Inside the Kennedy White House


Meanwhile, in recent years, Kenny O'Donnell's legacy has grown in prominence, thanks in part to the Hollywood film "Thirteen Days." Based on the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film's star was Kevin Costner who portrayed (you guessed it) Kenny O'Donnell, who tries to mediate between the "hawks" and "doves" in Kennedy's inner circle. (For what it's worth, Defense Secretary Bob McNamara later commented that O'Donnell's role in the movie was "totally fictional.") O'Donnell also was from Massachusetts (Worcester). His father was a legendary Holy Cross football coach. Thanks to the GI Bill, O'Donnell attended Harvard where he met Bobby Kennedy, who became his roommate. O'Donnell and the Kennedys "couldn't gain acceptance into any of the elite clubs because of (their) religion," Thomas Maier writes in his excellent book "The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings."

Finally, there's Lawrence O'Brien, whose parents came from Cork. They were a deeply political family. Young Lawrence proudly recalled shaking the hand of Al Smith, when, in 1928, Smith was the first Catholic to run for president as a major party candidate. In 1952, O'Brien served as director for JFK's Senate run, and was seen as so integral to Kennedy's victory, that he was a natural to join JFK when he set his eyes on The White House.

The Election

The big question during the 1960 presidential race was whether Americans would elect a Catholic for president. If Kennedy's Irish inner circle didn't know this initially, they learned it quickly at a meeting in West Virginia. O'Brien, O'Donnell and Bobby Kennedy asked local voters to discuss any problems the Kennedys might face. A man stood up and said: "There's only one problem. He's a Catholic. That's our goddamned problem."

O'Donnell later recalled: "(RFK) seemed to be in a state of shock. His face was pale as ashes." Of course, the campaign overcame this issue and won - in no small part thanks to the campaign's Irish advisers. O'Brien was even put on the cover of Time magazine in September of 1961. "To the Kennedy team, O'Brien was and is more than a skillful political organizer. He has the experience and understanding to serve as a bridge between the Democratic Old Guard and the New Frontier," the magazine noted. "The bright, eager young men around Jack Kennedy have always baffled and often offended the (old machine) Skeffingtons of Massachusetts; but Larry O'Brien can talk to politicians in their own language and win them over," Time said.

Bobby Kennedy added: "He was the essential transition man for us with the Old Guard." O'Donnell, meanwhile, more or less controlled access to Kennedy, whose press secretary Pierre Salinger once dubbed O'Donnell the most powerful man on Kennedy's staff. Another observer said O'Donnell - nicknamed "the Cobra" for the tight grip he had on access to the president - was Kennedy's "political right hand, troubleshooter, expediter and devil's advocate."

The Crisis

Thirteen Days might have blurred the line between fact and fiction, but Kennedy's Irish advisers did have a front row seat for the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. In one conversation with Powers, JFK pondered the vast questions of life and death."Dave, we have had a full life," Kennedy said, adding that he feared most for the lives of his children.

On the brighter side of the Kennedy years, there was his famous trip to Ireland. Interestingly, according to Maier's book, Kenneth O'Donnell was not exactly sentimental."It would be a waste of time," he said, noting that the Cold War remained a demanding issue, and that civil rights also needed to be dealt with. "You've got all the Irish votes in this country that you'll ever get. If you go to Ireland, people will say it's just a pleasure trip." JFK responded: "Kenny, let me remind you of something. I am the President of the United States, not you. When I say I want to go to Ireland, it means that I'm going to Ireland. Make the arrangements."