Since it seems likely that the 1960 Presidential election will long remain a matter of speculation for historians, I think it might be of interest to have a factual record of the reflections of a citizen who found himself involved in the campaign at the precinct level. The comments that follow are as honest as I can make them and they provide a chart of the alternate hopes and fears with which I followed the course of John F. Kennedy to the Presidency.
The second time I met Kennedy was in Hawaii in the early summer of 1959 during the islands’ first political campaign under statehood. At that time I was arguing with myself as to whether or not I should become involved in that highly emotional Hawaiian election, and in a mood of both uncertainty and apprehension I accepted an invitation to a Democratic dinner at which the main speaker was to be the visiting senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy.
All I can remember of his address was that he quoted most aptly from some of the major documents of American history, and also from some extremely obscure ones, and I recall thinking casually, “It would be nice to have in the White House someone who knows books.” Later, in the reception line, I slipped past the young senator unnoticed, but someone whispered in his ear, “That’s Michener, the writer,” and quickly he stepped forward to catch my disappearing arm, and said most engagingly, “I hoped you would be here. I’ve always liked your Fires of Spring.”
I am sure that the wise whisperer at the senator’s elbow had forewarned him that I might be passing through the line, and that I might just possibly prove helpful in lining up Hawaii’s delegates to the Democratic convention, then less than a year away. But I doubt if the whisperer could have prompted him to recall so obscure a book as The Fires of Spring. As graciously as an author can, when one of his older children is remembered affectionately, I nodded and the senator said, “Some of us are getting together later on. Care to join us?” I replied that unfortunately I had already arranged a date to talk over the forthcoming island election, and I did not see him again.
It was true that I had a minor political meeting that night, but it was one that I could easily have missed, for my presence was not necessary. The real reason I absented myself from the midnight caucus at which Kennedy made a favorable impression upon my Hawaiian friends was a most specific and conscious one, and I remember verbalizing it to myself with more than customary clarity: “This man Kennedy is unusually appealing. He knows what to say to people. And I’m not sure I want to support him for President. Not yet.”
For two reasons it was fortunate that I stayed away from that Kennedy caucus to go instead to the meeting where Hawaiian politics were discussed, for the latter turned out to be one of the finest political discussions I was to attend in the islands. It was held at the home of Vincent Esposito on a hillside overlooking Honolulu’s mysterious night lights, and there, as we dissected the imminent election—which everyone expected the Democrats to win easily, since they had swept the primaries, but which I felt sure the Republicans would win, because I knew how badly the Democrats were split—I engaged myself to work whole-heartedly for the Democrats, even though I was convinced their cause was hopeless.
In the turbulent weeks that followed I received my initiation into the grief of local politics. The Democrats lost, as I knew they must, but they lost by only two thousand votes, and they might have won had I been able to get the two Democratic factions together a week sooner. Even so, as a result of last-minute efforts which took us to all the islands for speeches and meetings that lasted around the clock, we almost salvaged the victory.
But it eluded us, and in the days that followed I experienced the penalties of losing. Some months earlier in a moment of weakness I had accepted the chairmanship of a public drive for charity funds. Now I was advised that my having championed the Democrats had ruined whatever chances I might have had to collect money from the community, “since everyone with money is a Republican,” and it was politely suggested that it might be wiser, and fairer to the charity, if I resigned my chairmanship, which I did.
Friends who had once been rather close, now avoided me. At one dreadful party more than half the guests preferred not to talk with me, and those who did said ugly things. One commented, “Don’t you feel a little sick at your stomach when you think that your television speeches could have won the election for the Democrats?” I replied that that’s why I had made them, and my questioner looked stunned. “Don’t you understand what the Democrats would do to people like you and me?” he asked, and to this I made no reply.
One of my most honest friends, a devoted Republican lady, came to report, “It’s widely believed, Jim, that you were temporarily deranged because of change of life. Everybody felt that if you were in complete control you wouldn’t have done what you did.” I replied that I was in fine health, so my interrogator asked, “Then you really knew what you were doing?” I replied that I had thought things out carefully and had decided that the Democrats would do better for Hawaii than the Republicans. My friend confided, in a burst of the honesty for which I esteemed her, “Well, I’ll tell you what I did, Jim Michener. On the night before election I prayed for half an hour that your side would lose so that you would never have to face up to the terrible mistake you came so close to making. And God protected you from yourself and saw to it that the Democrats lost.”
More unpleasant were the other friends who explained to the community that I had supported the Democrats only because my wife happened to be a Japanese-American, for in Hawaii many of the younger Japanese were Democrats. “If Michener had been left to himself, he’d never have done this terrible thing,” these logicians explained, “but his Japanese wife put fierce pressure on him and he had to knuckle under.”
What I learned from losing this Hawaiian election in late July of 1959 was the tension that still ran through American life whenever economics, or social values, or racial problems were concerned. Since both the Republican candidate for governor and his Democratic opponent were Catholics, I fell into the error of assuming that religion no longer played a major role in American politics. Later, when the Republican administration took control, I found that in actual politics the Republicans really did tend to vote against liberal measures and to work for a balanced budget, whereas the Democrats were inclined to support acts which would help the society to move forward, even though such acts might temporarily postpone a balanced budget. And I found that without exception my intellect and my heart and my patriotism and my sense of history inclined me toward the Democratic view. So in foregoing that midnight caucus with Senator Kennedy, I took the first step along the path that was to end in my supporting him most vigorously.
“The second reason why I was fortunate in not having met with Kennedy that night was that the Hawaiian election, and the subsequent ostracism I experienced, gave me time to consider exactly what I wanted to do in the 1960 Presidential campaign and to reach an intellectual decision without being unduly influenced by the personality of one of the major contenders. If later I were to support Kennedy, it would be because I had decided intellectually that this was the right thing to do.
Consequently, when the Hawaiian election ended, I shipped aboard a sailboat which was beating its way back from Honolulu to Los Angeles, following its participation in the biennial trans-Pacific yacht race. It was a splendid craft, owned by a congenial sportsman with the unlikely name of Baldwin T. Baldwin. One of the reasons why I undertook this arduous trip was obvious: “You’ve written so much about the Pacific,” I reasoned with myself, “that the least you can do is cross it in a small boat to see what it’s really like.” The other reason was simple: “I want time to think.”
For our skeleton crew back to the mainland we had an extraordinary group of six tough men, professionals most of them, none of whom smoked, drank, took coffee or swore. One was a Mormon lay minister, one a Marine colonel, one a Dutch carpenter who could cook like a Frenchman; two were students from the University of Nebraska. And everyone loved classical music, so that the long night watches when we could get California good-music stations on the radio were the most sought after.
It takes only eleven days to race from California to Honolulu with the wind at one’s back. It takes twenty-two days to beat the other way with the wind in one’s teeth almost all the journey. Boats scurry north to the latitude of Seattle in hopes of catching a wind blowing down from Alaska, and the rail is under water most of the way. It was a long, tedious, wet trip home and even the professionals were seasick.
Copyright © 2014 by James A. Michener. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.