NOTE: Monday, Sept. 13, marks the 40th anniversary of the death of longtime Union Leader and Sunday News publisher William Loeb, whose fiery editorials and national interviews gave him and his newspaper an outsized influence on New Hampshire and U.S. politics in mid-20th century America. The following is excerpted from the new book “William Loeb and His Times” to be published later this year by Plaidswede Publishing, Concord. The author is Union Leader Editor-at-large Joseph W. McQuaid. — Editors.
On the evening before the 1960 Presidential election, one of the most consequential in a generation and among the closest in history, Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy chose to speak in downtown Manchester, N.H. He wasn’t there to attack his Republican opponent, Richard M. Nixon. He wasn’t there to win New Hampshire’s four electoral votes (he would lose them but narrowly win the election).
Against his campaign’s advice, Kennedy was in Manchester to attack the man whose newspaper offices sat just a half-block down the street from the park in which he spoke.
“I believe,’’ he told the crowd in his unmistakable Boston accent, “I believe there is probably a more irresponsible newspaper in the United States, but I can’t think of it.’’
The crowd cheered its approval.
“I believe that there is a publisher who has less regard for the truth than William Loeb, but I can’t think of his name.’’ This time, the roar was such that Kennedy had to pause.
Picking up on his theme, he referred to the handpicked candidates of “a man who lives in New Hampshire,’’ before quickly correcting himself to say, “in Massachusetts, in my own state …” and telling the crowd that “it’s time we threw them all out.’’
Kennedy was not the first national candidate, nor the last President, to find himself in Loeb’s editorial gunsights. But he may have been the first who decided to return fire rather than ignore it. In so doing, he added to the legend of a man who became a national political player despite a base of a newspaper in tiny New Hampshire.
Compared to his attacks on other candidates before Kennedy (and on JFK himself later), Loeb was mild in the run-up to the 1960 election. He repeatedly called Kennedy “soft on communism,’’ based on his Senate voting record. That had upset the Democrat; so much so that when N.H. Gov. Wesley Powell, Nixon’s state chairman, used the term, Kennedy demanded that Nixon distance himself from the remark, which Nixon did.
Loeb also published numerous page-one editorials and commentaries about the wealth of the Kennedy family, how patriarch Joe Kennedy was trying to buy the election for his son, and how the son knew nothing of the working man’s concerns because he had been born “with gold AND platinum spoons in his mouth.’’
Loeb told readers to “Beware!” of Kennedy. In part, he wrote, “We say it because this writer knows the Kennedy family personally. He and his wife have lunched at the Kennedy home in Hyannis Port. On several occasions we have dined privately with Joe Kennedy. We have gone to the theatre together. We don’t claim to be intimate with the Kennedy family, but we have had a pretty good first-hand view of the Kennedys.’’
Loeb would say later that he knew old Joe Kennedy was trying to win an endorsement for his son. Some Loeb critics would claim that Loeb turned against the Kennedys because the old man wouldn’t give Loeb a loan.
One week before the election, “Attack Kennedy for ‘Fraud’” was the headline on the lead news story from a Union Leader staff reporter. It quoted Senator Thruston Morton, chair of the Republican Party, accusing the Kennedy campaign of a dishonest television advertisement regarding medical insurance costs. No rebuttal was included, although a follow-up piece did quote Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s campaign spokesman. Salinger’s response was in fact pretty weak.
Kennedy’s election eve remarks in Manchester were the next morning’s front-page news in the statewide edition of Loeb’s “irresponsible” newspaper. Loeb’s own reaction also got play on the paper’s front page, in not one but two stories. He was quoted as saying that Kennedy was “a liar and a spoiled brat” whose “tirade indicates that Kennedy is lacking in the basic dignity we expect of a President of the United States.’’
“If he can lose his temper because a small publisher in New Hampshire dares to disagree with him,’’ said Loeb, “think of how trigger-happy this arrogant inheritor of great wealth would be if he were given the power of the White House.’’
Loeb knew something of the White House, and of inherited wealth. His father was the de facto chief of staff to President Theodore Roosevelt, who, with his second wife, Edith, would be the publisher’s godparents. Roosevelt famously railed against the “malefactors of great wealth” and was critical of inherited wealth as well. His godson would take the same stance, but it would still vex him when he didn’t inherit his father’s estate.
Kennedy’s performance may have helped fire up Democrats in traditionally Republican New Hampshire. His state loss was respectable (53 percent to 46 percent), and he won in the Union Leader’s home city and county.
Twelve years after JFK’s speech, another Democratic Presidential candidate publicly challenged Loeb in front of his newspaper. It didn’t work out so well.
Senator Edmund S. Muskie’s words were harsher than JFK’s. He called Loeb a “gutless coward” and a “liar” and dared him to come outside. But Kennedy was correct; Loeb lived in Massachusetts, and the chances of him being in his Manchester office on a snowy Saturday morning in February were nil. If Muskie was trying to emulate Kennedy, he failed. Instead, it became one of the signature political flubs in 20th-century Presidential primary history. It may also have been partly the result of a Nixon White House “dirty trick.’’
Washington Post reporter David Broder’s lead the next morning read, “With tears streaming down his face and his voice choked with emotion, Senator Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) stood in the snow outside the Manchester Union Leader this morning and accused its publisher of making vicious attacks on him and his wife, Jane.’’
“In defending his wife,’’ Broder wrote, “Muskie broke down three times in as many minutes—uttering a few words and then standing silent in the near blizzard, rubbing at his face, his shoulders heaving, while he attempted to regain his composure sufficiently to speak.’’
Loeb, reached at his Prides Crossing, Mass., home, said that Muskie’s “excited and near-hysterical” attack “again indicates he’s not the man that many of us would want to have his finger on the nuclear button.’’
Muskie would win the 1972 New Hampshire Presidential Primary, but he stumbled badly in Manchester and would lose the Democratic nomination to Sen. George McGovern.
In 1980, when Loeb successfully backed Ronald Reagan in New Hampshire, he saw a George H.W. Bush interview with the Los Angeles Times in which Bush appeared to lose his temper. Bush was Reagan’s chief Republican challenger.
Longtime Loeb readers may have recognized a familiar theme in his subsequent front-page editorial concerning Bush’s performance: “Anyone who loses his cool should never be allowed into the White House with his finger on the nuclear button!”