50 years later, enduring memories of an ‘Irish prince’

Jack Lessenberry.
Jack Lessenberry.

LANSING — Fifty years ago today, Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley was taking his usual Friday afternoon swim in a YMCA pool in downtown Lansing. Suddenly, he looked up.

Leon Cohan, his deputy, was walking toward him, wearing a winter coat and a stricken expression. “My first thought was that something had happened to one of my kids,” Mr. Kelley recalled.

“Frank, the President has been shot,” his assistant said. “It’s on the radio.”

“I was numb,” Mr. Kelley said. He dressed hurriedly and got back to his office, to be met by his secretary, tears streaming down her face.

The Department of Justice had just called. President Kennedy was dead.

“For the next few days, I was in a fog,” said Mr. Kelley, who is now 88 and mentally sharp. “He was the most charismatic politician I had ever met, and have ever met. A true Irish prince.”

Half a century after the assassination, many people still remember seeing or meeting John F. Kennedy. But unlike most, Mr. Kelley once spent nearly an hour alone with him, in a hotel suite in Detroit.

President Kennedy had come to Michigan in October, 1962, in an effort to boost the chances of then-Gov. John Swainson, who was running against Republican George Romney. Mr. Kelley, who had been appointed to his job less than a year before, was trying to get elected in his own right.

After a morning of campaigning, Governor Swainson, who had lost both legs in World War II, needed to take a nap. So the young attorney general and the president were alone. Like JFK, Frank Kelley was Irish and a Roman Catholic.

“But there was a big difference,” Mr. Kelley said. “I had managed to make it into the middle class. But the Kennedys were royalty, and I immediately saw that everything I had ever heard about JFK was true. He had all the graceful bearing you’d expect of a prince, from his casual yet perfectly tailored Savile Row suit to his clearly custom-made shoes.

“Not only that,” Mr. Kelley added, “he had the tanned face of a hero, and a unique voice that was equal parts upper-class Harvard and New England.”

Mr. Kelley was not a man easily wowed by celebrity, but he felt as if he was having a surreal experience. “Less than a year ago, I had been a country lawyer in Alpena,” he recalled. “Now here I was, the attorney general of a major industrial state, sitting with the most powerful man in the world. I wonder if my late father would have believed it.”

The men talked about their fathers. The attorney general said the president told him his father used to tell his sons: “You boys are privileged, and I want you to take that opportunity to serve the public. Now, I was in business and succeeded at it. But most of the people I met in business were bad, and I don’t want you boys mixed up in it.”

President Kennedy, who was less than eight years older than Mr. Kelley, told him: “With that Irish name, Kelley, and your good looks, you are as good as elected.” But the president said he was worried about the incumbent Democratic governor, Mr. Swainson.

JFK’s political instincts were sound. A month later, Mr. Kelley would win his first of 10 terms as Michigan’s attorney general. Mr. Swainson would lose by a narrow margin to the man whose own son, Mitt, would lose a presidential election half a century later.

Mr. Kelley told President Kennedy that he thought Mr. Romney was putting on an act. “We’re all actors, Frank,” Mr. Kennedy said dryly. “The one who hides it the best wins.”

Mr. Kelley would never see President Kennedy again. Two weeks after he campaigned in Detroit, President Kennedy grappled with the Cuban missile crisis. A year later came that day in Dallas.

Reflecting today, Mr. Kelley said: “It may be impossible today for anyone young to understand how much we looked up to him — especially a guy from a middle-class, Irish-Catholic family like me.

“When I was growing up, it was taken as a given that no Catholic could be elected president. He changed all that. He made us feel that we could do anything.

“When he said, ‘One man can make a difference, and every man should try,’ he made us believe it,” Mr. Kelley said.

Today, biographers and reporters have punched holes in the Kennedy legend. Though JFK still gets high marks from historians for his handling of the Cuban missile crisis, his flaws are well known. But Mr. Kelley isn’t the only one who still reveres him.

Incredible as it may seem, President Kennedy has now been dead longer than he was alive. Two years ago, Stephen King published perhaps his best novel: 11/​22/​63, the story of a complex attempt to go back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination.

What is remarkable is that the book — and most of its readers — seem to take it for granted that this would have been worth doing.

A few years ago, I showed news footage of that era to some college students. Afterward, one young man said of JFK: “It’s as if he was in color and the rest of them were black and white. It’s like he was still living today.”

For some of us, there are times when it does feel that way.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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