How Chattanooga played a part in JFK's decision to seek the White House

How Chattanooga played a part in JFK's decision to seek the White House

November 22nd, 2013 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News


The bride, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, is escorted by her groom, U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy and Charles Bartlett down the hill at Hammersmith Farm at their wedding reception. Others looking on are Edward Kennedy and Torbert MacDonald.

Photo by Photographer unknown in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

The Rev. Martin Casey administers the sacrament of Baptism to John F Kennedy Jr. From left are Charles Bartlett, Mrs. Charles Bartlett, President John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy.

The Rev. Martin Casey administers the sacrament of...

Photo by Photo: Boston Herald


John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by a razor-thin margin in the 1960 presidential election. Kennedy lost Tennessee to Nixon but won Georgia. Alabama went to segregationist Harry F. Byrd of Virginia.

He was happy on the night before he died.

He was peeved over reports that Israel was developing nuclear weapons, his re-election campaign was just gearing up and a decision on America's future involvement in Vietnam hung in the balance. But the president was downright giddy about his trip to Texas, said Charley Bartlett.

And Bartlett knew this because President John F. Kennedy told him at 9:30 p.m. Nov. 21, 1963, just hours before the 35th president was gunned down in Dallas. He told Bartlett a lot of things over their years of friendship, details that have found their way into history books, documentaries and the National Archives.

Bartlett, now 92, still remembers weaving through the graves of Arlington National Cemetery with Kennedy just weeks before his death.

He remembers playing matchmaker with John Kennedy and his soon-to-be wife.

He remembers that tortuous feeling penning a column the day the president was killed in Dallas. And he remembers how, in some small way, Chattanooga played a part in Kennedy's decision to seek the White House.

This was the man who had held up part of Jackie's wedding dress for a photo in Newport, R.I. This was the man who stood by as the president-elect's infant son, John Jr., was baptized at Georgetown Hospital. And this was the man who told the budding senator that he shouldn't run for president until first coming to a place like Chattanooga.

And today, as the nation reflects on 50 years' worth of tales about Camelot, tragic endings and conspiracy theories, Charley Bartlett remembers a friend.

He first met Kennedy at a Palm Beach, Fla., night club after each had wrapped up their service in World War II. Charley, of course, knew of the Kennedy clan, but hadn't known much about John. This was before Jack, as he called him, ran for Congress. At the time, in 1946, Jack Kennedy was getting out of a writing career while Charley Bartlett was just about to jump into newspapering.

Kennedy had just announced his bid for the U.S. House of Representatives. While some historians have portrayed him as a reluctant politician, coaxed into public life by his father, Bartlett remembers differently.

"I gathered that it was a wholesome, full-blown wish on his own part," he said in a National Archives oral history interview in 1965.

They met before Charley came to Chattanooga, before Arthur Sulzberger Sr., offered him a job at The Chattanooga Times, a sister paper to The New York Times. In Chattanooga, the Chicago native covered every aspect of the news. And he loved it.

"The most interesting newspapering I did was in Chattanooga. I learned more about what makes the world run in Chattanooga than in Washington," he told a Chattanooga Times reporter in 1981. "It's sort of a game up here. The politicians show their best side and the reporters find out what really went on. It's a continuing game. Reportorial work here is not as full of the human juices as it was in Chattanooga."

In Chattanooga, the journalist lost touch with Kennedy. That changed in 1948, when the Chattanooga Times sent him to D.C. to cover the nation's capital for Scenic City readers. It was January, the beginning of Kennedy's second term in the House. When Kennedy reached the Senate in 1953, he was already considering a White House run, Bartlett recalled. But he was reluctant and wouldn't get on board the Kennedy for President train for several more years.

"I thought he should wait," Bartlett said in an interview with the Times Free Press this month. "That's why I brought him down to Chattanooga. I said 'you haven't been anywhere. Why don't you come down and make a speech at the Rotary.' He was thinking about the presidency and I said you better go and see how you do here."

The Dec. 10 visit from the Massachusetts senator made the front page of both The Chattanooga Times and the Chattanooga News-Free Press. In a speech that he joked would "put Southern hospitality to its greatest test since Civil War days," Kennedy called for an end to Tennessee's practice of offering tax-free factories to new industries moving in. Even while attacking the business recruiting efforts of the South as unfair, Kennedy impressed the Rotary Club crowd.

Bartlett came back from Washington to attend the speech, but like many things Kennedy-related, he didn't cover the event.

After all, the two were chums. So close that Jack Kennedy had called up Bartlett two years earlier with an urgent message from his father, Joe Kennedy Sr., the family patriarch notorious for meddling and counseling his various children on their high-profile careers.

"He said if I don't get married by the time I run for president, they're going to be calling me" a homosexual, Kennedy told his friend.

So Bartlett and his wife, Martha, hosted a dinner party at their Georgetown home in 1951 and introduced Jack Kennedy to Jacqueline Bouvier, a New York socialite who was engaged to another man at the time. They both ran in similar circles, and the Bartletts thought they were a plausible match. Jack and Jackie agreed. She broke off her existing engagement, and the couple was married soon after in 1953.

Bartlett was an usher in the September wedding, which was enough of a spectacle to make the front page of The New York Times. But like other parts of Kennedy's life, much of the marriage was a show, and Jack's extramarital escapades are now notorious. Bartlett doesn't think the man should have ever been married. He just wasn't meant for it. But Kennedy knew that Jackie was important. A wife was a political necessity.

"She did a great job -- Camelot and all that crap. She was an asset. Politically, she was a great asset. She knew it and he knew it," Bartlett said. "That was a pragmatic effort. He needed a gal and we found him a hell of a gal."

In his oral history interviews in 1965, Bartlett said he was happy working for the Chattanooga paper. He had won a Pulitzer in 1956 for national reporting. He wasn't riddled with ambition. But President Kennedy urged him to move on from the Chattanooga newspaper.

"It's a shame to keep writing that stuff and sending it down to die in Chattanooga," the president told him.

Kennedy introduced him to newspaper publishers and helped attract interest in his national column. After 16 years of capital coverage, Bartlett left the Chattanooga paper in 1963 to focus on his then-syndicated column.

But Kennedy wasn't as welcoming to Bartlett's career advice.

Bartlett was a holdout, thinking Jack Kennedy too young to run for president in 1960. It didn't help that he was Catholic. Better to wait until 1964.

Kennedy didn't listen. And still, Bartlett held out. Then in November of 1959, he hit the campaign trail and saw a new Kennedy. He was a better speaker, a better campaigner. From then on, Bartlett was more supportive of the White House bid. And he had an inside view of the Kennedy camp.

Bartlett used his insider status to send a story to Chattanooga predicting that Sty Symington, chairman of the National Security Resources Board, would be tapped as Kennedy's running mate. But after a tumultuous convention, Jack picked Texas Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, a man who could help deliver Southern Democratic votes for Kennedy, a New England liberal and Catholic running on a pro-civil rights platform.

He made the Johnson selection on July 14, 1960, the day after he won the presidential nomination. And it seemed like a surprise even to Kennedy.

"Yesterday was the best day of my life," Kennedy said to Bartlett and others in Beverly Hills. "And this is the worst day of my life."

Though they were close friends, Bartlett says there was always something distant about Kennedy. He wasn't cozy, not the kind of guy you'd romp around with on a Sunday, he said. Everything was scheduled. You'd make plans to take a walk, arrange a dinner. His life, his friends and his family were all compartmentalized.

"No one ever knew John Kennedy, not all of him," Bartlett is known for saying.

Perhaps that guardedness was just a side effect of power. Bartlett says Kennedy was always careful when talking to friends and colleagues. Bartlett said he rarely, if ever, gossiped.

"I don't know how he felt about anybody," he said. "And we really talked."

In the world of chronicling Kennedy, Bartlett is responsible for much of our collective knowledge of the 35th president. Pick up any JFK biography and odds are Bartlett is quoted, indexed or given credit throughout. The archives of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum are full of Bartlett mementos, audio recordings of phone calls with the president, interview transcripts and handwritten notes to Kennedy. Bartlett says he's never profited off his Kennedy stories, but has never said no to an interview.

"I've always been willing to talk to people about him so our memory of him is as real as possible," he said.

But much of the talking didn't start until after Kennedy's death. During his life, Bartlett rarely wrote about his pal Jack.

"It was hard for me to cover Kennedy because I knew so much," he said. "We talked so much. This is one of the problems I developed. I was going great in the newspapering world. But he brought me into the thing so deeply that I just couldn't write about it."

For a half century, Bartlett has portrayed Jack Kennedy as a man unafraid of death. At times, there even seemed to be premonitions.

In September before the shooting, Bartlett and Kennedy talked about death on Kennedy's boat off Hyannis Port. It was a conversation about all eventualities. Like what kind of President Lyndon Johnson would become in Kennedy's absence. And what Kennedy might do after the presidency, assuming he lived. Kennedy thought he might like to become ambassador to Italy, if the nation had a friendly regime by then.

"He thought that would be a good place because Jackie would like it, because he would be out of the country and, therefore, the man who took the presidency wouldn't be in his way," Bartlett said in his oral history interview.

Another time, the two walked through Arlington National Cemetery, went through the Lee Mansion. Kennedy remarked how the site would have been a great spot for the White House. He also talked about death, where he would eventually be buried. Jack guessed he'd wind up back in Boston, but Bartlett said Arlington was where he belonged.

And just hours before the shooting, on the phone with Bartlett, Kennedy referred to the ease in which a president could be shot, how not even the Secret Service could stop someone intent on killing the commander in chief.

Two days after Kennedy's death, The Chattanooga Times ran a front-page column written by Bartlett in tribute to his friend. Bartlett described him as an intensely realistic man who talked about assassination in the same analytical fashion he discussed other pros and cons of the job. He says Kennedy operated in overdrive, motivated by all the good he could accomplish in the White House.

"It is ironic that a man so dedicated to tangible deeds is destined now to be remembered less for his accomplishments than for the intangible qualities of his spirit and character," Bartlett wrote. "He disciplined himself to be great in order to do great things and the waste of his death is that his greatness so far exceeded his time for achievement."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.