August 19, 2005
By Jerry Kopel
This is a testimonial for Joe Dolan, age 83 or 84, and politician extraordinary.
For Coloradoans under the age of 50, the name might not be familiar, but former state legislator Joe Dolan played a critical role in the political lives of John Kennedy and especially Robert Kennedy.
If Robert Kennedy had lived and been elected president, Joe Dolan would have held a major position at the White House during those presidential years, perhaps as chief of staff.
You won't read a book about Robert Kennedy without finding pages of information relating to Joe Dolan. I finally read "Mutual Contempt" the 1997 book by Jeff Shesol about (states the cover) "Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the feud that defined a decade."
Joe Dolan became a lawyer in 1949. He started in Colorado politics at the bottom as a committeeman, rising to Denver Young Dems president in 1955 and assistant to Sen. John Kennedy in 1956.
In 1958 Dolan ran for, and was elected as a state representative from Denver. He ran and won again in 1960, the year John Kennedy was elected president. Joe resigned from the legislature on Jan. 23, 1961 to accept a position with Robert Kennedy at the U.S. Attorney General's office in Washington.
At least one book on Robert Kennedy credits Joe Dolan and Byron White with leading a successful delegate campaign for John Kennedy at the 1960 state convention.
In 1956 Joe was Denver campaign coordinator for Charles Brannan, former Agriculture Secretary under President Truman, who was running in the U.S. Senate primary against John Carroll. Joe entered that campaign late.
Carroll won the Senate primary 62,688 to 60,701. In Denver, Brannan lost 22,107 to 27,379. Carroll had been Denver's congressman, but not at the time of the primary. Carroll went on to win the open Senate seat.
Joe was an able state legislator. I was a bill drafter for the legislature in 1959 and the state Supreme Court law library was located in the second floor space now occupied by the minority House and Senate members. Legislators at that time had no separate offices, and I often found Joe sitting at a library table pouring over statute books.
Dolan served as Robert Kennedy's assistant deputy attorney general from 1961-1964, assigned primarily to scout, find, or review potential candidates for federal judgeships.
When President Johnson made it clear to Robert Kennedy that he would not be Johnson's vice presidential nominee in 1964, Kennedy ran and won the U.S. Senate seat from New York. Joe Dolan was Kennedy's top assistant, running a staff of 80, and Dolan played a prominent role in persuading Kennedy to run for president in 1968.
Joe ran for the U.S. Senate from Colorado in 1974, but did not make the cut for the Democratic primary that was won by Gary Hart who went on to become U.S. Senator.
The story, in Mutual Contempt, sometimes affirmed and sometimes denied, is that John Kennedy offered Lyndon Johnson the vice presidential nomination, assuming Johnson as total boss of the U.S. Senate would turn it down as beneath his status. But Johnson accepted and later turned down Robert Kennedy's attempt to persuade him to withdraw.
In the summary chapter of Mutual Contempt, Shesol writes "LBJ sought men's vulnerabilities and in Kennedy he found none. Kennedy was not susceptible to Johnson's charm, flattery, or intimidation. Kennedy did not fear Johnson - - Johnson feared Kennedy and hated him for it.
"It was in fact not hatred but fear of Kennedy that defined Johnson's often phobic presidency. LBJ's feeling of political illegitimacy, virtual paranoia, self-pity, his willful blindness - - Kennedy brought Johnson's deepest fears and most self-destructive tendencies to the surface.
"It was as if he was created to remind Johnson that his political hold was never secure, his claim to the presidency was never legitimate, and his place in history was never assured. As Bobby came to embody Johnson's worst fears, Bobby himself became Johnson's worst fear.
"What began as bad chemistry came to represent all the forces that brought Johnson's downfall. The great irony of Johnson's presidency is that by antagonizing Kennedy needlessly, by twisting the knife, Johnson pushed Kennedy inexorably toward the one thing Johnson feared most: A challenge in 1968."
Joe Dolan and Robert Kennedy were very close. They were so close that they could exchange thoughts, according to one book, by merely a look at a face or a hand. Dolan hated Johnson. According to Shesol, under a picture of Dolan in Mutual Contempt, the cutline reads "LBJ was simply that son-of-a-bitch."
Kennedy once described Dolan as "a completely disguised intellectual -- the further you push, the more you realize there is, and the more you realize you will never hit bottom."
If Kennedy was going to oppose continuation of the Vietnam war and if he was going to really consider running for president, he would take advice from Joe Dolan very seriously. LBJ would do whatever was within his power to oppose Kennedy's positions, and Kennedy's positions almost always came into play after meeting with his top aide, Joe Dolan.
Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.
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