JFK and the Co-op ConnectionBy Steven Johnson | ECT Staff Writer Published: November 19th, 2013
NRECA General Manager Clyde T. Ellis was already looking forward to President John F. Kennedy’s second term when he accepted a presidential adviser’s invitation to sort through rural issues over lunch at the White House.
Ellis had forged a close bond with Kennedy and eagerly marked the date on his calendar—Nov. 25, 1963.
Instead of dining at the White House that day, Ellis was one of millions of mourners who watched Kennedy’s funeral cortege pass through the streets of Washington, D.C. “From where we sit in this great rural electrification crusade, we say to the memory of President John F. Kennedy, our very dear personal friend and friend of the program, ‘Well done, and thank you,’” Ellis reflected a few weeks later.
On the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, it’s important to realize that his administration was about more than charm, the Cold War and a dreadful day in Dallas, said Ted Case, author of Power Plays, a book about presidents and electric co-ops.
“My research showed an amazing relationship between Kennedy and electric cooperatives,” said Case, executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “Being from Boston, you would not think of him as a natural fit for co-ops, but when he got on board, he did so in a huge way.”
Kennedy first reached out to Ellis while he was a U.S. senator. In 1958, Kennedy addressed an NRECA regional meeting in Burlington, Vt., and wowed the NRECA annual meeting the next year when he went on stage after President Eisenhower, who sought to raise Rural Electrification Administration loan rates.
“Whereas Ike got one applause when he went in—I walked in with him—and one when he was introduced … and one at the end when he left, I think it was eighteen applauses Kennedy got in his address besides at his introduction,” Ellis recalled in an oral history for the JFK library.
As president, Kennedy routinely hosted Ellis and co-op representatives in the White House. In the week after the Cuban Missile Crisis, he oversaw the November 1962 agreement between NRECA and the U.S. Agency for International Development that has used the electric co-op model to bring electricity to more than 100 million people worldwide.
“He believed that if you could establish democratic institutions in Latin America, you could stop another Cuba,” Case noted. “It’s been a huge success story and I think’s something he would be very pleased with 50 years later.”
During his term, Kennedy eloquently advocated for hydropower development, loosened REA operating policies and dispatched an aide as a personal emissary to electric co-ops. Other co-op priorities were stuck in the pipeline, though, partly because of bureaucratic foot-dragging and partly because Kennedy’s presidency was so brief.
On Sept. 23, 1963, Ellis told Kennedy about the enthusiastic response to electrification at organizational meetings in Latin America. “He would just go wild over these programs,” Ellis said. It was the last time he met with Kennedy at the White House.
Case believes the relationship between Kennedy and electric co-ops holds lessons for today.
“What Kennedy shows is that politicians can evolve and become great supporters of our program. It is an education and if we rely only on rural legislators, we will fail because there is not enough of them,” Case said. “We need to focus on the urban legislators who might not have co-ops in their districts. It happened with John Kennedy.”