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U.S. primaries a legacy of President Kennedy: historians

By Scott Malone

BOSTON (Reuters) - Nearly fifty years after an assassin's bullet found its mark in Dallas, one of President John F. Kennedy's greatest political legacies is the power of the presidential primaries to select who will lead the nation.

This legacy was a topic of discussion at a recent roundtable of historians held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston to promote a PBS documentary "JFK," debuting November 11.

When Kennedy, as a second-term Senator from Massachusetts decided to make a run for the White House in 1960, the primaries held little power. Indeed they seemed so insignificant that Kennedy's major rival, the Senate majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson, opted to skip them altogether.

Future White House aspirants have since learned to avoid that mistake.

"Johnson was living in bubble," said Robert Dallek, presidential historian and author of "JFK: An Unfinished Life."

"He didn't understand how politics had changed in the country and that's really saying something because Johnson was a brilliant politician," Dallek said. "And Kennedy bested him."

Young Kennedy's success demonstrated that someone with less support from within a party could change the odds. His looks, charisma and vibrant fashionable spouse, Jacqueline, drew much public interest, while the financial support of his wealthy father, Joseph P. Kennedy, made him less dependent on the party's financial backing.

Starting with New Hampshire, Kennedy carried 10 of the then-16 primaries, held in 15 states and the District of Columbia. He went on to win the nomination in an unprecedented fashion, with Johnson serving as his running mate and vice president.

That win, said, Nicholas Lemann, former dean of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, changed the way politics is practiced a fairly permanent way.

Kennedy's victory in the 1960 Democratic primary and presidential election tilted the balance of power in American politics away from the established leaders of the two major parties and toward charismatic individual politicians, Lemann said.

"This is the beginning of a long run, that we're probably still in, of the end of consensus politics, the end of organizational politics, the beginning of a whole bunch of other stuff - media politics, grassroots politics, etc," Lemann said. "That's a really important change in terms of how the country works."

While Kennedy's time in office was short - a little more 1,000 days, ending suddenly on November 22, 1063, when he was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald while riding in a motorcade through Dallas - his successful campaigning set the stage for successors to run as outsiders to their party.

"Kennedy mastered the skill of becoming the change candidate and that's what makes the '60 campaign still a playbook that everybody has got to study if they want to be president," said Timothy Naftali, historian and former director of the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library.

Kennedy bested Nixon in the general election in 1960. But it was his primary run, challenging established party leaders, that served as a model for successors including current U.S. President Barack Obama.

"The Obama insurgent campaign makes sense if you know about Kennedy," Naftali said. "But give me an insurgent campaign before Kennedy. He was doing something totally outside the box."

(Reporting by Scott Malone; editing by Gunna Dickson)

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