This is the last column gleaned from Steve Baden’s 1975 Pittsburg State M.A. thesis on D.J. ‘Joe' Saia. The text that follows is taken from Chapter 4, titled “MASTER OF HIS SITUATION.” You can download the entire thesis online at the PSU Axe Library site: https://digitalcommons.pittstate.edu/etd/133/
D. J. Saia’s involvement in the Kennedy campaign began in Kansas City, Kansas at the Townhouse Hotel in 1959, where he attended a meeting with John and Robert Kennedy about the proposed Kennedy presidential campaign in Kansas.
He’d first met Kennedy in 1956 at the national convention in Chicago where Kennedy was running for the vice-presidential nomination. Following the 1959 meeting, Saia pledged his support, which kept him in constant contact with Senator Kennedy and his staff.
The morning before the Kansas 3rd District Convention in Parsons on February 13, Edward Kennedy phoned Saia to ask him if he needed to come down to help round up support.
Joe liked to tell the story that Kennedy caught him taking a shower at 7:00 AM in the morning and, assuming it was a prank, told Edward Kennedy, “It’s funny that I never heard of you. I know a Bob Kennedy. Are you his older brother?”
After clearing up the younger Kennedy’s identity, Joe assured the him things were under control – a confidence that proved justified as all but two delegates were pledged to – or leaning toward – Kennedy.
Parsons Sun editor, Clyde Reed, gave this analysis after the district convention: “Saia, an operator from the deepest reaches of the Balkans, established himself as the district’s Democratic strong man at the expense of the Party’s state chairman and national committeeman.”
As chairman of the arrangements committee for the state Democratic convention in Hutchison, Saia arranged for both JFK and Hubert H. Humphrey to appear. Kennedy’s speech was the best received, which gave him additional delegates, but not enough for a majority.
One of the reasons Kennedy failed to gain a majority was reported by the New York Times in an interview with one of the delegates as “a pronounced opposition to Senator Kennedy because he is a Roman Catholic.”
Indeed, Joe said that, on numerous occasions, patrons of his appliance store cancelled their orders when he affirmed that he was supporting “that Catholic Kennedy.”
D.J. kept in constant contact with the Kennedy organization by mail and phone leading up to the national Democratic convention in LA. John Kennedy himself called Saia at least six times. The Kennedy momentum in Kansas increased with his success in nationwide presidential primaries.
Saia and the Kansas delegation arrived in Los Angeles on July 11 and immediately was filled with heated debate when Governor George Docking withdrew himself as a ‘favorite son’ nominee for president and requested the delegation immediately go for Kennedy, in great part because of discourse – led by Robert Kennedy – that he was in the running for Vice President.
The rebellious Kansas delegation refused to follow Docking’s lead and announced the only way Kennedy would get Kansas’ 21 votes on the first roll call was to promise the vice presidency to Docking.
This prompted Robert Kennedy to meet (standing on Joe Saia’s bed in the Alexandria Hotel) with some of the Kansas politicians … but he was unsuccessful in his pleas.
Docking tried one last appeal for Kennedy but they continued to be split. Realizing any hope for national office was now gone, Docking lost his composure and left the caucus room, saying to Ellsworth delegate Paul Aylward, “To hell with it, you take over.”
By the time the split Kansas delegation returned to the convention floor, they’d been passed over in the roll and Wyoming had put Kennedy over the top.
Realizing Kennedy had won, Aylward cast all 21 Kansas votes for Kennedy. But the vote was unimportant – Kansas had lost its chance for glory.
Saia held the view that the delegation’s actions cost Kansas a Federal Judgeship and Docking a place on the Kennedy cabinet, saying that the Kansas delegation had ‘”looked like a bunch of chumps.”
While most of the Kansas Democrats suffered in the eyes of Kennedy as a result, Saia escaped. Kennedy told Saia that he knew he’d done his part and he appreciated his efforts.
When Kennedy made a campaign appearance in Joplin, Saia sat on the platform with him. Kennedy also asked Joe to join him on his campaign swing through Kansas.
After Kennedy won, he offered Saia the position of U.S. Marshall but he turned it down. True to form, he told Steve Baden in a 1975 interview, “I realized that by my leaving I would throw the county commission into the hands of the Republicans who would put a lot of people out of work, and I felt that I was duty bound to not let my voters down.”