I was never one of those people who had doubts or suspicions about the Warren Commission's report on the President's death. But five years after Jack died, I was having dinner with Kenny O'Donnell, who had been a Kennedy aide, and a few other people at Jimmy's Harbor Side Restaurant in Boston, and we got to talking about the assassination.
I was surprised to hear O'Donnell say that he was sure he had heard two shots that came from behind the fence.
"That's not what you told the Warren Commission," I said.
"You're right," he replied. "I told the FBI what I had heard, but they said it couldn't have happened that way and that I must have been imagining things. So I testified the way they wanted me to. I just didn't want to stir up any more pain and trouble for the family."
"I can't believe it," I said. "I wouldn't have done that in a million years. I would have told the truth."
"Tip, you have to understand. The family -- everybody wanted this thing behind them."
Dave Powers, another former Kennedy aide, was with us at dinner that night, and his recollection of the shots was the same as O'Donnell's. Kenny O'Donnell is no longer alive, but during the writing of this book I checked with Dave Powers. As they say in the news business, he stands by his story.
And so there will always be some skepticism in my mind about the cause of Jack's death. I used to think that the only people who doubted the conclusions of the Warren Commission were crackpots. Now, however, I'm not so sure.
But I'd rather focus on Jack's life. He really did have the charisma, the glamor, and the talent that has become part of his legend. He had a radiance that made people glow when they were in his company. He brought to all sectors of the American public a new feeling that they were wanted, that there was a place in America for them -- regardless of religion or race. And perhaps most important, when Jack Kennedy was President, people had trust in their government. I look forward to the day when that will once again be true.
The first time I met Jack Kennedy, I couldn't believe this skinny, pasty-looking kid was a candidate for anything.
Jack Kennedy didn't seem vigorous enough to be campaigning for Congress. He was 28 but looked younger, and he still hadn't fully recovered from his war injuries. He also looked as if he had come down with malaria. Certainly he was nothing like the hearty and extroverted types who dominated public life in Boston.
I wasn't the only one who had trouble imagining Jack Kennedy as a congressman. A few weeks later, when he formally entered the 1946 race, most of the local politicians were skeptical.
The few who took him seriously were also resentful. Here was a kid who had never run for anything in his life. He had done some newspaper work, but he had absolutely no political experience. Kennedy for Congress? It was hard not to see it as a lark. So young Jack Kennedy had thrown his diaper into the ring. Clearly, he didn't stand a chance.
But he was elected to Congress. After he moved to Washington, Jack and I saw a lot of each other. What I remember most from those days was how he just hated to be criticized.
He had such a thin skin! If a group of politicians were talking and somebody said something mean about Jack and it got back to him, he'd be over to see me. "Why doesn't so-and-so like me?" he'd ask. "Why can't he and I sit down and straighten this thing out?"
Any other politician would have said, "Screw him, if that's the way he feels. You can't please everybody." But Jack was different. He hadn't grown up in the school of hard knocks. Politically he had lived an easy life and was used to people loving him.
There's no question that Jack played the game of politics by his own rules, which is why his fellow politicians were so slow to take him seriously. During his early years in public life he hated shaking hands, which was highly unusual in a city where some politicians had been known to shake hands with fire hydrants and wave to telephone poles.
He was very bashful in the early days, but that soon changed. In all my life, I never saw anybody grow the way Jack did; he turned into a great personality and a beautiful talker. But until he was in the Senate you just couldn't imagine that he was really going anywhere.
And yet I wasn't really surprised, because I always figured that the old man planned to make him president someday. Joe Kennedy had planned to make Joe Junior the first Catholic president, but when he was killed in the war, old Joe decided to go with Jack. From the amount of money he spent in Jack's first campaign, he clearly had his mind set on high goals.
Jack used to talk about Bobby as a political genius, but Jack himself was very impressive in that regard. After his re-election to the Senate in 1958, when he had already made up his mind to try for the presidency, he came into my office and said, "I understand that Tommy Mullen knows more about our district than anyone else on earth." Tommy was my administrative assistant when I was in Congress, just as he had been at the Statehouse. Together, the two of them, Mullen and Kennedy, went over the district precinct by precinct -- where the Irish lived, where the Jews lived, and so on with every ethnic group.
Jack wanted to know how every group had voted because he intended to use that information to extrapolate about the national scene for the 1960 presidential campaign. I had never seen anybody study the voting patterns of ethnic and religious groups in a systematic way before, and I don't think that most people realized then or appreciate now that Jack Kennedy was a very sophisticated student of politics.
I had my first encounter with Bobby in 1956 when, as a member of Congress, I was in charge of naming four delegates from my district to the Democratic National Convention. I selected three local politicians and kept the fourth spot for myself.
After I made the appointments, Jack called and asked me to name Bobby as a delegate.
"I'm sorry Jack," I said, "but I've already notified the delegates." And I told him who I had picked.
But Jack would not be denied. "Tip," he said, "my brother Bob is the smartest politician I've ever known. He's absolutely brilliant. You know, lightning may strike at that convention, and I could end up on the ticket with Stevenson. I'd really like to have my brother on the floor as a delegate so he could work for me."
"If you feel that strongly about it," I said, "I'll make sure he gets there." So I took myself off the list and put Bobby on instead.
After the convention, Bobby showed no gratitude for the favor I had done. I once mentioned this to the old man, and I'll never forget what he said. "Tip, let me tell you something. Never expect any appreciation from my boys. These kids have had so much done for them by other people that they just assume it's coming to them."
On another occasion, Joe complained to me that Jack was too soft: "You can trample all over him," he said, "and the next day he's there for you with loving arms. But Bobby's my boy. When Bobby hates you, you stay hated."
I know what he meant. Of all the brothers, I knew Bobby the least. We weren't friendly, and to be blunt about it, I never really liked him. I'm sure the feeling was mutual. To me, he was a self-important upstart and a know-it-all. To him, I was simply a street-corner pol.
There are a couple of myths about the Kennedy Administration that I'd like to clear up. The first misconception is that Jack had a first-rate congressional liaison team. Now it's true that Larry O'Brien knew everyone worth knowing on the Hill and that he and Dick Donahue were friendly and popular and that they were unusually adept at doing political favors for individual congressmen.
Unfortunately, they weren't nearly as effective at their job, which was to help get the President's legislation through Congress. Other than the Manpower bill, there wasn't much Kennedy legislation that actually passed during his shortened term in office. Eventually, most of his legislation did go through, but it took the political skills of Lyndon Johnson to make it happen.
But it would be unfair to judge Jack Kennedy only in terms of legislation. Despite his lack of success in dealing with Congress, his leadership set the stage for so many important changes in America. What would we have achieved in civil rights without Jack Kennedy? Or in space exploration? Or arms control?
When you consider the larger picture, it's clear that Jack Kennedy left a shining legacy. Perhaps his most important achievement was to draw a new generation of young Americans into politics and government. He brought government to the people, and equally important, he brought talented people into government.
The other misunderstanding about Jack Kennedy is the misinformed notion that he was responsible for getting us into Vietnam. In my view, just the opposite was true. If Jack had lived to serve a second term -- and there's no question that he would have creamed Goldwater -- he would have pulled out all our troops within a year or two.
Kenny O'Donnell used to say -- and I believe him -- that as President, Jack Kennedy agreed with Mike Mansfield on the need for a complete military withdrawal from Vietnam. But because the President knew that such a move might prove wildly unpopular with the voters, he intended to wait until 1965, the beginning of his second term, to put that plan into effect.
Unfortunately, he never got the chance.
Tomorrow: Jimmy Carter, the president who never understood Washington. From the book "Man of the House: The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O'Neill" by Tip O'Neill with William Novak. Copyright 1987 by Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Random House Inc. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate