Preparing for the Presidency

As Jack settled down after the exhilaration of the election, he was faced with the fact that his defeat of Nixon had been one of the smallest since 1884, when Grover Cleveland had won by only 23,000 votes. Jack, however, had no choice but to neutralize his doubts, questions, and feelings regarding his victory and focus instead on preparing to become president.

A group portrait of John F. Kennedy, surrounded by his family after the news that he won the U.S. presidential election, Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Meeting with Eisenhower

On December 6, 1960, Kennedy and Eisenhower met. During the meeting the two men discussed Algeria, Laos, Latin America, Cuba, and nuclear testing. Kennedy appreciated Eisenhower's appealing personality, but he was surprised that Eisenhower knew less about the topics than he had expected. Eisenhower, on the other hand, came away with a new impression of Kennedy. During the latter part of the campaign, he had become much more vocal about his support for Nixon due to his belief that Kennedy was too young and inexperienced for the presidency. Eisenhower left the meeting with a complete change in opinion. Although Kennedy was the youngest man elected to the presidency, he saw that Kennedy was bright and competent.

Weeks later, Kennedy had another meeting with Eisenhower. For forty-five minutes the men tackled some of the issues that most concerned Kennedy, among them the civil war ravaging Laos. What concerned Kennedy most was the prospect of a communist takeover, and he was intensely interested in the current policy on intervention. Furthermore, Kennedy was concerned about Cuba and had heard rumors of U.S. assistance to anti-Castro guerrilla forces. Concerns about Castro's Cuba, however, would have to wait. Overall, it was Laos more than Cuba that Jack worried about. He hoped a resolution of the Laos conflict would be determined before he took office.

Choosing a Cabinet

In addition to getting up to speed on important issues, Jack had to decide who would help him run his administration. His long-time companions who had assisted him in his Senate career and in his campaign for president were to be duly rewarded with offices in the West Wing near the Oval Office. Dave Powers would serve as his special assistant, Pierre Salinger the press secretary, Larry O'Brien was to become the legislative liaison, O'Donnell the appointments secretary, Sorensen a special counsel, and the newly recruited Arthur Schlesinger was appointed special assistant, operating out of the East Wing.

After the appointments of his important supporters, Jack faced some tougher decisions. He wanted the best and the brightest in his administration, but he knew few possible candidates. Thus, to the disappointment of some Democrats, he was not opposed to moderate Republicans serving in his administration. He made this decision in part because his margin of victory in the election had been so slim. He also had an affinity for new ideas. For Kennedy, it mattered less who he appointed and more what the outcome of his policy was.

THEY SAID…

“In particular, he was little acquainted in the New York financial and legal community — that arsenal of talent which had so long furnished a steady supply of always orthodox and often able people to Democratic as well as Republican administrations. This community was the heart of the American Establishment.”

— Arthur Schlesinger, A Thousand Days

Kennedy planned to take an active role in guiding his secretary of state, so he did not much mind who occupied the position. He believed that the compliant Dean Rusk, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, was perfect for the position. He asked Adlai Stevenson, who had hoped to head the State Department, to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Kennedy appointed liberal Republican C. Douglas Dillon to the post of secretary of treasury and Walter Heller as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. He recruited the president of Ford Motor Company, Robert S. McNamara, as secretary of defense.

Appointing Bobby

Jack's next dilemma was what position to appoint his loyal brother Bobby. Bobby, however, wanted some independence and was turned off by the idea of working in the White House directly under the control of his big brother. Jack favored the position of attorney general for Bobby. Bobby was not so sure, considering that he had never practiced law. He was also fearful that the appointment would lead to charges of favoritism.

To counter such charges, Jack, Bobby, and Joe devised a scheme. Jack told family friend Clark Clifford that Joe was forcing him to appoint Bobby attorney general. Joe confirmed the story. Bobby played his part by expressing his hesitance to accept the appointment. Early one morning, Bobby and Jack sat down to breakfast with John Seigenthaler of the Nashville Tennessean. Jack and Bobby put on a convincing dialogue about Bobby's resistance to serve as attorney general. The end result of the early morning show was no surprise; Jack finally convinced Bobby to accept. Seigenthaler's presence was insurance that the story of Bobby's hesitancy would make the news. Kennedy had finally chosen all of his Cabinet members and was ready for one of the biggest and most important days of his life — the inauguration.

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