One of the most exciting elections in Wisconsin’s history, at least in the hearts and minds of folks in Marinette and Oconto counties, occurred on Tuesday, April 5, 1960, when voters went to the polls to nominate candidates in the presidential primary.
U.S. Sen. John Fitzgerald Kennedy of Massachusetts and U.S. Sen. Hubert Horatio Humphrey of Minnesota were locked in a nip-and-tuck battle for the Democrat Party nomination in the November election. Richard Milhous Nixon, who had been vice president during President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, was the undisputed Republican challenger with no opposition in the primary.
Voters in Marinette and Oconto counties, traditional Republican grounds, were particularly pumped up for the primary election. Senator Kennedy visited both counties during his grueling campaign swing around the country. It’s not often that a couple of small towns in Northeastern Wisconsin can persuade a presidential candidate to visit.
U.S. Sen. Robert A. Taft, Ohio Republican, visited Marinette in quest for the GOP presidential nomination in 1952. The Republicans, however, chose General Eisenhower as their nominee for the November election.
The general, behind the solid support of women who wanted the Korean War to end and their sons to come home, marched to an easy victory over Democrat Adlai E. Stevenson.
The Kennedy-Humphrey show-down had several political twists that had voters excited. Kennedy was young (age 42), Roman Catholic and a World War II Navy hero. He was handsome, an eloquent speaker and had the charisma to inspire an audience. The likable Humphrey was the former mayor of Minneapolis who had been in the U.S. Senate since 1948.
Kennedy tabbed Wisconsin as one of the swing states he needed in order to capture the presidency. His opponent was from a neighboring state. He realized he faced an uphill battle for the state’s 12 electoral votes.
Edward Woleske, chairman of the Marinette County Democrat Party, was the cogwheel behind the push to lure Kennedy here. Kennedy’s dinner speech was set for the Marinette Catholic Central gymnasium Sunday, March 20.
People connected with political rallies understand how candidates and time schedules often don’t jibe. The senator’s visit was one of those instances, but it never affected the enthusiasm of his supporters.
Kennedy’s entourage arrived at the Menominee County Airport at about 10 a.m., an hour behind schedule. The senator and his party traveled the country in the family-owned Convair 240 Executive plane which was converted to include sleeping accommodations, lounge, galley and other luxuries. Fifteen national newsmen accompanied the candidate.
About 2,000 people greeted Kennedy at the airport. Not all of them were from Wisconsin. Michigan supporters, eager to get a glimpse of a presidential contender, especially one from a famous family, joined Wisconsin rooters along the passageway.
The tousled-haired senator, wearing a topcoat, didn’t disappoint the people who came to see him. He worked the crowd, shaking hands along the way, before being whisked into an automobile and a 30-minute ride to Oconto for a breakfast gathering. A police escort led the way.
John Elfner, chairman of the Oconto County Democratic Party, headed arrangements. Attorney James Martineau, later a Marinette County circuit judge, introduced the candidate. More than 110 people attended the breakfast.
Then it was back in his motorcade for the jaunt to Marinette where more than 700 people were waiting to hear him speak. Jittery supporters were assured the senator was on his way for the $3 per plate Swiss steak dinner.
More than 400 bought tickets for the dinner. Another 300 people paid one buck to sit in the bleachers and hear the senator’s message.
Instead of talking during the dinner, Kennedy spoke before the meal. He was already behind schedule and was booked for a 3 p.m. Milwaukee visit. The senator’s wife, Jacqueline, was back in Milwaukee fighting a cold and unable to make the trip to Oconto and Marinette.
“The presidency is a people’s office,” said Kennedy. “It is the only one that represents all of the people. This is the only way to select a presidential candidate. What sense is there to having a party spokesman make the choice before the people vote?” he added.
He told the crowd how important Wisconsin was to him for the 12 electoral votes and the nomination. He already had invested time and energy in visiting the Badger state and said he intended to spend 10-to-12 more days in Wisconsin.
“If I lose here, I’ll be only a long shot at the convention,” he predicted.
He noted the average income of some people over age 65 was $72 a month. “Think of it,” he said. “How can anyone in these times live on $72 a month? These are very real issues.”
Kennedy also addressed farm issues and the nation’s minimum wage law of $1 an hour.
Robert G. Murphy, news editor at the Menominee Herald-Leader and my mentor during my tender-foot years at the newspaper, wrote a regular column. A staunch Republican and long active in the Menominee County Republican party, Murphy was respected in the political establishment. Democrats in office, or those seeking political office, often sought out Murphy for advice on issues.
Murphy covered political activities on both sides of the Menominee River. One of his best friends and boyhood chums was E.J. “Bob” Eagen, well-known labor leader and publisher of the Twin City Labor News. The two Irish buddies attended the Kennedy gathering together.
In his follow-up column, Murphy called Kennedy an “excellent speaker” and, “one of the best I ever heard.” The senator used no manuscript nor notes.
The columnist lauded Marinette County Democrats for hosting the affair and for its efforts in persuading a presidential candidate to include small town America on a campaign tour.
Kennedy won the Wisconsin primary 478,118 to 372,034. Nixon polled 341,463 complimentary votes. The voting age was 21 at the time. It wasn’t until 1971 when congress ratified the 26th Amendment which cleared the way for 18-year-olds to vote.
The Nov. 8, 1960, general election was different, however. Kennedy defeated Nixon by a razor-thin margin, but failed to carry Wisconsin. Oddly, it was Minnesota that put Kennedy over the top with the necessary electoral college votes.
Both Marinette and Oconto counties favored Nixon over Kennedy in the general election. Kennedy triumphed in Michigan with the strong support of labor. Menominee county voters also favored Kennedy.
Marinette and Oconto seniors have recollections of the visit by a future president, 53 years ago. Three years later, the young president was dead, killed by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, Texas — 50 years ago — Nov. 22, 1963.