Opinion > op/ed

Kennedy aide bridged gap

between politicians, press

Jules Witcover

Originally published Jun 29, 2005

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover


Behind-the-scenes adviser knew the fun of politics
Published Thursday, July 7, 2005

Fred Dutton, the all-around adviser and strategist for leading Democrats since the Kennedy era who passed away last month at 82, was a rare breed. He walked comfortably and influentially among two customary adversaries - politicians and the press.

Dutton combined a keen knowledge of the inside workings of Washington with an optimistic, jovial personality that made him a valued counselor to such varied figures as the Kennedy brothers and, in more recent years, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States.

At the same time, Dutton had a wide circle of friends in the Washington press corps with whom he had an easy and mutually beneficial relationship in exchanging information and analyses of the events of the day.

Parties at the home of Dutton and his lawyer-partner wife, Nancy, were eclectic affairs that brought ranking politicians and other Washington insiders together with reporters, editors and columnists, often yielding grist for the next day’s news and commentary in leading journals.

Dutton was one of those most valued sources to whom you could go with confidence, not only for information but also for guidance on the dependability of stories floating about that could make you look good, if true, or leave you with egg on your face, if false or inaccurate.

Dutton first gained political prominence as a campaign manager for Adlai Stevenson’s second presidential bid in 1956 in California, after which he ran Pat Brown’s successful campaign for governor and then served as his chief of staff in Sacramento.

He worked for the election of President John Kennedy in 1960 and was brought to Washington by him, serving as his Cabinet secretary and then assistant as secretary of state for congressional relations, a job he continued under President Lyndon Johnson.

I first met Dutton when he was Sen. Robert Kennedy’s closest political adviser in his brief and dramatic presidential bid of 1968. In that frenzied campaign that ended in tragedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles minutes after Kennedy had won the California Democratic primary, Dutton was constantly at his side, offering the candidate much more than political advice.

Kennedy aides in that campaign were always required to function as crowd controllers, as enthusiastic followers endlessly sought to touch the candidate and grab articles of his clothing as souvenirs. On one California swing, Kennedy lost his shoes in the crush, and Dutton took off his own and gave them to the candidate. The mischievous RFK, in acknowledging the support of the assembled politicians at the next stop, blurted out to the perplexed crowd: "And I want to thank Fred Dutton for his shoes!"

Dutton was born in the small frontier town of Julesburg, Colo., and during one whistle-stop swing, the train suddenly stopped there, although Kennedy wasn’t scheduled to speak. The candidate and entourage jumped off waving hand-made Dutton signs and held an impromptu rally for a grinning Fred, who did an imitation of RFK in a speech promising to "do better" and to "turn this country around." Mirth was always a constant companion of the man from Julesburg.

Dutton also was a key adviser in Sen. George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, after which he converted his public-service role to more lucrative employment as an adviser to Mobil Oil. He helped to burnish its image with sponsorship of a series of widely broadcast National Town Meeting forums at the Kennedy Center from 1974 to 1981.

In a city laden with men and women on the make for celebrity, Dutton chose to keep out of the limelight, functioning in the fashion of other highly influential Democratic figures such as the late Clark Clifford and Lloyd Cutler but usually with more of the merriment that was his trademark.

Dutton combined the political skills and winning manner that would have made him an ideal candidate for public office, but he never chose to seek it. Behind the scenes, he probably accomplished more than most politicians who in their lifetimes did vie for public notoriety and acclaim, and he seemed always more content with that most constructive and joyful role.


Jules Witcover is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.