JFK and his love affair with Louisiana Weekly column by Jim Brown
The 34th President of the United States took office 50 years ago last week, with tributes and remembrances flowing from all over the world. Republicans look to Ronald Regan as their ideal. But to Republicans and Democrats alike, John Kennedy seemed to capture the hearts of the American people in a way that has been unique in presidents before or since. And from the first stirrings of his efforts to become president, to events that took place after his death, my home state of Louisiana has a special place in the Kennedy legacy.
John Kennedy’s first foray in building Louisiana relationships began in 1956, during the then young senator’s efforts to become the vice presidential candidate on the Adlai Stevenson ticket. Stevenson had promised the VP spot to Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, but didn’t want to offend the Kennedy patriarch, Joseph Kennedy. So he threw the nomination open to the convention floor.
As luck would have it, the Louisiana delegation sat right beside the Massachusetts delegates. John Kennedy and his campaign manager and brother Bobby became fast convention friends with Judge Edmund Reggie of Crowley, and my mentor and friend, Camille Gravel from Alexandria. But the Louisiana delegation was controlled by Gov. Earl Long, and he was firmly committed to Kefauver for the vice presidential nomination. Long left the convention early but gave strict instructions to Reggie and Gravel to support Kefauver.
Despite orders from Ole’ Uncle Earl, Reggie and Gravel led the whole delegation in support of Kennedy. Long was furious, since the rest of the southern states went with the southern candidate. But the efforts by Reggie and Gravel built a special bond between Louisiana and the Kennedys.
Four years later, when John Kennedy set his sights on the presidency, he knew his Catholicism would be a political problem. There had never been a catholic president, and Kennedy wanted to build some initial political bridges in friendly territory. On October 16, 1959, he headed for Crowley, Louisiana at the invitation of Judge Reggie and his wife Doris to be the Grand Marshall of the International Rice Festival. One Hundred and thirty thousand people packed the streets to show their support and affection. There are some marvelous photos taken at the Rice Festival of the future president wearing a hat made from rice, and the future first lady in a number of relaxed poses. Edwin Edwards’ biographer Leo Honeycutt is working on a new book project to be published next year on the special relationship between Kennedy and Louisiana.
Following the Rice Festival, it was on to Baton Rouge, and then to the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans where Kennedy received similar accolades from the city’s large catholic population. The New Orleans Times Picayune ran a front page photo on that Sunday of Kennedy’s visit, showing the future president with one of his leading Louisiana supporters, Camille Gravel. There was no doubt that Louisiana was in Kennedy’s corner. After he became president, he reminisced with close friends that he felt his campaign had really taken off after his initial foray into the deepest of the deep southern states.
Both Camille Gravel and Judge Reggie stayed close friends with the whole Kennedy clan. Gravel was a frontrunner to become Kennedy’s Attorney General before Bobby Kennedy sought out the job. He was appointed to serve on several national commissions by the President, and remained close friends until the day Kennedy was assassinated.
Following the President’s death, the Reggies bought a home next to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis port, Massachusetts. His friendship with the Kennedy family continued, and his daughter, Vicki, later married Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1993. When Judge Reggie was inducted into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame in 2004, the Senator travelled to Winnfield, Louisiana to speak on his behalf.
Fifty years later, President John F. Kennedy is remembered as one of Americana’s most inspiring and creative presidents. But his story would not be complete without an acknowledgement of the strong feelings of affection between this popular president and the Bayou State. Louisianans by the thousands were there for him on his path to the White House from the very beginning.