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JFK and Idaho

carlson CHRIS
CARLSON

 
Carlson
Chronicles

Most people over 55 can tell anyone where they were on November 22, 1963, when they heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas.

The news was unbelievably stunning. A junior at Spokane’s Central Valley High School, I was walking between classes as a palpable murmur surged through the hallways following a brief announcement by the principal.

Many of the girls started crying. Others rushed to their lockers to grab transistor radios to listen for additional news. There was instant confusion, a degree of fear as students tried to assimilate the impossible to fathom news. Rumors swept through the halls: the Russians were going to launch a nuclear missile attack; war was surely coming was the most prevalent.

Over the ensuing days Americans came together as never before, or since (not even 9/11), watching their televisions, listening to the reassuring voice of Walter Cronkite. Indelibly imprinted in the minds of “baby boomers” will be the image of the riderless horse being led down Pennsylvania Avenue following the caisson carrying the President’s casket.

Nor will any forget the heart-breaking image of young three-year-old John Kennedy Junior saluting as the caisson rolled by a grieving Jackie and Caroline Kennedy.

Idaho, like the rest of the nation, shared the grief, and in many respects joined in embracing the myth that quickly became Camelot. Beyond the shared grief, though, JFK impacted Idaho in several ways not recognized by many today.

As the 50th Anniversary is observed there will be numerous stories and various opinions on President Kennedy, his legacy and his impact on people and states. Without question his most lasting Idaho impact was the inspiration he gave a young, 28-year-old lumberjack with one year of college to enter politics.

In the spring of 1960 Kennedy agreed to a stopover in Lewiston to give a speech at the Lewis-Clark Hotel before heading on to Portland to campaign in the important Oregon Presidential primary.

The young lumberjack, Cece Andrus, decided to drive the 40 miles from his home in Orofino down the Clearwater River to hear Kennedy’s remarks. To this day he cannot tell you what exactly it was Kennedy said, but he walked out of the hotel feeling he had heard a great person’s call to others to enter public service, to be part of the new generation taking over in America.

Andrus thought that if the young Kennedy could go after the presidency, he could go after a seat in the Idaho State Senate, in part because the Republican incumbent was ignoring the needs for a better quality and more equitably funded educational system in the state.

The rest is history. Whatever else is written about JFK’s impact on Idaho, to those who believe Andrus is unquestionably the greatest governor Idaho has ever produced and the person with the greatest transformative impact in state history, the credit for Andrus taking that first step belongs to Kennedy.

As president, Kennedy also influenced Idaho politics in other not so obvious ways. For example, he helped young Senator Frank Church’s political career by awarding Church the coveted position of Keynoter for the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Church and Kennedy had both entered the Senate in the 1950’s (JFK in 1953, Church in 1957) and their youth as well as their shared World War II experiences (both were awarded medals) created a natural affinity.

Kennedy, though actual visits to Idaho were rare, nonetheless courted the Idaho media as evidenced by a 1962 photo of the cream of Idaho media lunching with the President in the White House.

Kennedy also provided political support to the campaigns of First District Congresswoman Gracie Pfost, first elected in 1952, and Second District Congressman Ralph Harding, first elected in 1960. Thus, for two years three members of Idaho’s congressional delegation were Democrats.

The fourth, Senator Henry Dworshak, died in office in 1962. The ensuing election to fill the senate seat saw Pfost narrowly lose to former Governor Len B. Jordan. Incredible to believe even today was Ralph Harding losing the second district seat in 1964 to then Alameda Mayor George Hansen, the year of the Johnson landslide and the last time a Democrat won Idaho’s four electoral votes.

As a consolation prize, President Kennedy handed Ms. Pfost a position in the Federal Housing Administration, which she held until prematurely dying at age 59 in 1965.

Bottom line is President Kennedy had a profound impact upon Idaho’s political history.

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