A five-pound binder full of yellowed newspaper clips sitting on my grandmother’s dining room table chronicles my grandfather’s decades-long political career in Massachusetts — his years as a state representative, his time as a trial court judge and his terms as a selectman for the town of Brookline. One thing conspicuously missing from the binder is the year 1962.
That was the year my late grandfather, Sumner Kaplan, ran the doomed U.S. senate primary campaign for Democrat Edward McCormack, the state attorney general who ran against then-political-novice Edward Kennedy. At the time, Kennedy was just three years out of law school, but he would eventually come to be an eight-term senator for Massachusetts.
For my grandmother and some local political historians, memories of the 1962 primary are now resurfacing as the state prepares for another Kennedy in a U.S. senate primary: Rep. Joe Kennedy III, who’s running to unseat Sen. Ed Markey. While the two Kennedy candidates are distinct, parallels can be drawn.
Notably, in both instances, a young, politically ambitious Kennedy is eschewing common political wisdom to jump into a race sooner than expected, says Boston University historian Tom Whalen, who has written extensively on the Kennedy family.
“Kennedys don’t wait in line,” said Whalen. “That’s been shown time and time again through all the Kennedy generations.”
And this election cycle, as in 1962, a Kennedy may beat the odds. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll from September showed that in a head-to-head match-up Kennedy has a 14-point advantage over Markey, beating him in every age group despite Markey’s 40-plus years representing Massachusetts on the national level. The Kennedy campaign also outraisedMarkey's by almost $1 million, according to numbers released in January.
As my grandfather and McCormack both learned in 1962, it’s difficult to trounce a Kennedy in Massachusetts, even if you’re an impressive candidate.
Prior to 1962, McCormack’s star was rising. With roots in South Boston, he had a distinguished navy career, experience as Boston City Council president, and years serving as state attorney general with a strong record on civil rights. He was also the nephew of John McCormack, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. He had broad support, and a Senate run seemed like a reasonable next step. He was formidable and popular. He could take on a Kennedy.
My grandmother, Eleanor Kaplan, was skeptical from the start.
“I don’t remember an awful lot about the campaign except it was very dire, it was not pleasant. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it,” said Eleanor, who is now 99 years old. “I didn’t think it was very wise [for Sumner] to run the campaign, because I didn’t think that he would be successful against a Kennedy. He didn’t have the power of the name.”
But that’s hindsight. At the beginning, Ted Kennedy didn’t have a particularly compelling platform. "If I am elected. I will try to conduct myself in a way that will bring credit to the state of Massachusetts and to the country," he told the voters.
But, in the early 1960s, the Kennedy family was as politically popular as they would ever be. President John F. Kennedy had been elected a little less than two years earlier, and Robert F. Kennedy was the U.S. attorney general. Their younger brother, 30-year-old Ted, was tapped to run for John’s vacated senate seat in Massachusetts, and Sumner became the campaign manager for the candidate opposing him.
Sumner and McCormack framed the primary campaign as a quixotic stand against the Kennedy machine. The Kennedy's had encouraged McCormack to run for governor instead, but McCormack refused to stand down. Ted had little electoral experience, whereas McCormack was by his late 30s a seasoned and distinguished veteran and state politician. The McCormack campaign attacked Ted for leaning entirely on his family name.
"I asked my opponent, what are your qualifications? You graduated from law school three years ago. You've never worked for a living. You have never run or held elective office," McCormack asked during a debate. "If his name was Edward Moore with his qualifications, with your qualifications Teddy, that if it was Edward Moore, your candidacy would be a joke. But nobody's laughing."
That line — “If you’re name was Edward Moore,” Teddy’s middle name, “your candidacy would be a joke” — was written by my grandfather. It was a last-ditch effort that spectacularly backfired with voters, who saw it as a public rebuke of the Kennedys themselves and thought McCormack was being a bully, said Whalen. In the election, McCormack was trounced by Kennedy two to one.
Even Sumner’s mother, my great-grandmother Hattie, was upset.
“[Hattie] wasn’t in favor of it either,” recalled Eleanor. “She said to him, ‘What are you doing to that nice boy?’”
According to Eleanor, the Kennedys didn't speak to my grandfather for years.
McCormack’s debate performance came off as mean-spirited. Sumner realized their line of attack had backfired after the debate when they turned on the radio in the car ride home.
“Caller after caller was saying, ‘How could [McCormack] be so mean to Mrs. Kennedy’s son?’ That was how they were framing it,” said Neil Swidey, a Boston Globe reporter who interviewed my grandfather for a 2009 biography of Ted Kennedy. “Sumner said, ‘Turn off the radio. It’s over.’ He kind of knew that they had gone too far in this big swing for the fences and missed.”
The 1962 primary was the first time Sumner had ever run a campaign, a job he acquired serendipitously.
“Sumner sauntered into Ed McCormack’s office and said, ‘Who’s running your campaign?’ and McCormack said, ‘You are!’” according to Swidey. “He sort of ran with that and tried to make the best of it.”
Swidey said the campaign was close, and even leaning in McCormack’s favor up until the 1962 Massachusetts Democratic Convention, where President Kennedy pressured the local DNC to throw their weight behind Ted. After that, said Swidey, it was all downhill.
“In that moment, you saw two things happen,” said Swidey. “Teddy’s maturation as a candidate and the whole force of the presidency moving behind Ted’s campaign.”
The sense of doom lingered over the McCormack team, remembers my mother, Ruth Kaplan, who was 12 years old and spent the summer working for the campaign, which had the slogan, “McCormack Can Win.”
“My sister and I would say, ‘McCormack can win, but he’s not gonna!” Ruth said. “We kind of knew all along that it was doomed. I don’t think any of us actually believed that he could overcome the hurdle of the Kennedy name. It was an uphill battle from the get-go.”
Come 2020, Joe has far more experience than his uncle did in 1962. He is 10 years older, has served in Congress for seven years, delivered the 2018 Democratic response to the State of Union address and was an assistant district attorney.
The Suffolk/Globe poll showed despite decades of scandals, the Massachusetts voters have stayed relatively loyal to the Kennedy family: 64 percent of respondents said they have positive feelings about the Kennedy name.
Whalen said this election could be a reckoning for the Kennedy’s. Will it be the end of an era? Or the dawn of a new Kennedy political dynasty in Massachusetts?
Right now, it’s anyone’s race. But for McCormack, and my grandfather in 1962, it was really over before it began.