Multiple JFKs and other name games in Massachusetts politics

When the Democrats convene in Boston’s FleetCenter to nominate US Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts for the presidency, the name John F. Kennedy is sure to be invoked, with no shortage of comparisons between the “old JFK” and the “new JFK.” What most of those who make the comparisons won’t know is that, in the word play of Massachusetts politics, the matching initials of the 1960 and 2004 Democratic nominees are just the beginning.

As conventioneers stroll the Freedom Trail, many who pay a visit to the State House will poke their heads into the House chamber and take note of the plaque affixed to the Speaker’s rostrum, where a portion of the speech John F. Kennedy delivered before a joint session of the Legislature on January 11, 1961, is emblazoned in gold. In that speech, the president-elect echoed John Winthrop’s famous “City on a Hill” address and commented on the “four stormy years that lie ahead.”

As one John F. Kennedy addresses the
Legislature, his namesake lays low.

There’s a photograph from that night, which has circulated around the State House ever since, showing JFK at the rostrum; the president of the Senate and the Speaker of the House sit behind him. The governor and lieutenant governor are to their left and right, flanked by the attorney general, secretary of state, and members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation. The one high-ranking state official not present is the state treasurer, despite The Boston Globe‘s report that “all constitutional officers” were expected to attend. Why was the treasurer nowhere to be seen? Did he feel unwelcome? Or did he know better than to show his face that night?

Nineteen forty six was a good year for World War II veterans running for office, and many of them campaigned in uniform. Among them was a resident of Boston, a former Navy lieutenant named John Fitzgerald Kennedy. A grandson of former congressman John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, Kennedy was elected to the US House of Representatives on his first try and re-elected in 1948 and 1950. But 1952 was even better for JFK. That year, he was elected to the US Senate.

And that wasn’t the only statewide office for which John F. Kennedy was a candidate. State Treasurer John E. Hurley, originally a candidate for re-election, resigned his office on July 5 to accept appointment by the governor as clerk of the Boston Municipal Court. A joint session of the Massachusetts House and Senate nominated US Rep. Foster Furcolo to replace Hurley. But in the Democratic primary that September, Furcolo had to fend off six challengers, including John F. Kennedy, whom Furcolo defeated by more than 80,000 votes. Two years later, Furcolo ran for US Senate, against Leverett Saltonstall. (John F. Kennedy didn’t face re-election until 1958.) Still, Furcolo’s attempt to move up opened the door for John F. Kennedy, who was elected state treasurer in 1954.

JFK insisted that few voters confused him with JFK.

If all this seems confusing, it should be noted that the Commonwealth’s new bursar was John Francis Kennedy, a high school dropout from South Boston. He worked in a stockroom at Gillette and made $88.16 per week; the treasurer’s job paid $11,000 annually. This other JFK won his bid for re-election in 1956, but it wasn’t easy. He faced four candidates in the Democratic primary. One was a political newcomer who entered the race because he was outraged that someone would pirate the good name of the dynamic young senator from Massachusetts. His name was John M. Kennedy.

In 1958, the two JFKs shared the statewide ballot, and both were re-elected to their respective offices. No one knows how many Massachusetts voters, in that election or the two previous, thought John Fitzgerald Kennedy was doing such a good job in the US Senate that he deserved to be state treasurer as well. John Francis Kennedy admitted that some voters had “been fooled for years,” but he maintained that “not more than 5 per cent” of the electorate confused him with JFK. But it’s not because the state treasurer had done much to distinguish himself from his down-to-the-middle-initial namesake. He refused to buy radio or television time, rarely campaigned in public, and never spent more than $200 on any of his campaigns.

In 1960, while John Fitzgerald Kennedy ran for president, the lesser-known JFK sought the Democratic nomination for governor. But this time, the voters were on to him. Either that or those who thought John F. Kennedy could serve as a US Senator in Washington, DC, at the same time he was state treasurer back in Boston concluded that serving as both president and governor was a little too much—even for their beloved JFK!

John Francis Kennedy’s loss for governor might have been an opportunity to restore some credibility to state Democratic politics, except that the JFK name game was not completely over. With no real consensus among the party cognoscenti to replace the ersatz JFK as treasurer, a total of six men sought the Democratic nomination. Among them was John M. Kennedy of Boston; another was a resident of Saugus named John B. Kennedy.

Even the election of John T. Driscoll as treasurer in 1960 did not end the attempts to trade on the Kennedy name by those outside the Boston-turned-Hyannisport clan. In 1962, with JFK in the White House, former treasurer John F. Kennedy and former would-be treasurer John M. Kennedy both sought to wrest the treasurer’s office away from the incumbent, but failed to do so. Two years later, Driscoll resigned to become chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, and a joint session of the state House and Senate chose Robert Q. Crane, a state representative from Brighton, to finish his term.

Crane won election on his own in 1966, but he had to beat three candidates in the Democratic primary to do so. And yes, one of them was John Francis Kennedy, who by now should have known better. If the people of Massachusetts refused to believe John F. Kennedy could serve as both president of the United States and governor of the Commonwealth, they could hardly expected to elect him as a state treasurer after he’d been dead for three years!

But that’s not the end of the story. Re-elected five times and serving until his retirement in 1990, Treasurer Robert Q. Crane was an old-style pol and master of the patronage game. At one point, Bob Crane had baseball great Luis Tiant on his payroll. Another patronage appointment went to a washed-up infielder who ended his unremarkable career with the Red Sox; he now manages the North Shore Spirit, a minor league team in Lynn. His name is John Kennedy.

Is the rampant misappropriation of the name John Kennedy—and the initials JFK—yet another tragedy that has befallen the First Family of Camelot? Perhaps. But the Kennedys themselves are not exactly strangers to the maneuver political scientist Murray Levin, in 1962, termed “the name’s the same”—and declared that Massachusetts politicians had turned into an art.

In 1946, when the once-and-future JFK was making his first run for Congress, he was one of many candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. One of his rivals was a Boston city councilor named Joseph M. Russo. Russo wasn’t necessarily the favorite, but he was a proven vote-getter. That made old Joe Kennedy uneasy. He scoured the Boston voter list until he found another Joseph M. Russo. With Kennedy money behind him, the janitor from the old West End entered the race, splitting the Joe Russo vote. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, the political art of mistaken identity is not limited to the Kennedys and their name. In 1978, the Democratic and Republican primaries both had gubernatorial candidates named Ed King. One was Edward J. King, the other Edward F. King. Anybody remember who won?

And in 2002, the Democratic primary for—yes—state treasurer proved that mistaken identity can be a hazard today, and even when there is no mischief involved. With two Cahills vying for the nomination, one of them dropped his surname altogether from his slogan, which proved to be a winner: TIM FOR TREASURER!

James V. Horrigan is a writer living in Boston.