descriptive image

A Visit to Duke on the Way to the Presidency

When Senator John F. Kennedy’s plane landed in Raleigh on December 2nd—one hour before he was due to speak at Duke University—he hadn’t yet declared his candidacy for the 1960 presidential election. Writing about that evening’s address, the Duke Chronicle wrote simply that the “boyish John Kennedy” was the “leading unannounced candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination” and noted a recent decrease in his popularity, especially when compared with potential Republican candidates New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

Kennedy’s aspirations were, however, clear. The arrangements for the speech were made by J. Leonard Reinsch, then a member of the Democratic National Committee and director of the 1960 Democratic National Convention, whose two children were students at Duke. WUNC-TV filmed the evening—necessitating that the speech be given in the smaller Page Auditorium, rather than Duke Indoor Stadium (not yet known as Cameron)—and the WUNC radio station recorded it for later broadcast.

Kennedy spoke as part of the Major Speakers Series planned by the Student Union’s Educational Affairs Committee. For the 1959-1960 academic year, the student committee, led by chair Byron Battle, attempted to build a non-partisan slate of candidates for high public office. According to their meeting minutes, their efforts to secure Duke alumnus Richard Nixon involved “a constant barage [sic] of letters” from Duke administrators, including President A. Hollis Edens. They also considered extending an invitation to Hubert Humphrey, but decided against it, on the grounds of “a possible preponderance of Democrats, and a fear that he might not have anything worthwhile to say.” (Humphrey did eventually speak at Duke in 1965.)

Letter, Byron Battle to John F. Kennedy, June 23, 1959. From the Duke University Union Records
Letter, Byron Battle to John F. Kennedy, June 23, 1959. From the Duke University Union Records. Click to enlarge.

Local newspaper accounts indicate that the speech, titled “The Challenge to American Colleges” and ranging over key national and regional issues like the space race, North Carolina’s progress toward integration, and Kennedy’s position on birth control, was well-received.

But we’re less sure of the Duke student body’s reaction to the speech, perhaps because the campus’s attention turned almost immediately to a different election. In the same issue of the Duke Chronicle that looked forward to Kennedy’s speech, a undergraduate student reporter named Steve Cohen published the first part of a satire that set the nativity story in World War II-era Poland. Tipped off by the paper’s printer, and worried that the piece would cause controversy damaging to Duke’s reputation, President Edens acted swiftly, suspending publication of the Duke Chronicle until the editorial board could be reorganized.

Senator John F. Kennedy before his address in Page Auditorium, December 2, 1959.
Senator John F. Kennedy before his address in Page Auditorium, December 2, 1959. Kennedy is standing in the Flowers Building’s Music Room. From the University Archives Photograph Collection.

The Duke Chronicle published its next issue on December 14, 1959, 11 days later. The issue carries only a brief mention of Kennedy’s speech, in an editorial from new editor-in-chief hopeful Jim Brown, who wrote:

We are constantly in danger of focusing all our attention on the sensational. Significant events often pass unnoticed. People all over the nation know of the Chronicle incident. But how many of them heard about the speech that Senator Kennedy made the day after the Cohen article was published. . . . Senator Kennedy’s masterful presentation had a considerable impact on the student body. But compared with “A Christmas Story” the attention that it received was negligible.

Later that afternoon, Marian Sapp was elected by the University Publications Board as the Duke Chronicle’s new editor-in-chief. Kennedy declared his candidacy for president on January 2, 1960. We’re not definitively certain what happened to Steve Cohen, but Sapp herself alluded in her own December 14th editorial to the “destruction . . . of one boy’s right of expression in any University publication.”

5 thoughts on “A Visit to Duke on the Way to the Presidency”

  1. The article gives excellent context for the Kennedy visit to Duke but from one who was there, it generated considerably more attention and excitement than implied. The auditorium was filled as JFK was young with special appeal to the college age generation. Coeds from East Campus, then the Womans College, with strict requirements for checking out of one’s dorm to attend evening events, were noticably present. Having the event televised was a relatively new experience, and it showed the importance of his visit beyond the campus.
    North Carolina was key to JFK garnering any Southern support for the party nomination with Lyndon Johnson as a major opponent to Kennedy. An equally young, somewhat unknown, local politicial was challenging the old guard in NC, and when Terry Sanford secured the nomination for governor and became the first southernor to declare for Kennedy, he entered the national stage. [One long lasting result of his support was getting the Environmental Protectation Agency (EPA) situated in the then new Research Triangle Park thus changing the area forever.]As events played out then and much later, the Duke community was to become more and more visible beyond the state and region through President Sanford.
    The publication of “The Christmas Story” and the supression of the Duke Chronicle was a big campus event and it is too bad it curtailed coverage of Kennedy’s campus visit. When Kennedy announced his intent to seek the presidential nomination the next day in Washington it confirmed the wishes of many students in attendance and ultimately brought more and more young, especially first time voters, into politics.

    1. Hi Bill,

      Thanks for both of your comments! The first adds a great deal to our understanding of this moment in campus history!

      For the second, we’re not able to see your e-mail address from our end. Your own computer might automatically display your e-mail address, but the blog doesn’t appear to have retained it.

  2. We purchased an old 19th Century Dinning Room Table from the wife of the late James Leonard Reinsch. She told us that her husband and JFK wrote his acceptance speech at on this table. We are looking for a photo.

    1. Thanks so much for your question, Mr. Glaser! We’ll follow up with an answer via e-mail.

Comments are closed.