As John F. Kennedy prepared for what would be his final debate with Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign, a good friend from Tennessee weighed in with a few pieces of advice.
"Stare at Nixon. This makes him nervous. He was at his best when 3000 miles away," U.S. Sen. Albert Gore wrote in a one-page memo to the Kennedy campaign, referring to a previous debate in which Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, was in New York and Nixon, the Republican nominee, was in Los Angeles.
Gore also made a comment that would prove even more prescient 14 years later, when Nixon, who had beaten weaker Democratic competitors to win the nation's highest office in 1968 and 1972, was forced to resign amid the Watergate scandal.
"Don't call Nixon a liar, but be quick to point out inconsistencies," Gore wrote.
Thanks in part to his debate performances, Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, went on to win a narrow victory over Nixon that November, becoming president at the age of 43. Before he could finish his third year in office, he was killed by an assassin in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
Gore is gone now, too; he died in 1998 at age 90. But his papers live on in the Albert Gore Research Center at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, including debate briefing papers and correspondence with Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson and others.
The papers involving Kennedy offer insights into a fascinating period of history, including letters from Tennesseans who were concerned about the young candidate's Catholicism. And they show how a presidency that ended 50 years ago today began with the advice and support of his colleague from Carthage.
Gore had known Kennedy since at least 1953, when they both entered the Senate. They competed for the Democratic vice presidential nomination at the party's convention in Chicago in 1956, but the delegates ultimately nominated Tennessee's other senator, Estes Kefauver, to be Adlai Stevenson's running mate.
"Kefauver ended up winning it when my father got the microphone and threw Tennessee's votes to Kefauver," former Vice President Al Gore said in a phone interview Wednesday. "But he always chuckled when he quoted President Kennedy as saying later on, 'Albert, you did me the biggest favor you ever could have done, because if I had ended up with that nomination, I never would have been able to be successful in 1960.' "
After that, the elder Gore and Kennedy "forged a really good friendship going into 1960," said Kent Syler, special projects coordinator at the Gore research center and assistant professor of political science at MTSU.
The two men clicked
In the 1960 campaign, Gore quickly got on board with Kennedy, even though Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington corralled most of the state's Democratic leadership to support Johnson for the presidential nomination, Syler said.
The friendship seemed unusual on the surface. Gore was a Baptist son of a farmer from rural Tennessee. Kennedy, 10 years younger, was a blueblood, a Catholic son of an ambassador from Boston.
But the two men — and their wives — clicked politically and personally. Former Vice President Gore said his mother, Pauline, always appreciated a letter she received from former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy "some years after the assassination." The handwritten letter said that while the Kennedys might have each had closer friends as individuals, there was no couple they were as close to.
"That may have been an exaggeration of kindness, but she did write that," Gore said. "And they thought of themselves as very close."
During the campaign, Kennedy frequently called the Tennessee senator at the hotel where the Gores lived in Washington, D.C., Al Gore said. Those calls continued once Kennedy moved into the Oval Office. Al Gore said his father asked him to listen in once, "rightly or wrongly."
The talk wasn't for the faint of heart.
"It was during the confrontation (Kennedy) had with the steel companies," Gore said. "My father's memory of it was that as a young boy I was startled by the strength of expression, including some words that (the president) probably wouldn't have used if he had known that I was on the extension."
At some point in the campaign, Albert Gore, Sen. William Fulbright of Arkansas and Clark Clifford, an adviser to several presidents, formed an advisory panel, Syler said.
"Gore was a very good student of the Senate and legislative issues," he said. "It was a tribute to him that they relied on him and Senator Fulbright to advise on a lot of the issues."
The debate memos show Gore, both individually and as part of the panel, advising Kennedy on matters of style and substance. He urges the young senator to "project an image of responsibility," keep his answers simple but emphatic, avoid repeating earlier answers and, in a bit of rhetorical rerouting that any contemporary debate viewer has noticed, feel free to go off topic and answer unasked questions.
Some of the material is dated, washed over by the sands of time. Al Gore, who has seen the briefing papers, said references to Quemoy and Matsu, two islands near Taiwan that became the focus of a Cold War crisis in the 1950s, are "quaint" now. (He laughed when recalling that former Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, a Kennedy antagonist during the civil rights movement, was once asked about Quemoy and Matsu and answered, "I think we could find a position for them on the Fish and Game Commission.")
But some of the advice is timeless.
"Kennedy should agitate and exploit the latent feeling of uneasiness by hammering away on conditions as they are today," one memo says, blue ink underlining the word "today." "Avoid being tagged as a prophet of gloom and doom. Do not predict recessions or depressions."
"Find a way to show some spirit — warmth if possible, even a show of heat will help," another advises. "Change of pace valuable. A pleasant 'entrance' into the citizen's living room is effective."
Al Gore, who participated in a presidential debate or two himself many years later but lost the 2000 election by the narrowest of margins, said his father was a powerful political and strategic thinker.
"When my father was at the peak of his powers, his clarity of expression and logical analyses were really quite strong, and I think that comes through in his words," he said.
Oval Office visits
After Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961, Al Gore got to meet him a number of times. His father took him to the Oval Office once. After the meeting was officially over, the two men continued to talk in the hallway connecting the Oval Office to the president's private study as Kennedy's aides began to fret about keeping him on schedule.
Gore, who was no older than 15, said he noticed one of the president's assistants checking his watch. Then the man "asked me to go and break it up and tell my father that the president had to go to his next meeting."
"I wasn't very comfortable doing that, and I thought it was a little manipulative," he said, laughing at the memory.
Years later, Gore decided to go into public service himself when he ran for Congress in 1976. His father was obviously an inspiration. So was Kennedy.
"He exuded youth and excitement, and vigor was the word that so many used," Gore said.
"He had a sense of humor that I don't think we've seen in the White House since then, a very sharp wit and very clear thinking. And of course, he was young.
"And his words were inspiring. He had a great gift for mobilizing people with clear expression."
Six months before he died, Kennedy made a trip to Nashville. The May 18, 1963, trip clearly wasn't a spur-of-the-moment thing.
On April 8, Albert Gore advised the president to invite the Tennessee congressional delegation and lawmakers from other Tennessee Valley Authority states "at an early date," according to a memo shared by Metro Councilman Ronnie Steine, who collects political memorabilia.
On May 27, Kennedy wrote Gore to thank him for "all you did to make my visit to Tennessee so useful."
"I think it was very helpful and I went at a good time," the president wrote to his friend. "Many, many thanks."