In the annals of history, a 1959 campaign visit to Hays by a presidential candidate might not seem significant, but a Pulitzer Prize-winning political journalist and author says it deserves more examination.
Thomas Oliphant, co-author of “The Road to Camelot,” which details the five-year campaign of President John F. Kennedy, will be the keynote speaker at a banquet Nov. 20 commemorating the 60th anniversary of Kennedy’s visit to Hays.
Oliphant served as Washington correspondent for the Boston Globe starting in 1968, covering 10 presidential campaigns, and was part of the Globe’s team that won a Pulitzer in 1975 for coverage of school desegregation in Boston.
In a phone interview from Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Oliphant said he was so intrigued by next week’s events commemorating Kennedy’s visit to Hays that he had to come.
“I was trying to think if I’d run into any anniversary observances of campaign events. Some of the obvious ones came to mind, like in Los Angeles on the 50th anniversary of the (Democratic National) convention, stuff like that. I had run into nothing like this.
“It fascinated the hell out of me that you all in Hays would be doing something like this, and because I was fascinated I accepted the invitation immediately,” he said.
He had high praise for the thesis Randy Gonzales — a former Hays Daily News sports editor and news reporter — had written for a master’s degree he competed last spring at Fort Hays State University.
“I cannot wait to meet him, because his work is simply magnificent,” he said.
“It added, obviously, all kinds of detail about the appearance, but what makes it such a special piece of work is the provision of context,” Oliphant said. “I just thought it was fantastic. I couldn’t put it down when I first started to read it.”
Kennedy’s Hays visit was not really any different than hundreds of campaign stops he made, but detailing the visit and the effects it had at the national convention just months later, “Hays is just a perfect illustration of how it isn’t just a chicken fried steak dinner,” Oliphant said.
"This wasn't just an appearance in a small community in northwestern Kansas. There was a method to his madness," he said.
“There was a lot going on beforehand in the country and in Kansas, and afterward there was a heck of a lot of going on in the country, as we all know,” he said.
“Some of the aspects of the appearance in Hays played out in the national convention seven months later,” he said.
Kansas has the distinction of being the only state at that convention that passed during the roll call of delegate votes. The state’s delegates — including Norbert Dreiling, a Hays attorney and county Democratic Party leader — could not come to a consensus between Kennedy and “favorite son” Robert Docking.
Kennedy still got the nomination without the Kansas votes, however.
“The obvious reaction was it didn’t matter, because he was nominated on the first ballot anyway. But, if you begin to understand why Kansas passed, you get into all kinds of things that were very significant in the country that year, not just in Kansas, above all else — the question of Kennedy’s religion,” Oliphant said.
Kennedy was only the second Catholic to run for president; New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith was defeated in 1928. Both faced anti-Catholic sentiment that they would be influenced more by the Vatican and the pope than the Constitution.
It was a bias that Kennedy was well aware of, especially after his unsuccessful 1956 bid for the vice president’s spot on the ticket.
“He had studied past elections and he had come to an interesting conclusion, that his Catholicism was as much a benefit as it was an obstacle,” Oliphant said.
As an example, Oliphant points to Kennedy’s arrival in Hays that included students from Girls Catholic High School singing for him and a special dispensation from the bishop allowing Catholics to eat the chicken fried steak on a Friday.
And Kennedy, unlike Smith in 1928, didn’t avoid talking about his faith, Oliphant said.
“He made the decision always to talk about it. His view of Al Smith in 1928 that Smith made a terrible mistake in never talking about it, as if it was some kind of dirty secret to be hidden,” he said.
“His thinking was that the more it was talked about in public, the harder it was for the prejudice to manifest itself,” he said.
Oliphant said he and co-author Curtis Wilkie came to the conclusion in “Road to Camelot” that bringing his Catholicism to the forefront gained him mixed results. It may have suppressed his vote in some parts of the country, but also appeared to have helped him in industrial states like New Jersey and Michigan.
“As near as we could figure out, looking at the numbers, winning the vote of Catholics was very important to those victories,” he said. “The thing I love about the Hays experience is that it’s an illustration of what this was really like.”
And while an anti-Catholic prejudice has not raised its head in presidential politics since the 1960 election, it’s still out there, Oliphant said.
“It’s commonly said that the day after Kennedy’s election, the religious issues disappeared. From my experience, that’s just not true,” he said. “It is greatly diminished, and the one thing that I love is that it’s not considered proper to raise it in public anymore. You can pick it up in back rooms, but not in ballrooms.
“That’s one thing that Kennedy accomplished. He made it not proper to do that stuff.”