A JFK les­son book on pres­i­den­tial cam­paign­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY DAVID PLOUFFE David Plouffe was Barack Obama’s 2008 cam­paign man­ager and White House se­nior ad­viser. He is now president of pol­icy and ad­vo­cacy at the Chan Zucker­berg Ini­tia­tive.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy cap­tured the White House by bril­liantly ex­e­cut­ing a bold, out­sider’s strat­egy. Ever since his ra­zor-thin vic­tory, Demo­cratic op­er­a­tives — and more than a few Repub­li­can ones — have stud­ied his tac­tics in de­tail, turn­ing his cam­paign into a nearly sa­cred text.

As a for­mer pres­i­den­tial cam­paign man­ager, I thought I knew ev­ery­thing about the Kennedy magic on the cam­paign trail. But to my great sur­prise, Thomas Oliphant and Cur­tis Wilkie’s new book, “The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Cam­paign,” brings much new in­sight to an im­por­tant play­book that has echoed through the cam­paigns of 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 Kennedy pres­i­den­tial cam­paign kicked off un­of­fi­cially years in ad­vance, with a fo­cus on de­fy­ing tra­di­tional party pol­i­tics, build­ing a strong grass-roots or­ga­ni­za­tion and bring­ing new vot­ers into the process. As Kennedy once told his speech­writer Ted Sorensen: “In ev­ery cam­paign I’ve ever been in, they’ve said I was start­ing too early — that I would peak too soon or get too much ex­po­sure or run out of gas or be too easy a tar­get. I would never have won any race fol­low­ing that ad­vice.” In the years lead­ing up to 1960, the Kennedy op­er­a­tion re­tained the names of every­one who came into its or­bit. Work­ing out­side estab­lished party chan­nels, it set up lo­cal Kennedy “clubs” in all key states for the pri­maries and the gen­eral elec­tion. A half-cen­tury later, this model was re­flected in Obama’s cre­ation of a com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tion from the bot­tom up.

Through his grass-roots op­er­a­tion, Kennedy was able to col­lect delegates with­out bow­ing to the party’s power struc­ture. As Oliphant and Wilkie put it, Kennedy “har­vested delegates . . . by mak­ing per­son-to-per­son con­nec­tions rather than pan­der­ing to party bosses.” He pro­jected an im­age of an anti-es­tab­lish­ment can­di­date. In one of his cam­paign ads, for in­stance, a nar­ra­tor asked: “Are you go­ing to let your­self be used by the party bosses, who in their smoke-filled rooms in Los An­ge­les [site of the 1960 con­ven­tion] ex­pect to hand-pick the next president of the United States?”

Kennedy’s ap­proach to speak­ing out against the party es­tab­lish­ment served as a kind of pre­cur­sor to the out­sider cam­paigns of Obama and Trump. Both can­di­dates had to bat­tle the ef­forts of en­trenched party stal­warts to bol­ster the prospects of in­sider ri­vals. At key mo­ments, the Obama and Trump teams warned party bosses that any shenani­gans that sub­verted the will of the peo­ple as ex­pressed in the re­sults of pri­maries and caucuses posed cat­a­strophic, long-term con­se­quences.

Kennedy’s chief pres­i­den­tial ri­val, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Lyn­don John­son, was happy to play the in­sider’s role dur­ing the cam­paign, ced­ing the in­sur­gency to Kennedy. In Oliphant and Wilkie’s telling, Larry O’Brien, a Kennedy po­lit­i­cal strate­gist, was amazed that the sen­a­tor from Mas­sachusetts was left un­chal­lenged at the grass-roots level. “Kennedy was able to work un­op­posed to­ward the nom­i­na­tion for months, at least as far as grass-roots Amer­i­can pol­i­tics was con­cerned,” O’Brien said. “The Washington colum­nists kept writ­ing about what a po­lit­i­cal ge­nius Lyn­don John­son was, and we kept lock­ing up delegates.” O’Brien’s sen­ti­ments no doubt rang in the back of the minds of Obama op­er­a­tives as we fought ri­vals sup­ported by the Demo­cratic Party ma­chin­ery.

While un­cer­tain of vic­tory, the Kennedy team was sure of the strat­egy and prin­ci­ples it had laid out to guide its out­sider quest. Any long-shot cam­paign must have a the­ory be­hind its case for vic­tory and must make ev­ery de­ci­sion through that prism. The cam­paign also must stick to its the­ory, no mat­ter how im­prob­a­ble it seems and how much ridicule it en­coun­ters from the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment. That les­son was ab­sorbed by both Obama and Trump. Obama’s gam­bit to base his pri­mary strat­egy in large part on turnout among young vot­ers and to con­test states such as In­di­ana, North Carolina and Vir­ginia in the gen­eral elec­tion met with great skep­ti­cism and even ridicule. Like­wise, Trump’s goal of breaking the great Mid­west­ern blue wall was given next to no chance of suc­ceed­ing. Whether or not his cam­paign firmly be­lieved it could ac­com­plish that ob­jec­tive, Trump op­er­a­tives chased it re­lent­lessly, know­ing that it was his one, nar­row path to vic­tory.

Oliphant and Wilkie are strong­est in shin­ing a new and rel­e­vant light on the lead-up to the 1960 cam­paign and on the pri­mary process. The gen­eral elec­tion, pit­ting Kennedy against Richard Nixon, has been cov­ered much more in­ten­sively and in great de­tail over the years, so read­ers fa­mil­iar with that epic bat­tle will re­live it in th­ese pages rather than learn much new.

But the au­thors de­liver some col­or­ful mo­ments that bring to life the en­mity be­tween Robert Kennedy and John­son, even as John­son was se­lected for the vice-pres­i­den­tial slot. In the testy ne­go­ti­a­tions over John­son join­ing the ticket, the sen­a­tor from Texas is quoted as de­scrib­ing Robert Kennedy as “a lit­tle sh-- ass.” Of course, Robert Kennedy had some fine lan­guage to ex­press his feel­ings about John­son, too, call­ing him “mean, bit­ter and vi­cious . . . an an­i­mal in many ways.”

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

TOP: Can­di­date John F. Kennedy meets New Jersey vot­ers in Septem­ber 1960. ABOVE: Robert Kennedy, right, his brother’s cam­paign man­ager, cre­ated a strong grass-roots op­er­a­tion.

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