How John F. Kennedy Fell for the Lost Cause

John F. Kennedy took George Plimpton by surprise after a dinner party one evening when he pulled his friend aside for a word in the Oval Office. The president had Reconstruction on his mind—really, though, he wanted to discuss Plimpton’s grandmother.

Plimpton was lanky and lordly, famous for his patrician accent and his forays into professional sports. The Paris Review founder did everything and knew everyone. He might edit literary criticism one day and try his hand at football or boxing the next. Plimpton had known Jackie Kennedy for years, and he had been friends with Robert F. Kennedy since their Harvard days.

He also had another, and very different, Kennedy connection. Plimpton’s great-grandfather Adelbert Ames, a New Englander, had been a Civil War general and Mississippi governor during Reconstruction. He was an ardent supporter of Black suffrage. Kennedy had soiled Ames’s reputation in his best-selling 1956 book, Profiles in Courage, which had won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography the following year. The book ushered the junior senator from Massachusetts onto the national stage, effectively launching his bid for the presidency.