JFK and Nevada

During the runup to his presidential campaign, John Kennedy posed with Las Vegas Mayor C.D. Baker and casino owner Wilbur Clark (center).

When John Kennedy began planning his campaign for president, he had some links to Nevada to assist him. His family had vacationed occasionally at Lake Tahoe. He had a vague family connection—Nevada political figure Norman Biltz was married to Jacqueline Kennedy's stepfather's sister. In the dramatic televised 1956 battle for the Democratic vice presidential nomination that went to Estes Kefauver, the Nevada delegation supported Kennedy (Kennedy 11, Kefauver 2 on the first ballot, Kennedy 13.5 to Kefauver .5 on the second ballot). Kennedy had spoken to the national Young Democrats convention at the Holiday Hotel in Reno in 1957. (Kennedy's speech text is posted on our Newsview blog.)

On one occasion, probably in 1958 or 1959, before the 1960 presidential campaign was formally underway, when Kennedy was nevertheless traveling around the nation building support, he and aide Theodore Sorensen took a flight from Salt Lake City to Reno courtesy of “an Idaho politician who enjoyed flying his little single-engine plane as a hobby [and] was confessing openly to fatigue” during the flight. The small plane landed at Elko to get another pilot, tipping over toward one side, then righting itself. In a different small one-engine plane with a different pilot, they made it the rest of the way to Reno. Sorensen later wrote, “We landed at one end of the Reno airport and trudged in with our bags, just as the Democratic dignitaries and brass band awaiting us marched out to meet a more dignified twin-engine plane at the other end of the field bearing two surprised industrialists.”

In those days, campaigns started much later than they do now. At the end of 1959 a Kennedy campaign aide, possibly Robert Wallace, wrote a memo for Kennedy on the small Western states, including these notes that reflected JFK's previous visits: “January is an undesirable campaigning period, but these smaller states will be happy to get JFK at any time. Also, the weather should be good in New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. … I would assume an appearance in Las Vegas, Nevada, would be in order. … Check with Steve about possibility of going to Nevada State Democratic Convention on April 30. … Mrs. Thornton – works in Senator Cannon's office … Send note to Jean Hunter, Nevada [Democratic] National Committee Woman (JFK saw in Reno) … Letter for former governor Vail Pittman (nice to have seen again, etc.) … Letter to Harley Harmon, Las Vegas (good to have seen you, will see you Monday).”

In his efforts to win Nevada's votes at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angles that year, Kennedy was bucking the state's two Democratic U.S. senators, Howard Cannon and Alan Bible, who supported Lyndon Johnson of Texas. But in January, Kennedy came to Nevada to address a session of the Nevada Legislature and the state's young new Democratic governor, Grant Sawyer, was enormously impressed. He committed to Kennedy and worked enthusiastically to win, first, the state's national convention votes, and then the state, for the Massachusetts senator.

In the November 1960 election, Nevada was an island of Kennedy support in a sea of Nixon states. Every state surrounding Nevada went for Nixon.

As president, Kennedy didn't exactly make Sawyer's life easy. The Kennedy administration went after the mob-owned or -influenced casinos with a vengeance. (Years later, some Nevada officials conceded the effort had been a blessing to the state.) At one point federal highway officials ruled against a Sawyer-supported route for what became Interstate 80 through downtown Reno. But Sawyer tended to blame the casino probes on Attorney General Robert Kennedy and stayed loyal to JFK. And Kennedy's administration did aid Sawyer on other matters, such as devastating range fires that swept the state in 1962.

On one occasion in a news conference, Kennedy was asked about U.S. Rep. Walter Baring of Nevada, a right wing Democrat who had called on the president to fire some of his advisors. With a slight smile, Kennedy said, “But congressmen are always advising presidents to get rid of presidential advisers. That is one of the most constant threads that runs through American history and presidents ordinarily do not pay attention, and—nor do they in this case [laughter].”

In September 1963, Kennedy traveled to Nevada and spoke at the Las Vegas Convention Center. In the car from the airport to the center, he inquired of Sawyer about state regulators examining Frank Sinatra's gambling license after the singer's behavior toward a state regulator and his conduct of a Lake Tahoe casino came into question. In later years local reporters portrayed this as Kennedy trying to intervene on Sinatra's behalf, which it almost certainly was not. The Sinatra/Kennedy relationship had been ruptured the previous year.

In his speech that day (also posted on our Newsview blog), Kennedy thanked the state's two senators for voting the previous week to ratify the first nuclear text ban, urged protection of Lake Tahoe, called for restoration of the lands damaged by the range fires, and endorsed creation of a Great Basin national park. Then Kennedy left Nevada for the last time.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.