The ripple effect of JFK in Madison

Sixty years ago, Sen. John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign drew huge crowds and dramatically altered local politics.
JFK in the field house over a crowd
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Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy giving a campaign speech on Oct. 23, 1960, at the Wisconsin Field House.

John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign came to town repeatedly, and it was quite the family affair. His wife, Jacqueline, had tea with a local judge while three of his sisters, brother Ted and even family matriarch Rose made many Madison-area appearances. And although they were embraced, JFK — a senator from Massachusetts — failed to carry either Madison in the Democratic presidential primary or Wisconsin in the general election. Yet Kennedy’s candidacy had a tremendous and lasting impact on the city.

His Democratic primary campaign against Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota created enough Badgerland bitterness to last for years, even damaging the federal judiciary. And his election utterly transformed local politics — for example, ending the effort to build Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace auditorium and convention center.

Kennedy’s advisers didn’t want him entering the primary against the friendly liberal from neighboring Minnesota. They knew that some voters feared the pope would unduly influence the Catholic Kennedy, while others who actually supported two-time nominee Adlai Stevenson were trying to block Kennedy from a first-ballot nomination at the national convention, hoping delegates would then draft the former Illinois governor.

But Kennedy himself agreed with his best ally and friend in Wisconsin — Madison Realtor and state party chair Patrick Lucey — who said Kennedy’s candidacy could deal a major blow to Humphrey. Madison Mayor Ivan Nestingen signed on to chair the state campaign.

There were two complications. Wisconsin Gov. Gaylord Nelson, who didn’t get along with Lucey, was officially neutral but privately supported Stevenson and Humphrey. That’s why as president, Kennedy dealt only with party chair (and future governor) Lucey on federal appointments and shut Nelson out.

Further, the director of the national committee to draft Stevenson was Madison attorney, former state party chair and vice president of the police and fire commission James E. Doyle Sr. Maybe that’s why Kennedy invited the teenage Jim Doyle Jr. backstage at the Memorial Union Theater after a speech in 1959, before the campaign officially began. The future governor was suitably dazzled.

Kennedy began his first three-day campaign through Wisconsin before dawn on Feb. 16, greeting workers at the Oscar Mayer plant — including a World War II buddy from the South Pacific. In a futile effort to gain an endorsement from The Capital Times, he and wife Jackie then had breakfast with founding editor/publisher William T. Evjue. After a news conference at the Eagles Club, they were off for a whirlwind three-day swing through 16 cities and towns.

Kennedy returned to Madison three times, drawing large crowds. Leske’s Supper Club commemorated his lunch with the East Side Optimists with a plaque at the booth where he and Jackie sat. Kennedy closed the campaign before an overflow crowd of more than 1,200 University of Wisconsin–Madison students in Music Hall (with 50 more standing outside in the freezing cold, listening to a loudspeaker).

Several members of the Kennedy family tried to help drum up support. Judge Richard and Elizabeth Bardwell hosted tea for Jackie; three of the Kennedy sisters attended a series of receptions all over town; brother Ted was on a panel at the Lutheran student center; and even matriarch Rose made appearances at the Blackhawk Country Club and in Prairie du Chien.

Senator John F. Kennedy with his wife, Jackie (third and second from left) meet with then Madison Mayor Ivan Nestigen (second from right) among others.

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Senator John F. Kennedy with his wife, Jackie (third and second from left) meet with then Madison Mayor Ivan Nestigen (second from right) among others.

And it was personal. One day Mary Arnett, a St. Raphael’s Catholic School student and volunteer at campaign headquarters on Capitol Square, told campaign manager Bobby Kennedy her hand had cramped from addressing so many mailings to Oconomowoc. Bobby Kennedy laughed and invited Arnett into the backroom, where the candidate himself held her hand in thanks. One night, after dinner at the home of Mayor Nestingen, JFK went upstairs to thank 10-year-old babysitter Veronica Ostermeyer and promise the mayor’s daughters he’d have dinner with them on his next visit to town.

Kennedy won the April 5 Wisconsin primary, but not by enough. He carried only the Catholic and Republican areas in the open primary. He would have to beat Humphrey in West Virginia and campaign all the way to the convention.

Kennedy’s lone local appearance as his party’s nominee, on Oct. 23, was a smashing success. Thousands greeted him at the airport; thousands more lined East Washington Avenue and Capitol Square to cheer his motorcade. Near the front was Vera Gurland, who had dropped off husband John, a UW–Madison mathematics professor, just as Kennedy’s motorcade was assembling. Wanting a closer look at the candidate in his open convertible, she drove her Dodge Custom Royale closer — young daughters Iva and Marsha in tow — and became part of the procession, all the way downtown.

Kennedy was mobbed again when he stopped for a break at the Hotel Loraine, then got a rock star reception from 15,000 foot-stomping supporters at the Wisconsin Field House — its largest crowd until the Vietnam Moratorium Day program in October 1969.

The crowd roared support for Kennedy’s sharp attack on GOP nominee Richard Nixon, and so swarmed the candidate afterward to the point that police had to beat a path for him to leave.

Helped a bit by the city-sponsored door-to-door voter registration drive Mayor Nestingen had pushed through the City Council, as well as 88% voter turnout, Kennedy carried Madison. But Kennedy fell short statewide, as Nixon took Wisconsin’s 12 electoral votes in his losing effort.

Ten weeks later, Kennedy profoundly changed Madison government by upending the 1961 mayoral campaign.

Nestingen, who had run unopposed for a third term in 1959, was unopposed again when he filed for reelection on January 13, 1961. He was still unopposed a week later, with a great political victory in sight — Monona Terrace construction had just gone out to bid.

group of men at the airport

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Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy (middle) talks with state Democratic leaders at the then Madison Municipal Airport. To Kennedy's far left is Gov. Gaylord Nelson, next to Nelson is state Democratic Party head Partick J. Lucey. Ivan Nestingen, the mayor of Madison, is on the far right, and directly to Kennedy's right is Marvin Brickson, head of the Madison Federation of Labor.

That’s when Kennedy named him undersecretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and Nestingen resigned as mayor.

With just six days before the filing deadline, Madison quickly got a clear choice — Nestingen’s administrative assistant, Bob Nuckles, a liberal running to finish building Monona Terrace, or transfer and storage company president Henry Reynolds, a conservative running to kill the project.

After the bids came back well over budget, Reynolds cruised to victory. He began his assault on Monona Terrace right away, and in April 1962 voters passed a referendum abandoning Wright’s Law Park site. This was seismic change from a single appointment, as Reynolds’ two two-year terms would be the decade’s most successful administration.

The 1960 campaign became critical again when federal judge Patrick Stone died in January 1963. Although Doyle was the consensus local choice for the appointment, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy remembered his efforts for Stevenson and got his brother to appoint Sheboygan labor lawyer David Rabinovitz. But Nelson, just elected to the Senate in 1962, wanted Doyle and twice delayed confirmation votes. Rabinovitz served 11 months before his nomination was withdrawn.

It wasn’t until April 1965 that President Lyndon Johnson finally appointed Doyle, more than two years after Stone died. Familiar with the university community — his wife Ruth founded and ran the UW–Madison­ program for minority students — Doyle was a fitting judge for the protest era just getting underway. He went on to write several groundbreaking decisions on student rights and political protest, including cases involving Paul Soglin, the demonstrations against Dow Chemical Co. representatives on campus and the Black Student Strike.

Doyle had a distinguished judicial career with a direct local impact, but it was shortened by more than two years and almost prevented by the 1960 primary campaign. A surprise conservative takeover of the mayor’s office, and the end of Monona Terrace, were among the consequences of the 1960 general election.

It is hard to imagine a greater impact if Kennedy had won the city and state.

Historian Stu Levitan is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist and a mainstay of Madison media and government since 1975. This feature is adapted from his latest book, “Madison in the Sixties” (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2018).