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Some thoughts on PRIMARY

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I posted an item on Facebook about JFK's birthday (May 29; he would have been 104) and commented

on the landmark documentary PRIMARY. I was an extra in that film while

serving as a volunteer in JFK's 1960 Wisconsin presidential primary campaign.

I mentioned the climactic rally of the campaign that I attended in Milwaukee on April 3, 1960,

was the moment when politics in America irretrievably blended with

show business, for better and worse.

My friend and fellow film critic Fred Camper posted this: 

Hmm, as someone who is there and who knows cinema and the film "Primary" well, any comments on the film? Objectivity? Is Jackie seen more than Mrs. Humphrey because she was more present in the campaign, for example? In other word, to elements of the film that might read as bias simply reflect the nature of both campaigns?

And I responded:

I don't believe in the concept of "objectivity," and I don't think the filmmakers do either. Do you? PRIMARY clearly shows admiration for Kennedy and pity for Humphrey. Ricky Leacock and I did a q&a on the film. He said that aside from Robert Drew, who initiated the project and was a Kennedy admirer (his talking Kennedy into doing it, which made it happen), the other filmmakers tended to be on Humphrey's side at the beginning, because they were leftists or liberals and suspected Kennedy's liberal bona fides (as did Eleanor Roosevelt, for example). But as the filming progressed, the filmmakers all became enamored of Kennedy and disenchanted with Humphrey, as the film shows in many ways. This mirrors the attitude of many voters (Kennedy carried the Milwaukee and Madison city areas, though he lost many rural areas; Kennedy only won six of ten districts, which disappointed him and made him believe the primary was inconclusive). Democrats in Wisconsin had regarded HHH as our "third senator," since we had two Republican senators for a long time (including Joe McCarthy), and we would go to Humphrey next door for help. But my mother, Marian McBride, who became state vice chairman the following year, and state chairman Pat Lucey came out early for Kennedy, and Kennedy proved more dynamic and appealing in the campaign. Kennedy told Lucey after the election that he would not have become president except for his support in helping win the Wisconsin primary, which if he lost (as he says in the film) would have ruined his chances. Humphrey in the film comes off like an oldtime pol, pathetically begging for votes like Willy Loman and speaking down to the voters, while Kennedy comes off as a glamorous rock star. He had a "cool" style that seemed somewhat detached from the undignified aspects of campaigning, which appealed to me in contrast not only to Humphrey but also to Nixon and Eisenhower (Kennedy, for example, made a point of never waving his hands over head as Nixon and Ike liked to do and which Kennedy found vulgar). I also found it impressive that Kennedy talked about foreign policy while Humphrey talked about local issues more, for example. I should have been more attentive to farm issues, which Humphrey talked a lot about, but those left me cold at the time, since I was from a city. Kennedy seemed to treat the voters with more intellectual respect .I liked how Kennedy talked fast and was so intelligent; Humphrey came off as plodding. The way Kennedy is shot from low ("heroic") angles and with crowds of kids chasing him around, and with attractive women intercut smiling at him, reflects how the filmmakers saw him. Leacock told me when they cut the film in a Minneapolis hotel room, they make a point of finding shots of pretty young women to show them looking admiringly at Kennedy. Jacqueline Kennedy comes off as glamorous, though one of the best shots in the film is of her white-gloved hands nervously twisting behind her back as she speaks to the big crowd. She hated campaigning. Leacock asked her how she felt about it, and she said, "How would you like to smile a thousand times a day?" He said she would often sit in a corner, aloof, reading Proust or the memoirs of Saint-Simon in French. Muriel Humphrey could not complete with Jacqueline's glamour. The ending shot of a Model T Ford driving away with a Humphrey sign as his blaring campaign song plays is emblematic. I find the penultimate sequence of him exiting the Milwaukee Journal lobby in defeat (with the song beginning to play) quite poignant. I spent many days walking through that lobby to go visit my Dad at work after I finished school.
Edited by Joseph McBride
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I took a closeup photograph (too large to post here, unforunately) as JFK shook hands and signed autographs

after his April 3 speech. I blew off a flashbulb in my Brownie camera

three feet from his face, which is why the photo is out of focus.

I was immediately embarrassed as he flinched but quickly recovered

and smiled. That and my close contact with him at a small rally

four days before, "Kids for Kennedy" in Wauwatosa, which my

mother arranged, made me aware of his vulnerability and led me

to write a short story about his assassination, "The Plot Against

a Country," in October 1961 for my freshman English class at Marquette

University High School. 

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And more from Fred Camper:


Joseph, thank you very much. 
I don't believe in some "objective" concept of "objectivity," in film or anywhere else, but I don't think it's an irrelevant question either. In a way you verified that; looking for pretty young woman to edit in while they looked at Kennedy would certainly be the opposite of any reasonable idea of objective balance. The low angles, which I remember well, would be another example. There are one or two cuts in the film that might be the opposite too, such as from an uninspired Humphrey to Kennedy talking in grand terms about the free world, or something like that. I certainly remember the white gloves shot, a good inclusion in that it shows Jackie as less than perfect. I do agree with your descriptions of how the candidates and their wives come across in the film.
I asked partly because I have used this film often in classes, and thought it would be great to have the testimony of a cinema expert who was also there at the time, and admired one of the film's subjects in a significant way. Some of your information will doubtless make its way into future classes.
I was 12 in 1960, but very aware of politics. I certainly wanted Kennedy to win over Nixon. I remember the Wisconsin primary being considered crucial for Kennedy. 
Some moments of the film are going to seem obscure to most today. When Humphrey talks about the contempt of people in big cities for concerns of farmers, I assume he is really talking about keeping food prices high via government mandated price supports? That would be a way of describing the policy that might not seem so appealing to city dwellers, if they understood what was involved. 
Thanks again for writing.
And my reply to the above:

 Thanks, Fred, good thoughts. I think a documentary or a book is better when it has a strong point of view. But as I tell students, in the law there is no such a thing as a right or wrong opinion; what counts is how you back it up and prove it. PRIMARY gathered its POV empirically and then was more and more shot and edited to support the POV the filmmakers discovered. Watch the series of shots of the particularly attractive young woman advancing in the line toward Kennedy flirtatiously, and seemingly intelligently, intercut as he shakes hands. I couple PRIMARY with Norman Mailer's insightful November 1960 article from Esquire about Kennedy having movie-star appeal, although in truth TR was the first move-star president, and JFK was the first TV-star presdent. But Mailer's point was that we were electing an actor in the role, which would have a profound effect on his presidency and our politics, as it did. There is a particularly abrupt jump cut you may be referring to from Humphrey on TV talking about farm issues to JFK talking about foreign policy, which conveys what I felt about Kennedy talking straight to us about the big issues. And his climactic, often-quoted speech is about the central role of the president in world affairs; Leacock later observed that it in retrospect he was declaring war in Vietnam, though that went over my head at the time. Yes, government price supports for farmers was a big issue at the time that I should have cared about more than I did, though Humphrey seems patronizing when he talks about it, and his rural listeners seem less than enthralled by his rhetoric. It's revealing when he complains about the coverage Kennedy is getting in the national media and about the Kennedy money machine.

Edited by Joseph McBride
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