Madison in the Sixties – January 20, 1961
In 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy didn’t carry Madison in the Democratic presidential primary or Wisconsin in the general election. But his candidacy still had a profound local impact.
His primary campaign against Sen. Hubert Humphrey created enough Badgerland bitterness to last for years, even damaging the federal judiciary. And his election utterly transformed local politics, and ended the effort to build Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace auditorium and convention center.
Kennedy’s advisors didn’t want him entering the primary against the friendly liberal from neighboring Minnesota, who had two extra sectors of support. Some 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 best friend in Wisconsin, Madison realtor and state party chair Patrick Lucey, who said he could win and knock Humphrey out of the race. Madison Mayor Ivan Nestingen agreed to chair the state campaign.
Gov. Gaylord Nelson, who didn’t get along with Lucey, was officially neutral, but privately supporting 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.
And the chair of the national committee to draft Stevenson was Madison attorney James E. Doyle, former state party chair and vice president of the Madison Police and Fire Commission. That’s why Kennedy invited the teenage Jim Doyle, Jr. backstage at the Memorial Union Theatre after a speech in 1959. This future Governor was suitably dazzled.
Kennedy began his first 3-day swing through Wisconsin before dawn on February 16, greeting first-shift workers at the Oscar Mayer plant. In a futile effort to gain the important Capital Times’s endorsement, he and wife Jacqueline then had breakfast with editor/publisher William T. Evjue before a press conference at the Eagles Club, and a whirlwind three-day swing through eighteen cities and towns.
Kennedy returned to Madison three times, drawing large crowds. He closed the campaign before an overflow crowd of more than twelve hundred UW students in Music Hall (fifty more outside in the freezing cold, listening on a loudspeaker).
The campaign was a family affair. Judge Richard and Elizabeth Bardwell hosted a tea for Jackie; three of Kennedy’s sisters attended a series of receptions all over town; brother Ted was on a panel at the Lutheran student center, even matriarch Rose made an appearance at the Blackhawk Country Club.
And it was personal. Campaign volunteer Mary Arnett told campaign manager Bobby Kennedy one day her hand was cramped from addressing so many mailings to Oconomowoc. He laughed and invited her into the back room, where the candidate himself gently massaged in thanks. After dinner one night at the Nestigen’s, JFK went upstairs to thank 10-year-old babysitter Veronica Ostermeyer, and promise the mayor’s daughters he’d have dinner with them next time.
Kennedy won the April 5 primary, but carried only Catholic and Republican areas, losing to Humphrey in Madison and Dane County; he’d have to campaign all the way to the convention.
As nominee, Kennedy’s lone local appearance on October 23 was a smashing success. Thousands greeted him at the airport, thousands more lined E. Washington Ave. and the Square to cheer his motorcade. Near the front was Mrs. Vera Gurland, who had dropped off husband John, a UW math professor, just as Kennedy’s motorcade was assembling. Wanting a closer look at the candidate in his open convertible, she pulled her car close, young daughters in tow – and became part of the procession, all the way downtown.
Kennedy was mobbed again when he stopped for a break at the Loraine Hotel, then got a rock star reception from 15,000 foot-stomping supporters at the Field House — its largest crowd until the Moratorium Day program protesting the War in Vietnam in October 1969. The crowd so swarmed the candidate afterwards 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, and the 88% turnout, Kennedy this time carried Madison, but Nixon took the state’s twelve 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 re-election on January 13, 1961. He was still unopposed a week later, with a great political victory in sight –contracts to construct Monona Terrace had finally gone out to bid.
That’s when Kennedy named him Undersecretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and he resigned.
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 it.
Then the bids came back well over budget, and 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. There were additional seismic changes to come, as Reynolds’s 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 ten months before his nomination was withdrawn.
It wasn’t until April 1965 that President Lyndon Johnson finally appointed Doyle. Familiar with the university community – his wife Ruth founded and ran the UW program for minority students — Doyle was a fitting judge for the protest era just beginning. He went on to write several ground-breaking decisions on student rights and political protest, including cases involving Paul Soglin, the demonstrations against the Dow chemical company and the Black Student Strike.
A distinguished judicial career shortened by more than two years, and a surprise conservative takeover of the mayor’s office. The local impacts of a presidential campaign.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, inauguration celebrating, mask-wearing, hand-washing socially distant WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan
Edwin Stein photo, courtesy Capital Newspapers