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John T. Shaw

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JFK's Echoes Still Heard In U.S. Senate

Posted: 11/20/2013 6:02 pm

More than a half century has passed since John F. Kennedy walked the halls of Congress and charted a path that took him from the House to the Senate and then to the White House. Kennedy remains an icon for members of both parties. His name is regularly invoked in congressional debates. Like Ronald Reagan, he has become a bipartisan hero who is embraced by both parties but for different reasons. Democrats portray Kennedy as an idealist with strength and conviction. Republicans depict him as a hard-headed Democrat who bravely supported tax cuts and a strong defense. To be sure, Kennedy's enduring renown is largely the result of his dramatic election to the presidency in 1960, the historic challenges he faced while in office, and especially his tragic assassination half a century ago in the prime of his life.

In many histories of the 1940s and 1950s and even in biographies of Kennedy, his six years in the House and eight years in the Senate are briefly discussed and then discounted. But his congressional service, especially his Senate years, were a period of remarkable personal and political growth in which an untested backbencher transformed himself into a man of substance and a victorious presidential candidate. The Senate changed John F. Kennedy in profound ways and he also, in a modest way, changed the Senate. Echoes of the first Senator Kennedy can still be heard in the hallways of the U.S. Capitol and memories of his Senate service endure.

On the third floor in the Senate wing of the Capitol, in a hallway that faces the Supreme Court, hang several dozen black and white photos on pale yellow walls that are part of the Arthur Scott Collection. Scott was a Washington photographer for more than 40 years and chronicled Senate life in both its formal and informal aspects. Perhaps the most striking photo shows a young Senator John Kennedy playing baseball with two other Democratic senators in a Georgetown park: Mike Mansfield and Scoop Jackson. All are dressed casually, with Kennedy in shorts and Jackson and Mansfield in long pants and tee shirts. In the 1953 photograph, Kennedy is the catcher, Mansfield the umpire, and Jackson the batter. Fun and informal, the photo was staged. Kennedy reportedly arrived late in his convertible, joined his Senate colleagues who had been waiting for him, posed for the picture, and then raced off. Apparently, the fast-moving, perpetually overscheduled young senator had another appointment to keep.

Another photo from the Scott collection depicts President-elect Kennedy walking through the Capitol Rotunda on Inauguration Day, heading to the East Front of the Capitol, eager to deliver what would become one of the most memorable inaugural speeches of the 20th century. The third Kennedy-related photo is far more somber. It shows President Kennedy's flag draped casket resting in the Rotunda, as two his former Senate colleagues, Everett Dirksen and Hubert Humphrey, speak in the foreground.

One floor below the hallway with the Scott photos is the Senate Reception Room. Located in the north wing of the Capitol and adjacent to the Senate chamber, it is one of the most richly decorated rooms in the Capitol. Designed in 1853 as a place for senators to meet with constituents, it became known as the Ladies' Reception Room and then the Senators' Withdrawal Room. During the Civil War, military widows came here to lobby senators for survivors' benefits and jobs. It was in this elegant room that Senator John F. Kennedy participated in a 1959 ceremony with Vice President Richard Nixon and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and others to unveil the portraits of five great senators in American history as determined by a special committee that Kennedy chaired. The portraits of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Robert LaFollette Sr., and Robert Taft still hang on the walls of the Senate Reception Room. Almost half a century later the Senate decided to add several members to its Hall of Fame. Senate leaders consulted the Kennedy Committee's lengthy and vivid report and drew from its insights to select Arthur Vandenberg and Robert Wagner in 2004 and Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth in 2006. There is speculation that the next senator whose likeness may grace this room is Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who served from 1962 to 2009 and was arguably the best senator of the 20th century, a designation that would have both astonished and delighted his older brother.

Just across the hall from the Senate Reception Room, is S-210, the John Fitzgerald. Kennedy Room. This is a small suite that Kennedy used in the summer of 1960 after he won the Democratic nomination for president and until December when he resigned from the Senate a month before his Inauguration. Johnson, who was also Kennedy's running mate, commandeered the space for his new boss so Kennedy would have a convenient office in the Capitol as he braced for the fall campaign. After Kennedy was elected president, the suite was used by Democratic leader Mike Mansfield and is now one of the offices of the Senate Republican leadership.

There are also echoes of John F. Kennedy in the three Senate office buildings along the north side of the Capitol grounds, even though one was opened more than a decade after Kennedy had left the Senate. The building with the clearest links to Kennedy is now known as the Senate Russell Building. It was called the Senate Office Building when Kennedy first entered the Senate in 1953 and the Old Senate Office Building when he left the Senate at the end of 1960. In 1972 it was named after Kennedy's former colleague Richard Russell. Perhaps the clearest reminder of Senator John F. Kennedy can be found in Room 394, the suite that Kennedy occupied during his eight years of Senate service. When he worked here, it was designated as Room 362. The room numbers of the Russell Building have been changed several times since then and Kennedy's old suite was redesignated as Room 394 in 1983.

This three-room suite has been in high demand since Kennedy vacated it to move to the White House. It was occupied by Senator Philip Hart, a Democrat from Michigan from 1961 to 1966, George McGovern, a Democrat from South Dakota from 1967 to 1973, Albert Gore Jr., a Democrat from Tennessee from 1985 to 1992 and Judd Gregg, a Republican from New Hampshire from 1993 to 2009. Robert Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, now occupies the office which he sought because of its Kennedy lineage. Casey relishes the suite's history and has photos of Senator Kennedy on loan from the Kennedy Presidential Library displayed in a small alcove. Casey's desk is placed near where Kennedy's once was. Casey says that he often thinks about Kennedy who is one of his political heroes. "There is history here. It's a great privilege to be in this office. When I was growing up the Kennedys were an inspirational political family," Casey says and recalls stories of Kennedy's presidential campaign, including his visit to Scranton. Casey's father, then a young man who later became governor of Pennsylvania, waited for hours in the town square to watch the candidate drive by.

Down the hall from Kennedy's old office is the Senate Caucus Room which was renamed the Kennedy Caucus Room in 2009 to commemorate the three Kennedy brothers who served as U.S. senators: John, Robert and Ted. The Kennedy Caucus Room is one of the most majestic and stately rooms in the entire Capitol complex. Visitors are riveted by its marble walls and columns, gilded ceiling, large crystal chandeliers and oversized windows. This room was used for historic Senate hearings on the sinking of the Titanic, the Teapot Dome scandal, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. It was the venue for the confirmation hearings for several Supreme Court justices and was used in the film Advise and Consent. It has also been the spot where a number of senators came to declare their candidacies for president: George McGovern of South Dakota in 1971, Scoop Jackson of Washington in 1971, Lloyd Bentsen of Texas in 1975, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota in 1976, and Howard Baker of Tennessee in 1979. Robert Kennedy, then a senator from New York, announced his run for the presidency in this room in the spring of 1968.

And it was here on the afternoon of January 2, 1960, that a junior senator from Massachusetts came to declare his candidacy for the presidency. Senator John F. Kennedy took the two minute walk from his office to the Caucus room alone, along marble floors which symbolized his eventual pathway from the Senate to the White House.

Since he took those steps more than half a century ago, many senators have tried to replicate his successful journey. So far only one, Barack Obama, has succeeded. Kennedy provided Obama with a roadmap on how an ambitious but untested young senator can use the Senate as a forum, a platform, and finally as a launching pad, to win the presidency. Others in the future, no doubt, will try to follow that same path.

 
 
 
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