Overcoming the Doubts and Rumors
Jack was happy yet exhausted when the convention was over. He took a short break at the Kennedy home in Hyannis Port, but he returned to the campaign two days later.
Winning Over Critics
First on the agenda was securing the support of the Democrats who had been his loudest opposition. He quickly won Stevenson over and dispatched him to California to rally his supporters. Stevenson warned Kennedy that he would fall behind in his knowledge of foreign affairs during the campaign and recommended he have a plan to be brought back up to speed after the election. Kennedy readily agreed and put Stevenson himself in charge of the foreign policy report.
Harry Truman, who had expressed his concern at Jack's youth, preferred Jack over Republican nominee Vice President Richard Nixon, who had called him a communist. Lastly, Jack's feistiest critic, Eleanor Roosevelt, was also soon on board. It was Jack's openness to new ideas, his ability to learn, and his interest in “helping the people of his own country and mankind in general” that convinced Eleanor Roosevelt to give her support. She now had a certain amount of respect for Jack.
Securing the support of his most ardent critics was an easy task compared to winning over the American public. Immediately after the Democratic convention ended, Kennedy sailed ahead with a 17 to 22 percent lead over Nixon in California, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas. But by September, Jack trailed with only 47 percent support to Nixon's 53 percent.
A Harmful Exposure
Kennedy needed to build a base of support, but he was concerned that his womanizing might cause trouble in the campaign. In June 1959, the FBI, along with thirty-five reporters, received letters and a photograph regarding Jack's untoward behavior. Also in the FBI files was the notation that Jack had engaged in relations with an airline stewardess.
It is unclear whether Jack knew specifically about the FBI file or that journalists had received information about his womanizing, but he certainly realized that the publication of the scandalous information could wreak havoc on his campaign. In 1960, a revelation in the mainstream press about his extramarital affairs could have ruined his chance of winning the presidency. In fact, this information was so detrimental that Joe Kennedy was poised to take action if necessary. According to Missouri's Democratic Congressman Richard Bolling, Joe was ready to air information about Nixon's own extramarital affairs should Nixon reveal information about Jack's philandering. It seemed that it was only a matter of time before the information was revealed.
“[M]ost of the stories about his private life seem to date from 1955 and before. My view, therefore, is that such rumors are out of date and largely unsubstantiated. And I must add even if they were true they would hardly seem to be crucial when the alternative is Nixon!”
— Adlai Stevenson, as quoted in An Unfinished Life
When Adlai Stevenson heard the stories, he quickly dismissed them, believing that when Jack's back problems improved, he had settled down. The rumors also failed to get much attention from the newspapers. None of the thirty-five reporters who received the information reported the story. In that era, stories about the sexual lives of politicians rarely made it into the mainstream newspapers. This type of story was considered beyond the realm of appropriate publication.