President Nile Kinnick? It’s not so far-fetched.

New Iowa-produced documentary ‘Kinnick’ reignites speculation on a promising life cut short

September 1, 2022 8:00 am

Nile Kinnick poses with the Heisman Trophy in 1939. (Photo credit: Nile C. Kinnick Papers, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.It is, of course, a canyon leap to project greatness onto an unfinished life.

Or a developing one for that matter.

The mouth of the funnel for leaders, men and women of consequence and distinction, is large, and few end up making through, University of Iowa history professor David Shoenbaum told me several years ago.

All of this said, it is impossible to read the diary and the letters of the iconic Nile Kinnick and not dive into speculation about what the future may have held for this Heisman Trophy-winning scholar, this grandson of a former Iowa governor, had he not died June 2, 1943, at age 24, piloting a Navy plane on a training exercise in Venezuela.

These instincts, historical speculation, came racing back Wednesday night when I attended the premiere of the riveting 92-minute documentary, “Kinnick,” a Goldfinch Films movie. It was  executive-produced and narrated by actor and radio and television personality Scott Siepker of Des Moines, a native of Carroll County’s Mount Carmel who is also known as “The Iowa Nice Guy.” The movie is showing at The Palms Theatres & IMAX in Waukee and other Iowa locations, and it available for purchase online through Vimeo.

Siepker and his partners in the project spent the better part of a decade plumbing documents and diaries and interviewing people with ties to Kinnick.

Filmmaker Scott Siepker and his team worked on the documentary “Kinnick” for the better part of a decade. (Photo by Douglas Burns)

The movie is a celebration of a short, brilliant life — and a painful obituary of lost potential. Kinnick clearly had the character and strength of mind to back up his burning political ambitions — a blend Siepker saw over and over and over in the years of research and filmmaking.

“If he doesn’t die in the training accident, he still has to get through the Pacific Theater,” Siepker said in an interview Aug. 24. “If that happens, I really don’t think it’s an overstatement or hyperbole in any way to say that his floor was U.S. senator from Iowa. And his ceiling is president of the United States  — and how different this world is if the darling of the Republican Party in 1960 or 1964 or 1968 is not Richard Nixon, but is instead Nile Kinnick.”

Imagine how Vietnam would have been handled differently, Siepker said.

“I can guarantee we would not have had a Watergate,” Siepker said. “This country and the world really lost a lot when Nile perished.”

By definition, diaries are written for posterity, but Kinnick consistently commits thoughts to paper as if he expects the words to be archived later, perhaps as part of the biographical back-build to a governor’s library or dare one suggest even a presidential center.

In his book, “Bernie Saggau & The Iowa Boys: The Centennial History of the Iowa High School Athletic Association,” writer Chuck Offenburger takes readers through the rise of one of the great amateur sports institutions in the nation. The 2-pound book, a veritable encyclopedia of Iowa sports history, took Offenburger two years to research and write and contains a treasure trove of anecdotes on athletes, coaches and key figures.


Offenburger’s list of the “The 25 Greatest” male high school athletes of the century is a roster that includes legends such as Kinnick, the University of Iowa Hawkeye football standout and stadium namesake, and more contemporary sports figures like former Iowa State University coach and former guard and professional basketball player Fred Hoiberg, Major Leaguer Casey Blake and wrestling great Dan Gable.

Limber political mind

Since reading that book in 2005, I’ve often speculated about the prospects of Kinnick as a national political figure. Kinnick’s own writings are liberally sprinkled with limber political analysis and obvious ambitions.

Students of politics and watchers of the men and women who seek office can readily see that Kinnick’s mind is working as a campaigner even as a young man. He makes clear that Winston Churchill is a hero. But it is the homage Kinnick pays to a lesser-known British prime minister that is chilling.

“By the way, be sure to see the movie, ‘Young Mr. Pitt’ if you have an opportunity … Pitt the Younger became prime minister of England at 24! Think of that!” Kinnick writes in a 1943 letter to Dallas County friends.

Pitt becomes prime minister at 24. Kinnick dies at 24 in the Gulf of Paria. It’s utterly heartbreaking.

In the late ’30s and ’40s Kinnick was a national figure.

The Marion Sentinel went so far in 1939 as to endorse Kinnick for the presidency in 1956.

Listen to his Heisman speech, the confident cadence and rich poetry and unmistakable Midwestern steadiness, and you won’t laugh at the audacity of the hope that little newspaper outside of Cedar Rapids held for the Iowan.

I thank God I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe. I can speak confidently and positively that the players of this country would much more, much rather struggle and fight to win a Heisman award than a Croix de Guerre.

– Nile Kinnick, Heisman acceptance speech

A pedigreed Republican

We know for a fact that Kinnick was a Republican and most certainly would have run as one had he sought high offices in Iowa. (The highly patriotic Kinnick was supportive of his commander in chief, President Roosevelt, but critical of some of the political and domestic moves of the Democratic president.)

Kinnick’s maternal grandfather, George Washington Clarke, a Republican, served as governor from 1913 to 1917. Nile Kinnick’s family had the intellectual and educational pedigree for a political dynasty as well with links to Grinnell College, Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and Drake University.

In 1940 Kinnick appeared with GOP presidential candidate Wendell Willkie at a rally in Iowa Falls. When challenged in a letter by a well-meaning Shenandoah doctor, Erwin Gottsch, as to the messiness of getting involved with politics, Kinnick revealed much insight into his politics in a return letter.

“I am a young Republican and expect him (Willkie) to do this country some good,” Kinnick wrote back. “I am addressing the young Republican state convention not because I think that doing so will boost my prestige but because I am interested in government and have some interest in that direction.”

Kinnick adds, “My grandfather was a Republican governor of this state. He was honest, fearless and competent.”

In 1956 Kinnick would have been 38, and therefore constitutionally eligible for the presidency. Let’s suppose Kinnick would have followed his grandfather into Iowa politics, perhaps finding his way to Terrace Hill or a Congressional seat (the Iowa governors during Kinnick’s window here were all Republicans: Robert D. Blue, William S. Beardsley, Leo Elthon and Leo Hoegh).

Then, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who ran with Richard Nixon as his vice presidential candidate in 1952, tosses aside Dick in favor of Kinnick.

As Ike can’t run for a third term thanks to the passage of presidential term limits, this sets ups a fascinating scenario: John F. Kennedy v. Nile Kinnick in the 1960 presidential race. Sorry, Checkers.

As it turns out, in the 1960 presidential race Kennedy captured 34,266,731 votes to Nixon’s 34,108,157 — in a watershed election that saw the first Catholic ascend to the White House and the ushering in of a televised politics at which the famously sweating and snarling Nixon performed catastrophically. Based on his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech alone — for generations recognized as one of the best delivered — one can reasonably suspect the cameras would have been more kind to Kinnick. His charisma roars off the big screen in “Kinnick.” And his wit and self-deprecating humor rival Kennedy’s. Plus, he speaks with a commanding Midwestern accent, strong, clear and centered. He sounds like a senator. In his early 20s.

But it is a jump to extrapolate a future of a young man — albeit an extraordinarily bright and well-spoken one — based on diary entries and the conjecture of contemporaries or through the comfort of impossible-to-prove historical hypotheticals.

So in 1960, when Republicans were looking at Nixon, New York’s Nelson Rockefeller and Arizona’s Barry Goldwater, it is, well, a reach to see Kinnick being in the presidential mix, regardless of how much celebrity cache you assume Kinnick builds.

But let’s say he is.

Kinnick v. Kennedy?

What shape would the Kennedy-Kinnick race have taken? To get into specific issues would require something of a time-warping from diary entries and letters in the 1940s to politics 20 years later — freezing a young man in the uncertainly of World War II and leapfrogging two decades of experiences Kinnick never had.

It is reasonable to say Kinnick, a Christian Scientist, would not have been a pacifist, even if his 1939 Heisman speech hints at Charles Lindbergh-like isolationism.

“Whatever happens,” he said in a 1943 letter, “if the U.S. ever permits any country to exceed her air and sea strength she is a damn fool. Frankly, I don’t believe in any of this disarmament stuff anymore than I am in favor of canceling my insurance when I quit flying.”

And there are signs that Kinnick was a limited-government man.

“In my mind any extension of government control in this country is particularly bad for the simple reason that we, as a people, do not yet take pride in government positions,” Kinnick said, according to his personal writings in the 1991 book, “A Hero Perished,” brilliantly edited by Paul Baender and published by the University of Iowa Press.

The late Iowa icon may as well be speaking for contemporary Republicans frustrated when he gets off this line in a letter: “The Republican Party makes me so damn mad I almost give up. If they would just get together they could oust the New Deal next time.”

In the end, speculating about Kinnick’s political potential leaves those who do (particularly Iowans who can spot one of the Hawkeye State’s best) with a profound sense of sadness.

“There is just so much to him,” Siepker said. “Even though we left a lot on the cutting-room floor for entertainment purposes, for attention-span purposes, you still walk away feeling that Nile is somebody we can all look up to.”

About this column

This column was originally published by Douglas Burns’ blog, “The Iowa Mercury” and is shared here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Douglas Burns
Douglas Burns

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa journalist whose family operated the Carroll Times Herald for 93 years. He is the founder and director of development for the non-profit Western Iowa Journalism Foundation. Additionally, Burns founded a marketing and advertising firm, Mercury Boost, which is based in Council Bluffs. He is the business development director for Latino IQ, an Iowa-based organization. Burns, who resides in Carroll, writes for a number of Iowa newspapers with his work also having appeared in The Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Kansas City Star. You can subscribe to his blog, The Iowa Mercury, on Substack.