WASHINGTON — Five days before the presidential election of 1960, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy made a campaign stop in Oklahoma City.
“I don't believe all those stories that Oklahoma is going Republican,” Kennedy said. “I think Oklahoma is going Democratic on Tuesday.”
In fact, Oklahoma went Republican in that election, but Kennedy didn't need the state to win the presidency. He would, however, as president, need the most powerful politician from the state at that time.
And that's why Kennedy made a visit to the hills of southeastern Oklahoma in October 1961 to dedicate a road and spend the night at a ranch owned by Sen. Robert S. Kerr.
In his remarks at the Kermac Angus Ranch near Poteau, the president referred to the Dust Bowl migration and the need for conservation.
“During the campaign last year I met many citizens of this state, but not in this state,” Kennedy said.
“I met them in Alaska, where many Oklahomans had gone in the Thirties to build a new life. I met them in the valleys of California, where many citizens of this state had gone in the Thirties to build a better life.
“And they left Oklahoma, the state that they loved, because this country had not learned the lessons of land, wood and water, because they had not recognized that these great national resources can only be maintained for ourselves and those who come after us by dedicated men. ... Now the citizens of Oklahoma stay in Oklahoma. Now they recognize the opportunities that are to be found in this state, and Oklahomans, instead of leaving, are coming home.”
The wealthy president from Massachusetts got to see some bulls and eat some steak in the impoverished area of Oklahoma and dedicate a highway described in the Carl Albert Collection at the University of Oklahoma as “a mountain road that starts nowhere in particular and goes to a suburb of the same place.”
In a story also contained in the collection, then-Oklahoma Gov. J. Howard Edmondson asked Kennedy why he was really visiting Oklahoma.
“Why Howard, I'm going to Oklahoma to kiss Bob Kerr's ass,” Kennedy said.
A few months before Kennedy's visit, the president had asked Congress to provide the commitment to sending a U.S. astronaut to the moon. Kerr, one of the most powerful men in the U.S. Senate, was chairman of the Space Committee.
Kennedy had made remarks by telephone in May 1961 to participants at a conference in Tulsa on “Peaceful Uses of Space.”
“We can safely predict that the impact of the Space Age will have a far-ranging effect within industry and in our labor force, on medical research, education and many other areas of national concern,” he told participants at the conference.
Kerr's committee helped Kennedy's cause, and Kennedy helped with Kerr's causes. In 1961, James Webb, then an employee of Kerr-McGee in Oklahoma City, was named as the second administrator of NASA.
Kerr died on Jan. 1, 1963, prompting this comment from the president:
“In the last two years alone, almost every major bill enacted bore the mark of his untiring leadership and skill: the space program, the trade bill, the tax bill of 1962, the improvements in social welfare and in natural resource development.”
A few days later, Kennedy made his final trip to Oklahoma, along with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, to attend Kerr's funeral in Oklahoma City.