The Road to Camelot

Inside JFK's Five-Year Campaign

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About The Book

“A must-read for fans of presidential history.” —USA TODAY

“Splendid…a gripping, authoritative campaign history.” —The Boston Globe

“Terrific…a tougher and more balanced account of the long campaign than anybody’s written yet.” —The Christian Science Monitor

A behind-the-scenes, revelatory account of John F. Kennedy’s wily campaign to the White House, beginning with his bold, failed attempt to win the vice presidential nomination in 1956. A young and undistinguished junior plots his way to the presidency and changes the way we nominate and elect presidents.

John F. Kennedy and his young warriors invented modern presidential politics. They turned over accepted wisdom that his Catholicism was a barrier to winning an election and plotted a successful course to that constituency. They hired Louis Harris—a polling entrepreneur—to become the first presidential pollster. They twisted arms and they charmed. They lined up party bosses, young enthusiasts, and fellow Catholics and turned the traditional party inside out. The last-minute invitation to Lyndon B. Johnson for vice president in 1956 surprised them only because they had failed to notice that he wanted it. They invented The Missile Gap in the Cold War and out-glamoured Richard Nixon in the TV debates.

Now acclaimed, award-winning journalists Tom Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie provide the most comprehensive account, based on a depth of personal reporting, interviews, and archives. The authors have examined more than 1,600 oral histories at the John F. Kennedy library; they’ve interviewed surviving sources, including JFK’s sister Jean Smith, and they draw on their own interviews with insiders including Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

From the start of the campaign in 1955 when his father tried to persuade President Johnson to run with JFK as his running mate, The Road to Camelot reveals him as a tough, shrewd political strategist who kept his eye on the prize. This is one of the great campaign stories of all time, appropriate for today’s political climate.

Excerpt

The Road to Camelot CHAPTER ONE The Spark
Senator Lyndon B. Johnson’s heart attack hit him on July 2, 1955, while he was visiting a businessman friend and benefactor in the Virginia horse and estate country west of Washington.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s came barely ten weeks later, on a late September evening while he was visiting his in-laws near Denver.

This unprecedented cardiac double-header was medically no minor event. Johnson was kept in the U.S. Naval Hospital just outside Washington for seven weeks and didn’t resume his frenetic work schedule until December. Eisenhower remained in Fitzsimons Army Hospital in nearby Aurora, Colorado, for seven weeks and wasn’t working at his accustomed pace until after the New Year.

The shock to the country’s governance and politics was similarly severe. Eisenhower was felled as he was beginning to gear up for what most observers assumed would be a relatively easy run for reelection in 1956. The war hero and America’s thirty-fourth president was popular and not without major successes in his first term. Now, suddenly, his future was in doubt.

Johnson was a rookie, having become the Senate’s majority leader only that January, after the Democratic Party regained control of the Senate in the previous year’s elections, but he had been learning the ropes of leadership for nearly twenty years. His dreams of the presidency were only dreams; first he had a Senate to run. But now his doctors kept him from the work he loved.

In the twenty-first century it is commonplace for heart patients to be up, active, and working within weeks, often days. This wasn’t the case in 1955, when long recuperations predicted long-term disability. In his forties and clearly recovering, Johnson was still robust, but doubts about the health of the sixty-five-year-old Eisenhower persisted for months.

One man among the millions concerned about Eisenhower’s health and future was Joseph Patrick Kennedy, no ordinary man and no ordinary superrich tycoon. He had been around big-time politics for more than twenty years and involved in local politics in his native Massachusetts all his life. Holding the loftiest of ambitions for his second son, then a freshman senator with no national standing whatsoever—yet blessed by his family name, wealth, and nearly a decade of political success—Kennedy saw opportunity in Eisenhower’s misfortune. Being a man of bold action, often rash, he hatched a plan and set out to make it happen.

With the agreement of his son John Fitzgerald and the knowledge of other members of his large family, Kennedy approached Johnson. He knew Johnson well and had supported him financially as he rose to the apex of the Senate. To underline his seriousness, Kennedy enlisted as an emissary one of Washington’s most effective lobbyists, Thomas G. Corcoran, comfortably ensconced in his second career after service as one of the important members of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s White House staff.

Kennedy’s message was simple and over-the-top presumptuous: With Eisenhower hospitalized, the architecture of the 1956 election has been changed. You should run for president. I will make sure your campaign never lacks for lavish financing. And my son will be your running mate.

There is no evidence that Johnson seriously considered Kennedy’s offer and no plausible argument that he should have. To Corcoran and to Kennedy, Johnson simply said he wasn’t interested, that he wasn’t running. There is also no evidence that Kennedy and his son did anything more than let the matter drop quietly, though according to Corcoran there was an outburst from younger brother Robert Francis—still evolving as a young adult but already known for his temper and grudges—over Johnson’s quick dismissal of his father’s overture.

Nevertheless the episode reverberated, though not in the way Joseph Kennedy had intended. It represented a spark, the first time national office was the subject of something other than formless ambition and hope and talk, and it ignited a five-year quest that culminated in Jack Kennedy’s transformative election as the country’s thirty-fifth president at the young age of forty-three.

After that October, every time there was an option on the table involving national office—the vice presidency over the next ten months, the presidency immediately thereafter—Kennedy chose to move forward. His campaign was not a scripted operation but a long, continuous pursuit. At first it was tentative, with Kennedy appearing detached, even doubtful. But by the end of the summer of 1956 Kennedy felt the presidency was staring him in the face. On Thanksgiving that year he made the commitment to start running.

One reason Kennedy decided to move forward is that it was the only direction his fortunes could go. In the mid-1950s he was not a consequential figure in national politics. Even after nearly a decade in Congress he was considered more of a socialite and a war hero than a political leader. He had no developed philosophy or ideology, and his Senate contemporaries considered him an indifferent Democrat with occasionally independent tendencies. He was not involved prominently in any great cause or issue and enjoyed no real standing inside the Senate. He was not even the undisputed master of politics in his home state. He was nowhere near the top of any list of Democrats to watch. When assessing him as a politician, the word commentators used most frequently was potential, not power.

“Kennedy was then really in the second rank even of Democratic politicians,” explained Abram Chayes, a Harvard Law School professor and early supporter who eventually made it to the top of the Kennedy State Department. “He was not by any means thought of as a guy with a real chance even for the vice presidency.”

Senator Joseph Clark, a liberal icon from Pennsylvania who was never particularly close to Kennedy, later acknowledged, “We all underestimated Kennedy. Nobody paid an awful lot of attention to him except as a brash young man who wanted to be President and who would never make it.”

———

Kennedy had prepped for his presidential campaign with a bid to get on the 1956 Democratic ticket with Adlai Stevenson. Amid the first stirrings of that race, others were more seriously considered as running mates for Stevenson. Among the more prominent were Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, who had briefly run for president in 1952 and was known nationally for his investigations of organized crime and the drug industry; young Hubert Humphrey, a senator from Minnesota, who had electrified the national convention in 1948 with his fiery attack on Jim Crow while forever antagonizing the Deep South; and there were others.

As names began to circulate, Kennedy’s interest grew, stimulated by his father’s short-lived initiative. It flowed as much from his bemused, flattered ambition and his long-standing enjoyment of challenges as from any realistic intention to seek higher office. Still, his interest was genuine. And he had someone close enough to his substantive and political life to meaningfully assist him.

Theodore C. Sorensen, then all of twenty-seven, had been a top aide for two years when the two famous heart attacks occurred. A Nebraskan with deep progressive family roots, Sorensen was that rarest of political species: someone who could work on the development of policy and ideas while helping shape them into speeches and articles, often with simple eloquence. “The Senator’s own interest in the nomination was growing, more out of a sense of competition than of conviction,” Sorensen recalled years later. But Kennedy regularly approved his aide’s suggestions to advance his position, albeit with “skeptical encouragement.”

An even closer, more intimate participant, Kennedy’s brother Robert said, “I think he just wanted to see what it looked like, to put his foot in the water and see how cold it was, but he hadn’t made up his mind to swim by any means.”

One of the very first articles that referred to Kennedy by name as a vice presidential possibility appeared in the fall of 1955 in Newsweek magazine’s Periscope column, a weekly compilation of rumors, gossip, and occasionally hard information that many politicians read closely. Kennedy was curious enough to personally call the page’s editor in New York, Debs Myers, to ask who was doing the mentioning.

“Me,” Myers replied, introducing Kennedy to one of the many ways reporters manage to insert their own hunches and views into stories.

But the mentions continued, and reporters increasingly began attributing them to unnamed supporters of Stevenson himself, signaling that the topic was alive for real. Kennedy continued to listen and, whenever an option was on the table, to be proactive. (One exception was an earlier Sorensen memorandum, in November 1955, citing public speculation about Kennedy’s health. The senator was less than a year removed from two major spinal surgeries involving a long recuperation during which he nearly died. He had also started a steroid regimen to treat a form of Addison’s disease. Sorensen had suggested that he prepare a report on Kennedy’s health to deal with any questions. Kennedy simply said no, possibly to avoid attracting more attention to the subject; possibly because it would be too obvious an effort to affect Stevenson’s choice of a running mate; possibly for both reasons.)

———

At the end of 1955, according to Sorensen, Kennedy was thinking of entering the New Hampshire primary three months hence as a New England “favorite son”—a gambit to gain prominence for himself and to hold the delegation for Stevenson. (Kefauver had famously beaten Stevenson there in 1952 and figured to do so again.) However, that idea was dropped after Stevenson’s campaign manager, a veteran politician from Pennsylvania named James Finnegan, made it clear that he favored an actual endorsement instead, which Kennedy promptly delivered once it was certain that his Senate leader, Lyndon Johnson, had no interest in running for president.

But as 1956 began, Kennedy was openly in the mix. He occasionally referred to the situation in public, typically with one of his increasingly notable attributes, his wit. Appearing in January at a testimonial for Senator George Smathers of Florida, a personal friend, Kennedy told a hoary joke about how the Senate held a secret ballot to choose the next president and each senator wound up with one vote.

“We all know that all 96 Senators”—Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states—“do not consider themselves potential candidates for President,” Kennedy said. “Some are only candidates for vice president.”

President Eisenhower’s serious heart attack inaugurated a months-long period of doubt about his future as well as his health. He was in the hospital in Colorado for nearly two months and rested at Key West in Florida afterward. Like Johnson, the president was essentially out of commission until the end of the year. What is more, Eisenhower publicly confessed his reservations about seeking a second term, a topic that divided his physicians. It wasn’t until mid-January 1956 that signs of a budding reelection effort began to appear, and it wasn’t until the end of February that the president formally announced that he would run again.

In short, Joe Kennedy’s timing was poor. Regardless of Eisenhower’s intentions, the elder Kennedy had hardly offered Johnson an easy road to nomination, much less election. Jack Kennedy’s acquiescence in his father’s plan, moreover, proved to be ill-considered in such an uncertain atmosphere. Eventually his father would turn as sharply negative about his son’s presence on the 1956 Democratic ticket as he had once been ebulliently positive. He now argued, by letter and telephone, that Eisenhower would most likely win and that taking the second spot on Stevenson’s slate would wind up being a career failure for his son.

Yet by then Jack Kennedy was comfortable with his own views and prepared to ignore his father’s frequently overstated advice. His competitive family members were accustomed to making their own decisions.

About The Author

Susan Spencer

Thomas Oliphant is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and Washington columnist for The Boston Globe. A regular commentator on PBS NewsHour, he is the author of four books, including The Road to Camelot. Al Franken says “Oliphant brings more to the table than anyone I know.” Madeline Albright called him “the Will Rogers of our times.” Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that his book Praying for Gil Hodges was a “small masterpiece.”

Ji Hoon Heo

Curtis Wilkie was a national reporter and correspondent for The Boston Globe. He teaches journalism at University of Mississippi. He is the author of The Fall of the House of Zeus, which The Wall Street Journal wrote “reads like a John Grisham novel.” Tom Brokaw described Wilkie as “one of the best journalists of our generation.”

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 2017)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501105562

Raves and Reviews

“Two of our most gifted reporters have found the perfect subject to match their love of politics, their interviewing skills, and their literary talents. The result is a freshly told, endlessly riveting story that captures the reader every step along the way.”

– Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of The Bully Pulpit and Team of Rivals

“Oliphant and Wilkie’s evocative, behind-the-scenes account goes beyond what we knew from Teddy White and others about how a youthful senator beat the political establishment and won the presidency. Their portrait of Kennedy shows him to be “part gambler but also part cold realist” whose political instincts served him well and broke new ground in presidential campaigns that his successors have followed.”

– Susan Page, Washington Bureau chief, USA TODAY

The Road to Camelot grabs you on the first page and never lets go. Two of our country’s finest journalists, take us deep inside John F. Kennedy’s at once old-fashioned and brilliantly innovative political operation and show how it made him president. Along the way, they teach us a lot about our country. This book is a gift to history, to all who love politics, and to anyone who likes a good story, brilliantly told.”

– E. J. Dionne Jr., author of the New York Times Bestseller Why The Right Went Wrong

“A spellbinding story of the brash young scion of a wealthy Catholic family plotting his way to the presidency. Kennedy created the modern campaign while cajoling the canny and still-controlling party bosses. Though we know the ending, it’s a nail-biting and well-told tale.”

– Cokie Roberts, author and political commentator for ABC News and NPR

“Two of the best political reporters around tell the story of an ambitious young senator who would not wait his turn and changed all the old rules to become our 35th president. The Road to Camelot is a wonderful narrative of the self-driven campaign of the man who became President Kennedy. An exciting time. A great read.”

– Richard Reeves, author of President Kennedy: Profile of Power and President Reagan: The Triump of Imagination

“An excellent chronicle of JFK's innovations, his true personality, and how close he came to losing.”

– Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“The exciting and illuminating tale of John F. Kennedy’s calculated run for the presidency . . . a very compelling account of a landmark election.” 

– Booklist, starred review

“An in-depth narrative based on oral histories, personal interviews, and secondary sources. . . . The authors add a new perspective to literature on Kennedy by focusing on his electioneering efforts rather than his persona and policy outcomes.  This book will interest everyone from history buffs to those nostalgic for the days of favorite-son candidates to readers interested in contested conventions.”

– Library Journal

The Road to Camelot brings much new insight to an important playbook that has echoed through the campaigns of other presidential aspirants as disparate as Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The authors take us step by step on the road to the Kennedy victory, leaving us with an appreciation for the maniacal attention to detail of both the candidate and his brother Robert, the best campaign manager in American political history."

– The Washington Post

"Oliphant and Wilkie excel here in taking the accepted knowledge of Kennedy's rise, debunking some of the conventional wisdom (such as Joe Kennedy's role as his son's Svengali) and adding new details that provide a richer history of our 35th president....The authors' knowledge of politics, campaigns and the presidency crackles off each page. They touch all the Kennedy bases here....a must-read for fans of presidential history."

– USA Today

“A conscientiously-researched and terrific new book . . . a tougher and more balanced account of the long campaign than anybody's written yet. . . . The book's account of the actual 1960 presidential campaign is as gripping and dramatic as anything Sorensen himself might have written in its interplay of political insight and personal interplay. . . . "The Road to Camelot" is in essence a reminder and perhaps a bit of a surprise: This is the story of John Kennedy making all the decisions and calling all the shots, a man in complete control of his message and his campaign – the chief architect of his own victory.”

– The Christian Science Monitor

“Splendid . . . a gripping, authoritative campaign history, every bit the successor to Theodore White’s classic work, The Making of the President 1960.”

– The Boston Globe

"[A] provocative reconstruction of his 'five-year campaign' for the White House."

– The New Yorker

“The book is most impressive for its meticulously detailed approach to the fierce Kennedy drive toward the ultimate goal of the presidency.”

– The Washington Times

"Excellent"

– The Dallas Morning News

“The two former Boston Globe reporters argue that JFK's campaign was much more than the year-long affair depicted in Teddy White's The Making of the President 1960, a classic of political journalism that won the Pulitzer Prize. . . . The book offers new detail on how Johnson ended up as vice president after Kennedy clinched the nomination.”

– CNN

“Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie — two veterans of The Boston Globe — supply a fresh and fascinating account in The Road to Camelot. . . . a detailed account that balances admiration with criticism.” 

– Richmond Times-Dispatch

“The most compelling book on JFK in the year of his centennial.”

– The Daily Beast

“Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie, both veteran political journalists, retell the story of this momentous campaign, reminding us of now forgotten details of Kennedy’s path to the White House.”

– The Wall Street Journal

“This is an important work for any JFK student or fan....Put this one on your book shelf–you'll want to return to it often."

– Buffalo News

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