Former Boggs chief of staff reflects on interactions with prominent politicians.
News of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s serious health problem caused a flurry of favorable comment about the current pivotal role of the senior Massachusetts senator and led me to recall one particular contact I had with him.
In the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, the country went through a busy period of naming schools, roads, airports and various buildings in his honor. The national grief was acute and the desire for honoring his name was evident at every hand.
One way Delaware sculptor Charles Parks added his evidence of esteem was to sculpt a small bust of the president. It was sent along to U.S. Sen. J. Caleb Boggs to deliver to the young Sen. Ted Kennedy at his office in Washington.
Sen. Boggs asked me to make the delivery. I was then his chief of staff, a position referred to on Capitol Hill as the administrative assistant.
So I called the senator’s office and set a time to see him.
Sen. Kennedy had been a focal point in representing the family as tributes were made to his brother so it was not unusual for him to accept a tribute of this kind.
Current photos of the senator show him as a heavy, older man. Then he had dark, somewhat curly hair, as I recall, and was a little pudgy, and young-looking 32-year-old.
He accepted the bust graciously, we had a few words, and the small ceremony was over.
Later on, when groups of people from Delaware came to Sen. Boggs’ office for a visit, one of their requests was to see Sen. Kennedy. This was done by taking a group to a Senate committee meeting that Kennedy was attending.
It was 40 years ago at about this time that the other Kennedy brother, Bobby Kennedy, was representing New York State in the Senate seat now held by Sen. Hillary Clinton. The urge to see a Kennedy was especially strong when it came to Washington visitors from Ireland.
On one occasion a group of Irish teachers was funneled through Sen. Boggs’ office and I was asked to see if the senator could see them. He agreed and asked that the 20 or so teachers, mostly women, gather on the steps of the Capitol. They did and then I went into the building to tell him the group was ready.
I’ll always remember his low-key response. “Would you mind if I vote first, Jim?” he asked.
Would I mind? I don’t remember what the vote was about but there was no possible response to the question other than something like, “Of course not.”
When Sen. Kennedy appeared on the sunlit steps a few minutes later I thought some of the teachers were going to swoon. They listened with rapt attention to his quiet comments about his lost brother and left very satisfied that whatever else happened on their trip, they had experienced the charm and charisma of a Kennedy.
When Sen. John Kennedy was running for president against Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960, he came to Delaware. One of his meetings was in Dover’s Treadway Towers, where I was able to interview him briefly. He wanted the coverage, of course, and made sure to talk to me as the reporter for the Wilmington daily papers (there were two then.)
It is remembered as well that less than two weeks before his assassination, President Kennedy participated with Gov. Elbert Carvel in a highway ceremony in New Castle County.
Sen. Lyndon Johnson, running for vice president with Kennedy, also dropped by Dover in 1960, although it was evident from what could be overheard as he was getting ready in the next room for an interview that he really didn’t think the Delaware stop was necessary. Jim Miller of the Delaware State News and I were about to interview Johnson on radio station WDOV.
Miller asked him the question which set him off: “Senator, why would you be running for vice president when your position as senate majority leader is so much more powerful?”
The three of us were sitting close together to be near the microphone and Johnson leaned over toward Jim, obviously nettled at the question. He grabbed my right knee for extra balance at the same time and heatedly did his best to explain his reasoning, which really wasn’t that easy to do.
Johnson also came to Delaware in 1964, teaming in an appearance with Judge Charles L. Terry Jr., who was running for governor. Terry won and served one term, giving way to Gov. Russell Peterson.
And then in 1972, Dick Nixon made a brief helicopter stop in northern Delaware to call on John Rollins, who had been his largest single financial contributor for that campaign.
Jimmy Carter was in Dover to campaign in 1976 and George H.W. Bush came later for himself and then for his son. Perhaps there will be another occasion for more Delaware presidential comment, but given our small size, there isn’t really much to talk about.
We were over on Maryland’s Eastern Shore on Memorial Day and when we stopped for lunch at a restaurant outside St. Michaels I noticed a Delaware car with a four-digit license plate. Since there weren’t that many people in the restaurant at that time I quietly asked at one table if there happened to be someone there from Delaware with a four-digit plate.
And that’s how I enjoyed meeting Leon Morris, who lives south of Dover and is a very good friend of our long-time friends, Vern and Dolly Ingram.
When you are from a small state you can take a chance like that.
A call came in to the Coast Guard station in a resort area. “Save us, save us!” cried a voice. “We’re inexperienced sailors and we’re 10 miles from shore!”
The radio operator quickly asked, “Capsize?”
A delay followed. “Uh, 6 and 7/8,” came the reply.