As President John F. Kennedy made his three stops in Wyoming in September 1963, one has to wonder whether he recalled the state’s decisive role in his selection as the Democratic nominee in 1960.
According to University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts in his syndicated Wyoming history column “Buffalo Bones,” Kennedy’s hopes for defeating Sen. Lyndon Johnson of Texas for the nomination would have been seriously harmed if he failed to win enough votes on the first ballot. Only 10 ½ of the Wyoming delegation’s 15 votes were pledged to JFK, but he needed 14 votes to capture the nomination.
Roberts describes the action this way:
“Tracy McCraken, Cheyenne newspaperman and UW trustee, was state Democratic chairman and leader of the Wyoming delegation. Ted Kennedy, the nominee’s youngest brother [and, later, long-time U.S. senator from Massachusetts], was standing in the Wyoming delegation. The convention chairman called out,
“‘Wyoming … 15 votes.’ Without polling the delegation, McCraken shouted into the microphone, ‘Wyoming casts all 15 of its votes for the next President of the United States … .”’ Johnson partisans tried to grab the mic, but it was too late. The balloons were falling, the bands were playing, and the Democrats had their 1960 nominee.”
From Laramie, Kennedy flew to Billings, Mont., gave a speech, then flew to Jackson Hole Airport where he was cheered by 3,000 people, according to the Jackson Hole Guide. He was greeted by Jackson Mayor Harry Clissold and Teton County Democratic Party Chairman Phil Baux.
He went to the crowd and shook many hands.
An article by Jack Langan and Phil McAuley in the Sept. 27 Casper Tribune said Kennedy’s visit was probably the first to Jackson Hole by a president since Chester A. Arthur in the 1880s. JFK reportedly had a refreshing overnight stay during which he viewed a moose through binoculars.
The next morning, as Kennedy prepared to board the DC6B airplane at the Jackson airport after his night in Grand Teton National Park, he proclaimed to the crowd on hand: “I’m coming back.”
From Jackson, Kennedy flew to Great Falls, Mont. During one of his Montana speeches he called the West “this golden area of the United States. The great writer from my home state, Thoreau, was right: ‘Eastward I go only by force, westward I go free. I must walk towards Oregon and not towards Europe.’
Kennedy also stated: “I am confident that history will write that in the 1960s we did our part to maintain our country and make it more beautiful.”
From Montana he dedicated an electric generating plant at the Hanford nuclear energy site in Washington state. He flew to Salt Lake City for the night and the next morning gave a foreign policy speech in the Mormon Tabernacle and participated in a ceremony recognizing the Flaming Gorge Dam — then nearing completion — which stores Wyoming’s Green River water. Next he flew to Tacoma, Wash., and gave a speech at the baseball stadium there, made an aerial inspection of the Oregon dunes near Coos Bay, dedicated the Whiskeytown Dam near Redding, Calif., and spoke to a crowd of 7,500 at a new convention center in Las Vegas, where he lamented the fact that 8 to 9 million children would drop out before graduating high school.
In California, Kennedy predicted that “as machines take more and more jobs from men, we are going to see the [40-hour] work week reduced,” allowing more and more Americans to use the recreational resources of the nation.
From Las Vegas, Kennedy flew to Palm Springs, Calif., for a weekend retreat at singer Bing Crosby’s Palm Desert home, where the temperatures were expected to reach 112.
In a Sept. 26 editorial in the Cheyenne State Tribune, Editor James M. Flinchum challenged the White House assertion that the western tour was non-political. “If anyone really believed the fable that this was a non-political tour, he ought to have his head examined,” Flinchum wrote. “So things were really swinging for the New Frontier in this part of the Old Frontier yesterday,” he concluded.
Articles in the Sept. 26 Wyoming Eagle show that Kennedy had plenty on his plate as he toured the West and as he anticipated what should have been a re-election campaign in 1964.
Racial violence in Birmingham, Ala., continued. UPI reported that two bombs exploded in a black neighborhood the day before. The first bomb was a decoy, police said, designed to draw frightened residents streaming into the streets so as to be injured or killed by a second bomb loaded with nails, bolts and shrapnel.
A UPI article datelined White Sands, N.M., reported that the Army had successfully fired two Pershing ballistic missiles from Blanding, Utah, to the White Sands Missile Range.
They were the second and third in a five-shot overland test series. The 350-mile flights took about seven minutes. The Pershing missiles were named after Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of American forces in World War I who married the daughter of Sen. Francis E. Warren of Wyoming, namesake of the Army’s Fort Warren and later F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne.
Also on the day JFK was in Wyoming, his special fact-finding team in Vietnam heard a report from American military officials that the war against the Communist Viet Cong “is progressing well.”
Just less than two months after Kennedy’s speech at UW, those of us inspired by the president’s visit crashed back to earth with a blow that is still, 50 years later, hard to believe and bear. At lunchtime on Nov. 22, 1963, we walked through Hill Hall’s west doors and up the breezeway toward the cafeteria and lunch.
Hundreds of students stood near the dormitory’s desk looking at the black and white television affixed to the wall. “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas,” someone told me.
We were in shock. Soon we heard that classes had been canceled. We headed home for a long Thanksgiving vacation spent watching the sad, horrible story unfold on television.