The assassination of President John Kennedy 50 years ago this month stunned and horrified the nation and much of the world. For Wisconsin citizens—similarly left numb by the events of November 22, 1963—an extra measure of sadness set in, as they had come to know Kennedy during the spirited presidential campaign three years earlier. Candidates for the nation’s highest office hadn’t always frequented Badger State gatherings in the run-up to an election, but Kennedy had.
In 1960, Wisconsin was an important state from the spring primary straight through to the fall general election. The Democratic primary race was between Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey and Massachusetts Senator Kennedy. By fall, the opponents were Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon, a Republican.
Hundreds if not thousands of books have been written about the Kennedy Administration, but not as many words or books focus on the historic earlier part of the 1960 campaign when the need to win delegates through the primary process first emerged. JFK went on to claim the delegates and the subsequent nomination at the Democratic National Convention that summer.
Doing so meant Kennedy had needed to campaign heavily for those delegates, and when it came to Wisconsin, he visited a lot of small towns, held hundreds of interviews with community newspapers, ate in local restaurants, and slept in some pretty modest hotels. He also put numerous electric cooperative annual meetings on his campaign itinerary, greeting hundreds of rural members. They came to know him and vice versa.
Migration of Midwesterners
There must have been something about the people he met during his swings through the state that remained with the new president and that he brought to the forefront as he began putting together his administration in Washington, D.C.
The first Midwesterner JFK named was Minnesota Governor Orville Freeman, who had been defeated in the November gubernatorial race, to be his secretary of Agriculture.
Then in March 1961, the new president reached down into southwestern Wisconsin and tapped Norman Clapp, who had been editor and publisher of the Grant County Independent at Lancaster, to be administrator of the Rural Electrification Administration, better known as the REA.
Clapp was no stranger to the REA; he’d served as administrative assistant to the late U.S. Senator Robert M. LaFollette, Jr., of Wisconsin during the period when the REA was created by executive order of President Franklin Roosevelt and during the writing of the Rural Electrification Act by Congress. Returning to Wisconsin in 1944, Clapp and his wife, Analoyce, published the Lancaster newspaper, and through their prize-winning editorials and stories helped champion the fledgling rural electrification program. In addition, two years before heading to Washington, Analoyce had been hired as a freelance writer by Grant Electric Cooperative (now Scenic Rivers Energy) to prepare stories for the co-op’s monthly local pages in Wisconsin REA News, the statewide publication for electric co-op members (which ultimately became Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News).
More from Electric Co-op Ranks
Named assistant to the REA administrator in April 1961 was James Sullivan, an employee of the Wisconsin statewide electric cooperative association since 1948. A management assistant at Wisconsin Electric Cooperative at the time of his posting to REA, Sullivan had headed the statewide’s Public Relations Department and had also twice served as editor of Wisconsin REA News, 1949–52 and 1954–56.
Another appointment to the Kennedy Administration came for Wisconsinite Robert Lewis, who became deputy administrator for price supports in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Stabilization Service. Lewis was Sullivan’s predecessor as editor of the Wisconsin REA News and had later served as administrative assistant to U.S. Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin and as farm advisor to Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson.
The trek from Wisconsin to the nation's capitol also included University of Wisconsin professor Willard “Fritz” Mueller from his post in the economics department to that of chief economist for the Federal Trade Commission.
Clapp stayed on as REA administrator through the Johnson Administration. In the 1970s he returned to Wisconsin where he served as secretary of the Department of Transportation and then chaired the Public Service Commission.
After Clapp’s death in 1998, Patrick Dahl, a longtime employee with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, sent a memo to this publication, detailing Clapp’s many contributions to the cooperative utility industry.
“More than any single figure or government official, it is Norman Clapp who can be credited with the emergence of the rural electric generation and transmission (G&T) program as we know it today,” Dahl wrote.
“Because of Clapp's hard bargaining and convincing arguments at the White House, hefty budgets for G&T loans, with approving nods from the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses, came forward to accelerate the G&T program.
“REA loans for power plants or transmission lines, no matter how small, had always been ‘red flags’ to the investor-owned utilities (IOUs),” Dahl continued. “Much to the ideological dismay of the IOUs, REA’s Clapp—the brash, young New Frontiersman from Wisconsin—built the G&T program right under their noses. More than any other REA Administrator, Norman Clapp gave the power companies ‘fits.’”
During the 1960 campaign, both Kennedy and Nixon issued statements and made remarks about their specific stands on cooperative issues.
In a television interview, Nixon said he felt that cooperatives were “essential for the purpose of helping farmers close the gaps between the prices they receive for their products on their farms and prices the housewife has to pay in the store.” He went on to say he believed cooperatives should engage in activities “that are directly related to their purpose and not in activities which are completely extraneous and thereby compete with private business.” He said he did not favor a “special tax status” for co-ops that would enable them “to compete unfairly with private business that might also be in the same field.”
But Kennedy took a much stronger stand in favor of cooperatives: “Farmers who choose to sell their products and buy their supplies through their own cooperatives have an unqualified right to do so. The federal government should defend and protect that right, instead of attempting to abridge it.
“The federal government has no moral nor legal right to single out the investments made by farmers in their own cooperatives for special restrictions and penalties,” he continued, declaring co-op patrons should be liable for a single tax on their income just as other citizens are, including that part of their income that comes to them through their cooperatives.
Kennedy called farmers’ marketing, purchasing, and service cooperatives “an essential part of our American system of private enterprises and as such must be given an opportunity to function effectively.”
In November of 1960, The Wisconsin REA News printed a summary of the voting records on REA/co-op issues of not only presidential nominees Kennedy and Nixon but also of their vice presidential running mates—Senator Lyndon Johnson and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., respectively. The tally showed Kennedy and Johnson with the most favorable ratings.
Kennedy appointee Orville Freeman in his post as secretary of Agriculture echoed the cooperative views of the times when, in September of 1961, he spoke to delegates of cooperatives from across the nation at the American Institute of Cooperation in Minneapolis.
“If dairy cooperatives concern themselves only with legislation affecting dairying, if cotton cooperatives consider only the cotton problem, if grain cooperatives devote themselves to grain programs, and electric cooperatives only to legislation affecting the REA—then the voices of these cooperatives will be small and fragmented and relatively ineffective as applied to the overall picture.”—Developed from a story written in 2008 by Joan Sanstadt and published in Agri-View