“There is nothing more important to history than local history,” journalist and author Thomas Oliphant told a Hays crowd gathered to celebrate just that Wednesday night.
Oliphant, co-author of the book “Road to Camelot: JFK’s Five Year Campaign,” was the keynote speaker at a banquet commemorating the 60th anniversary of then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s campaign visit to Hays.
Wednesday’s event duplicated the event, from its location to the menu. A little over 100 people gathered in the gym of what was in 1959 known as Jefferson West Grade School and renamed for Kennedy in 1969.
The evening’s meal started with green Jell-O salad and tomato juice. The main course was chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes, followed by dessert of apple pie “a la Democrat” — served with a slice of cheddar cheese cut into the shape of a donkey, the political party’s symbol.
Kansas Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers also spoke at the Ellis County Democratic Party event.
In a more than hourlong speech, Oliphant spoke of Kennedy’s campaign strategy, which broke ground on today’s modern political campaigns. Kennedy had one of “the thinnest resumes in American history” as he considered running for national office, Oliphant said, and he knew he didn’t have a chance running a traditional campaign when candidates were often chosen by power brokers in smoke-filled rooms.
“Kennedy understood ... that he had no power anywhere, he had not done anything. Some people thought he was a little lazy in his first three terms in the House and the beginning of his Senate career,” Oliphant said.
He was the first to hire a pollster to help guide his campaign and the first to use media, especially television, effectively.
But campaigning early, starting in 1957, and meeting delegates at the county level was a large part of what won Kennedy the Democratic nomination, Oliphant said, and he pointed to how Kennedy's 1959 Hays visit played a part in that, often referring to the detailed work of Randy Gonzales, who wrote his master’s thesis at Fort Hays State University on Kennedy’s Hays visit.
“The extra added attraction is the context. He had a feel to the bigger things that Kennedy was involved in that led him here and the bigger things he was involved in,” Oliphant said of Gonzales’ work.
Oliphant encouraged Gonzales several times during his speech to expand the work into a doctoral dissertation, getting some supportive applause from the audience that included FHSU history faculty.
“The worst thing you can do is think of history as some fixed star in the sky. It’s a process and it’s always changing. Somebody always finds something. Somebody comes along and interprets what we think we know differently and changes the atmosphere in which history is consumed and appreciated,” he said.
That could be important with Kennedy for a couple of reasons, Oliphant said in his speech, one of which was expressed by the president’s daughter.
“Caroline Kennedy is fond of saying her dad’s time in the public square is slowly but surely slipping,” he said.
The literature about Kennedy often contains myths, such as that he always had political ambitions, Oliphant said, but he and his co-author Curtis Wilkie found the opposite was true.
“We discovered he spent more than a year after (World War II) without any idea of what he wanted to do, except he was pretty sure he didn’t want to get into public life,” he said.