in the New York Times to gin up interest in the panel. On April 14, 1957, just two weeks before the committee's May 1 deadline, Kennedy's essay, "Search for the Five Greatest Senators," emphasized the difficulty in selecting the best senators. Kennedy observed that "the value of a Senator is not so easily determined as the value of a car or a hog, or even that of a public utility bond or a ballplayer." He added: "There are no standard tests to apply to a Senator, no Dunn & Bradstreet rating, no scouting reports. His talents may vary with his time, his contribution may be limited by his politics. To judge his true greatness, particularly in comparison with his fellow Senators long after they are all dead, is nearly an impossible task."

To illustrate how difficult it was to choose the best senators, Kennedy identified some of the most obvious criteria and explained how they yielded more ambiguity than certainty. For example, some urged his panel to focus on senators associated with landmark legislation. But Kennedy noted that often courageous opposition to legislation is as important as writing new laws and associating a senator with a particular bill is sometimes misleading. There were a number of historical examples, Kennedy archly observed, where senators were credited with legislation they actually had little to do with and possibly didn't even understand. Others urged the selections to represent all of the major periods of American history. But Kennedy said tumultuous periods, such as from 1820 to 1868, demanded statesmanship from the Congress while calmer times did not. Kennedy described how some suggested his committee give special consideration to senators with long records of service in the upper chamber. But he cited several senators with brief tenures who made a large impact. Kennedy also challenged the idea that national leadership was essential, noting that John Calhoun "lived--and died--for Southern principles" but was still widely viewed as a Senate giant. Kennedy said that criteria such as public popularity during a senator's career and respect of his contemporaries had to be evaluated carefully and should not be taken as definitive proof of greatness.

Kennedy released his committee’s report on April 30 and then spoke on the Senate floor the next day to formally present the selection of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, Robert LaFollette, Sr., and Robert Taft. Kennedy acknowledged that objections could be raised to each, but it was important to celebrate "their overall statesmanship, their service to the Nation, and their impact on the Senate, the country, and our history." Describing what he believed the project accomplished, Kennedy said there was "considerable merit in stimulating interest among the general public and the Senate itself in the high traditions of the Senate, in the political problems faced by even our most distinguished statesmen and in the high standards of the past which might be inspiring or emulated today."

The Kennedy Committee's final report was widely covered in the United States. There were substantial articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and other papers which described the findings of the Kennedy Committee and included photos of Clay, Calhoun, Webster, Taft and LaFollette. Several dozen editorials ran in American newspapers which discussed the work of the committee, largely in positive terms.

The Senate's interest in, and support of, the selections of the Kennedy Committee's findings continued after the May 1 announcement. In August of 1957 the Senate voted to officially accept the decision of the Kennedy Committee and create another group to commission portraits of the five outstanding senators. These paintings were completed in late 1958 and quietly installed in the Senate Reception Room. Each painting was about two feet high and 20 inches wide and placed in a massive ornate gold frame. The Senate Rules Committee ordered the paintings covered until “appropriate unveiling ceremonies” could be scheduled. The unveiling ceremony occurred on March 12, 1959 in the Reception Room with Kennedy sharing center stage with Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. But Kennedy was the star of the event, displaying wit, historical acumen, and self-deprecation.

Kennedy's participation in the committee lasted from 1956 to 1959. It was arguably the one project during his Senate career that he actually led. The committee’s deliberations reveal how Kennedy negotiated with senior senators, forged an agreement, and presented it to the public. Kennedy organized a rigorous process to solicit the opinions of scholars but made clear the final choices would be made by the members of his committee. He worked creatively on the committee, took its mandate seriously, and produced a thoughtful report that is still used by scholars of American politics.

Senator Kennedy relished his experience as the chairman of the special committee. It allowed him to return to a topic that fascinated him, political greatness, and engage with the nation's leading scholars. It cemented his reputation as the Senate's historian, kept him in the news during a critical time, and helped him forge a compelling political identify as an energetic young senator who was also steeped in American history.


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