Some of you may have noticed this picture on as my desktop image. It’s of John F. Kennedy (left) and his brother Robert (right… obviously). I have an obsession, of sorts, with the Kennedys. It started in 2nd grade and grew from there. The first time I saw this picture, I fell in love with its class, contrast, and emotion. I love the feelings it evokes, the brilliant use of backlighting, and the photographer’s ability to capture body language. For perspective on how great the photographer’s manipulation of the room and positioning was, here’s another picture he took on that day without the use of perfectly dramatic backlighting:
But I had actually heard the wrong story behind the iconic image of the Kennedy brothers. I was told that this was taken during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I found out it was taken much earlier, and honestly, I like the real story much better… which generally doesn’t happen too often.
This photo was taken by a Life photographer named Hank Walker in July of 1960. He was actually doing a story on Bobby, JFK’s right-hand man, and Walker had followed them to the 1960 Democratic Convention in LA. John’s “aggressive, efficient campaign leading up to Los Angeles was led by his brother, Robert, and most of the old guard of the Democratic party was caught off-balance by the energy and the charisma that JFK exuded on the stump. He was, as many commentators have pointed out, greeted as something of a rock star wherever he went; the other candidates, to their great misfortune, were treated as mere politicians.”
America loved JFK. He had a wife whom everyone adored, a beautiful little daughter, and a son on the way. People felt they could relate to him, and they trusted him to represent the general population, not just his own interests. His willingness to connect with the people could be seen very clearly in his method of campaigning.
Here, in another photo by Hank Walker (who seemed to have as much of an interest in the Kennedys as I do), JFK is giving a speech to a small crowd in Logan County, West Virginia – a very, very rural area that wouldn’t get nearly this much attention today. Notice the boy on the right. Yes, he’s holding a gun. Another thing that would never happen in a presidential race today. Don’t worry; the kid isn’t crazy.
“There’s a reason why the kid might have had the gun pointed at his own mouth. First of all, it’s not just an ordinary toy gun, but a squirt gun. Squirt guns existed before water bottles were commonly marketed, so the kid was drinking some water from his squirt gun, which was actually not a unheard of use of squirt guns, because, as stated, there were no water bottles.” The guns were made to look as real as possible until 1968, following the assassinations of (you guessed it) JFK, MLK, and RFK.
But there’s something else important about that kid. The dark-haired boy standing near him (potentially friends) was someone JFK knew by name. Rick first met JFK during a campaign stop in Parkersburg, WV. The town organized an ox roast for the presidential hopeful, and a hundred people gathered to listen to JFK’s speech. Afterwards, everyone had the chance to shake his hand. “Senator Kennedy bent down, put his left hand on my shoulder, and then in a whisper asked me what my name was and how I liked my state. ‘Rick,’ I answered in a croaky, nervous voice. He laughed, shook my hand and said, ‘Let’s have some of that ox roast.’ After he got up to leave, he said, ‘Take care, Rick.’ I was only 10 years old, but I had never felt more grown up and proud.”
A couple months later, JFK was back in the area (about three miles from Parkersburg). Rick and his friends rode their bikes to go see Kennedy again, and they worked their way through the crowd to get to the front. “Senator Kennedy looked down at me when I called his name to get his attention, put his hand on my shoulder and asked, ‘Rick, could you find me something to stand on so I can talk to the people?’ The folks in the house behind the crowd made me promise to bring back their high chair afterwards.”
JFK would go on to win the West Virginia primary (with 61% of the vote) and then become the Democratic nominee. Recounting the 1960 Democratic Convention, Walker described what was really going on in his iconic photo of the Kennedy brothers.
“The morning after Jack was nominated, we went up to his room. The brothers talked very quietly, and Jack told Bobby he wasn’t going to choose [labor union leader] Walter Reuther for Vice President. . . . I waited outside for Bobby to come out. When he did, he was furious. We were walking back down the stairs, and Bobby was hitting his hand like this, saying ‘Shit, shit, shit.’ You know, he really hated [Lyndon] Johnson.”
I always thought this photo was just a great artistic representation of a moment in the relationship between brothers and confidants. Instead, it’s “a photograph that speaks volumes about the bond between these two intensely ambitious and pragmatic brothers. In fact, Walker made his picture at the very moment when that brotherly bond and the vaunted Kennedy pragmatism clashed head-on.”
With the help of Bobby, JFK defeated Nixon on November 8, 1960 in one of the closest presidential elections of the 20th Century. Kennedy led the popular vote by two-tenths of 1%, making him the second youngest elected president.
This photo hangs above my bed. I created a poster of this image and included a quote (my favorite quote) from RFK’s gravesite at Arlington:
“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” ~ Aeschylus