“President Kennedy has just been shot in Dallas,” she said.
She and Patterson turned on the television set.
“For the rest of the day we were all there watching that television, the whole rest of the day,” Patterson says. “Terrible thing. Not only was it a bad thing, but I lost a real friend.”
The unlikely bond between Patterson, a Southern populist, and John F. Kennedy, a northern liberal, as well as Patterson’s troubled relationship with the President’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, is one of the compelling stories found inNobody But the People: The life and times of Alabama’s youngest governor, a biography of Patterson by Warren Trest, published by New South Books. Patterson and Trest were in Birmingham recently for a book signing at The Alabama Booksmith.
Nobody But the People covers Patterson’s upbringing in rural Tallapoosa County, his service in World War II, and his law practice in Phenix City with his father Albert, a WWI hero and inveterate Democratic politician.
Albert Patterson was murdered in 1954 – his punishment for trying to help clean up Phenix City, a center for gambling and prostitution. An angry, grieving John Patterson won election that same year as state attorney general and fought to bring his father's killers to justice.
Paterson became governor in 1958, defeating George Wallace. The new governor fought for clean government, poured money into roads and schools, and dramatically increased old-age pensions. However, Patterson’s national reputation was damaged — and his relationship with the Kennedys strained — by the violent confrontations related to the Civil Rights movement that occurred in Alabama on his watch.
He approved the participation of the Alabama Air National Guard in what was meant to be a non-combat role in the CIA's planned invasion of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, only to later mourn the loss of four Alabama airmen at the Bay of Pigs.
Patterson did not run for re-election in 1962 because at the time, state law prohibited governors from serving consecutive terms. George Wallace became governor in 1962, and in 1966, Patterson lost his bid for a second term to Lurleen Wallace, wife of George Wallace.
In 1984, he became a judge with the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, where he spent what he calls “21 of the best years of my whole life.”
Trest began researching Patterson while writing a book about the Bay of Pigs.
“I started realizing that there’s so much drama in this man’s life, that somebody was slipping up badly by not having done a full-fledged biography,” Trest says.
Patterson’s relationship with the Kennedys is particularly compelling. Patterson had read John Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage, before he met the young Massachusetts senator in Birmingham in 1957.
“He was quite knowledgeable about me, and how I happened to be attorney general and so forth, and then he asked me to come by his office and see him when I was in Washington,” Patterson says.
Patterson accepted Kennedy’s invitation and later visited JFK not just at his office but at his home in Georgetown. The two men became friends, and Patterson was convinced that the senator was destined to become president. Patterson agreed to support Kennedy’s bid for the Democratic nomination in 1960. He was shocked at how much criticism he received in Alabama — even from his own Methodist minister — for supporting a Catholic. “I grew up in a home in which there was no anti-racial feeling, or anti-Semitic feeling, or anything like that, anti-Catholic feeling,” Patterson says.
Patterson persisted in his support of Kennedy. He went to the Democratic convention in Los Angeles in 1960 and managed to deliver about half of the Alabama delegates to Kennedy, who was locked in a tight battle for the nomination with Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. He loaned the campaign some of his own talented publicity people. He helped raise money.
Patterson also tipped off Kennedy about the CIA’s planned Cuban invasion during a secret meeting at the Barclay Hotel in New York in the fall of 1960. Patterson had learned of the operation when Gen. Reid Doster of the Alabama Air National Guard and a CIA agent visited Patterson and asked for his permission to use the Guard in training Cuban pilots.
“I believed that this thing was going to be pulled off any morning before the election,” Patterson says. “I had been told by Doster that it was a cinch.” He was concerned that a successful invasion would ensure the election of the Republican nominee, Vice-President Richard Nixon.
According to Patterson, he told Kennedy about the planned operation and warned him not to say anything about it.
“There’s a lot of people down there who might get killed as a result of this thing,” he told Kennedy. He suggested that Kennedy needed to be prepared in case it happened.
“I watched him very carefully, but I couldn’t read anything in his face at all,” Patterson remembers. According to Patterson, he has since learned from the book The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh, that Kennedy had not been briefed on the invasion.
“That was news to him, but he didn’t let on one bit that it surprised him,” Patterson says.
As it turned out, President Kennedy inherited the invasion plan from President Eisenhower and saw it fail miserably in April 1961. Patterson describes a luncheon he attended at the White House after the Bay of Pigs and the way in which Kennedy expressed his sadness over the four Alabama airmen who were killed. “He said, ‘I hope that I live long enough to do something to recognize what those boys did from Alabama who lost their lives in that Bay of Pigs thing,’” Patterson recalls.
The relationship between Patterson and the Kennedys was effectively ended by their disagreements over how to handle the violence in Alabama connected with the Freedom Riders, a group of activists who were protesting segregation on interstate buses in the South.
“I thought that he and his brother were more concerned with their political survival than they were in anything else, including their friends,” Patterson says. “I understand that you can’t have friends in politics, and it’s not a good thing to have friends when you’re president, and you can’t be bound by friendship when you’re getting ready to do your duty and everything, but I didn’t think that they treated me right in the Freedom Rider thing.”
Patterson grew more disillusioned later after hearing rumors that the Kennedys had made a deal with organized crime. “When I found out that the President and his brother had made an agreement with Mafia figures in Chicago to assassinate Castro and, if they succeeded, in return they were to get their gambling casinos back in Havana, I begin to lose interest in those two fellows. I didn’t like that one damn bit.”
Patterson did not like Bobby Kennedy. “Bobby was just a cold-blooded fellow, and I don’t think he had any loyalty in him to anybody, just personal ambition,” he says. “Not so much with John F. as with Robert. Robert was as mean as a snake.”
How did Patterson feel about RFK’s run for the Democratic nomination for president in 1968? “I was never a supporter of his, in any way, and I wouldn’t have supported him,” he says. “I just didn’t personally like him, and I didn’t trust him.”
Patterson always liked John F. Kennedy, however. “He was just a typical guy,” Patterson says. “He was humorous. He was great company. He was just a regular guy to be with.”
The former governor believes that his friendship with JFK went deeper than mere good times. “I knew that he trusted me,” he says. “He would tell me things that he wouldn’t tell anybody if he didn’t trust them. I knew about some of his activities with girls and so forth, but I never told it, and he knew that I wouldn’t tell.”
“He deserved a better fate,” Patterson says. “He really did.”