Kenneth O'Donnell

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Kenny O'Donnell
Kenny O'Donnell.jpg
White House Appointments Secretary
In office
January 20, 1961 – November 22, 1963
President John F. Kennedy
Preceded by

Wilton Persons
as 3rd White House Chief of Staff

Thomas E. Stephens
as Appointments Secretary
Succeeded by W. Marvin Watson
Personal details
Born Patrick Kenneth O'Donnell
(1924-03-04)March 4, 1924
Worcester, Massachusetts, United States
Died September 9, 1977(1977-09-09) (aged 53)
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Occupation Politician

Kenneth Patrick "Kenny" O'Donnell[1] (March 4, 1924 – September 9, 1977) was a top aide to U.S. President John F. Kennedy and part of the group of Kennedy's close advisors called the "Irish Mafia". He served as organizer and director of Kennedy's presidential campaign schedule in 1960, as Kennedy's special assistant and appointments secretary 1961–1963, as Lyndon Johnson's Presidential Aide 1963–1965, and as campaign manager for Robert Kennedy in the 1968 presidential election campaign and, after Kennedy's assassination, for Hubert Humphrey.

Early life[edit]

Kenneth Patrick O'Donnell was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. His father, Cleo O'Donnell, was the football coach for the Holy Cross Crusaders football team for two decades and later athletics director for all sports activities at the College of the Holy Cross. O'Donnell had an older brother, Cleo, who was a football star at Harvard during the 1940s.[2]

During World War II O'Donnell served in the US Army Air Corps (1942–1945). After completing his service in the AAC, he studied at Harvard College 1946–1949. It was at Harvard that O'Donnell met Robert Kennedy, where they were roommates[3] as well as teammates on the Harvard football team; O'Donnell became team captain in 1948. O'Donnell and Robert Kennedy remained close friends until the latter's assassination in 1968.[4]

While at Harvard, O'Donnell married his wife, Helen, in 1947.[2] They had five children, among them entrepreneur Kevin M. O'Donnell – in 1950 – and writer Helen O'Donnell – in 1962. Following graduation from Harvard, O'Donnell attended law school at Boston College from 1950–51. He later worked as a salesman for the Hollingsworth & Vose Paper Company and then the Whitney Corporation, both in Boston, from 1951–52. O'Donnell later worked in public relations from 1952–57.[3]


O'Donnell's friendship with Bobby Kennedy found him involved with the Kennedy family's political career already in 1946, when Bobby enlisted him to work for John F. Kennedy’s first congressional campaign,[3] and in 1952 the two campaigned together to get JFK elected to the United States Senate.[4] O'Donnell then went on to serve as JFK’s unpaid political observer in Massachusetts,[3] until he in 1957 was employed as assistant counsel of the 1957–59 Senate Labor Rackets Committee by Robert Kennedy, who had been appointed chief counsel of the committee.[4]

In 1958, O'Donnell became a member of JFK’s staff, and in 1960 he was the organizer and director of John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign schedule.[3] The following year he became Kennedy's special assistant and Appointments Secretary.

O'Donnell unofficially advised Kennedy during the planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion as well as during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.[3]

He arranged JFK's trip to Dallas in November 1963, and was in a car just behind the president's when Kennedy was assassinated. It was an enormous blow to O'Donnell, who long blamed himself for the death of the president.[4]

After having served as a Presidential Aide to Lyndon Johnson until 1965,[3] O'Donnell tried to win the Democratic nomination for the election for Massachusetts Governor in 1966, losing by only 64,000 votes to Edward McCormack, which was much less than the polls had predicted.[4] In 1968, he served as campaign manager for Robert Kennedy, when Kennedy challenged President Johnson for renomination.[4]

Following Robert Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, which was an even worse blow to O'Donnell than the assassination of JFK five years earlier,[4] he joined, as did many others in Kennedy's campaign, Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign, serving as campaign manager for Humphrey.[3]

In 1970, he made another attempt to win the Democratic nomination for the election for Massachusetts Governor, but finished fourth in a primary field of four Democrats, with just 9 percent of the vote.[4]

O'Donnell and David Powers co-authored "Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye": Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1972). ISBN 0-316-71625-1

Personal life and death[edit]

The combination of personal electoral disappointments and the assassinations of his two best friends drove him to increasing levels of alcoholism. He was hospitalized August 11, 1977 for a gastrointestinal ailment brought on from the effects of alcoholism. He died on September 9, 1977, just months after his wife Helen.[4]



In his biography With Kennedy (1966), Pierre Salinger writes:


In his autobiography Counselor, Ted Sorensen (who served as special counsel to President Kennedy) claims that O'Donnell polarized the JFK staff into the professional "politicians" and the academicians (such as Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger). Sorensen also claims that O'Donnell's antipathy towards him ran so deep that in 1976/77 he worked to derail Sorensen's nomination as Director of Central Intelligence for Jimmy Carter.[citation needed]

Dramatic representations[edit]


  • O'Donnell, Helen (1998). A Common Good: The Friendship of Robert F. Kennedy and Kenneth P. O'Donnell. William Morrow & Co. ISBN 978-0-688-14861-4.  (O’Donnell's daughter, freelance writer Helen O’Donnell, wrote this memoir of her father and his close friendship with Bobby Kennedy.)


  1. ^ "Kenneth Patrick O'Donnell." Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 10: 1976–1980. Charles Scribner's Sons. 1995. 
  2. ^ a b "O'Donnell Leads '48 Football Team-Varsity Chooses Brother of Cleo". The Harvard Crimson. November 26, 1947. Retrieved October 19, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "Kenneth P. O'Donnell biography". John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum. Retrieved October 19, 2012. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Washington Post: Political Junkie, January 26, 2001 Retrieved 2010-02-26
  5. ^ This portrayal of O'Donnell as a major figure in the Cuban Missile Crisis has been disputed by several surviving Kennedy administration members and historians; see: Nelson, Michael, Political Science Professor, Rhodes College (February 2, 2001). "Thirteen Days' Doesn't Add Up". The Chronicle Review. Chronicle of Higher Education. pp. B15. Retrieved April 29, 2010. ; and Thirteen Days. - PBS.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Thomas E. Stephens
White House Appointments Secretary
Served under: John F. Kennedy

Succeeded by
W. Marvin Watson