Stuart Symington might have become the nation's 36th president as successor to the slain John F. Kennedy, said a longtime confidant of the late Missouri senator. Symington died Wednesday at his home in New Canaan, Conn. He was 87.

Symington, who was the nation's first secretary of the Air Force and later built a reputation as a principled politician, died of heart disease, said James Symington, one of two sons.Longtime confidant Clark A. Clifford recalled the 1960 Democratic convention and events that could have made Symington vice president.

"I was carrying messages back and forth," Clifford said from Washington. "The day before the (nominating) decision was to be made, Senator Kennedy said, `I'm now offering the No. 2 position to Senator Symington. Take it to him, and get back to me.' "

Clifford recalled that elements of the party pressing for a Southerner on the ticket eventually persuaded Kennedy to select Lyndon B. Johnson for the vice presidency.

"I took that (message) back to Senator Symington," Clifford said. "He seemed very relaxed about it. He didn't seem to be hungering for it (the nomination) anyway."

Symington was praised by both Democrats and Republicans.

"He was one of those tall trees whose falling will leave a great vacant spot" said former State Treasurer James Spainhower, a Democrat.