Tags: vincent celeste | obituary | john kennedy | opponent

Vincent J. Celeste: JFK's '58 Opponent, But Much More Than That

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Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 10:07 PM Current | Bio | Archive

When Boston attorney Vincent J. Celeste died on January 26, obituaries in the "Boston Globe" and other Massachusetts news outlets recalled him primarily as the losing Republican candidate against Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1958.

At the height of his popularity, JFK trounced Republican Celeste by the largest margin in the history of popular election of senators in Massachusetts up to that point and, of course, went on to be president two years later.

For his role in the life of the 35th president, Celeste is mentioned in every biography of Kennedy, most recently in Robert Dallek’s much-praised "An Unfinished Life" and the autobiography of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (who managed his brother’s winning race against Celeste in ’58 and won JFK’s former Senate seat in '62).

But, to those who knew him in state and national political circles, "Vinnie" Celeste (who was 90 at the time of his death) was a lot more than just "Kennedy’s opponent" and by no means a political "sacrificial lamb." A graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, the young Celeste had his own ship torpedoed out from under him off the coast of Aruba.

Following his discharge, he earned a degree from Suffolk Law School and later served as secretary (chief of staff) to Republican Gov. Christian A. Herter from 1952-56.

Celeste also launched a thriving law practice, its best-known client being heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano.

Well aware that Marciano was Celeste’s client and friend, Kennedy nonetheless asked the "Brockton Bomber" to march with him in Boston’s Columbus Day parade as he sought re-election in 1958. As Celeste recalled to this reporter, "Rocky called and told me he was getting subtle threats that some of his business and promotional deals were not going to come through if he didn't march with Jack. I told him I would never come between something that would provide for his wife and little girl and to do what he had to do. He said he'd think it over for a few days."

He did. A few days later, Celeste recalled, Marciano told Celeste that "Jack's people had called and asked if he was going to march with the senator. Marciano told them, 'I'd die first.'"

"Good old Rocky!," beamed Celeste.

Celeste’s link to John Kennedy began in 1949, when then-Rep. Kennedy addressed the Mercury Social Club in Boston. Celeste, who was a member, asked him about the future of the Merchant Marine.

"There was a lot of talk after the war about scrapping the Merchant Marine," Celeste told this reporter, "and I was worried about. Kennedy began to answer me and, after a few minutes, it became clear he didn’t know what he was talking about."

A year later, Celeste grew more concerned that the congressman he considered a lightweight was preparing to run for the Senate in a few years. Celeste decided to carry the Republican banner against Kennedy. Denouncing the Truman administration’s spending excesses and conduct of the Korean War, Celeste managed 30,000 votes—the best showing against Kennedy but not even close in the heavily Democratic 8th District.

Kennedy did go on to unseat Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge in one of the biggest upsets anywhere in 1952. Six years later, he was considered both a cinch for re-election and the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president in 1960. Celeste once again got in the picture by deciding to seek the Republican nomination for the Senate.

"All this stuff about me being a `sacrificial lamb' that has since appeared in the Kennedy biographies was baloney," Celeste said later, "Goodness, I had to fight for and win the Senate nomination against John Ames [scion of a wealthy and socially prominent family with Massachusetts roots back to the 18th Century]. And I had a lot of offers of substantial help for the campaign."

Fluent in Italian, Spanish, and French ("and my English was pretty good"), Celeste spoke to any group that would have him and hammered at Kennedy’s absenteeism from the Senate and using his office as a stepping-stone to the presidency. Massachusetts voters seemed content to have a native seeking the highest office and Kennedy won a resounding re-election.

Vinnie Celeste, while never holding office, remained active in Republican politics and was always ready to help other candidates. He sought his party’s nomination for state attorney general in 1970, but lost at the state convention to Donald Conn, famed as prosecutor of the "Boston Strangler." In ’08, he was an early backer of Rudy Giuliani’s bid for the Republican nomination.

"And when Dad spent winters here, he went to all the Republican events with my wife and me," son James Celeste of Kissimmee, Florida told Newsmax, "He got to know [Florida Sen.] Marco Rubio, who would sit down with him and ask about his race against Kennedy. Sen. Rubio has this quality of being able to touch and motivate people—just like Dad."

One interesting fact of his life that Celeste shared with this reporter was that, for all his being tied to John Kennedy, the Democrat whose debating skills were considered key to his election as president never once debated Celeste in their two races against one another. In fact, they never met after that one encounter at the Mercury Social Club. As Celeste said with a laugh, "Maybe I scared him with my question that night."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.


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When Boston attorney Vincent J. Celeste died on January 26, obituaries in the "Boston Globe" and other Massachusetts news outlets recalled him primarily as the losing Republican candidate against Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1958.
vincent celeste, obituary, john kennedy, opponent
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Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 10:07 PM
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