As we mourn the 50th anniversary of the untimely murder of President John F. Kennedy, it’s difficult to reconcile his soaring rhetoric and magnificent style with his accomplishments. His resonate words echo through the decades, even as they furtively dismissed the earlier administration and that generation:
“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
Dwight Eisenhower abhorred John F. Kennedy: “We have a new genius in our midst who is incapable of making any mistakes and therefore deserving of no criticism whatsoever,” he quipped. He was incensed by the “young whippersnapper’s” claim there was a “missile gap,” calling for a dramatic increase in military spending. Eisenhower signature farewell “Military Industrial Complex” speech in January 1961, just days before Kennedy’s inaugural address, warned of that increase in spending:
“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.”
Not only did Eisenhower view JFK’s military spending as dangerous, but unmatched by deed. JFK’s performance with Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna Summit sealed that perception, and he saw the Berlin Airlift as a passive response to the challenge of the Berlin Wall. Eisenhower’s favorite jibe, though it didn’t originate with him was, “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.”
But distant and aloof, JFK was not.
I envision him through associates, family and friends. My great uncle, Peter Pratt, was Harvard Class President of 1940, fellow Spee, football player, Director of the Alumni Records Office at Harvard, and 1940 reunion chairman where he planned a 25th galla in 1965 at the White House. JFK had asked Peter to be a member of his cabinet, but Peter demurred as he was wedded to Harvard. I say this only because Peter was easily the most lively, cleaver, resourceful and witty person I have ever known, and I was just a boy when Peter died too young.
But imagine going on a fishing trip with Peter, catching no fish, and laughing joyously and riotously at every failure, and one can peek into his unbridled wit. Vicariously I witnessed a piece of the milieu Kennedy was stoked in, and it was infectious, even if he didn’t meet the experience or political and diplomatic standards of the former Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and President of the United States.
Nikita Khrushchev viewed Kennedy the same as Eisenhower. When I asked Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita Khrushchev, how his father viewed Kennedy, he replied that his father perceived Kennedy as inexperienced and unproven. He said of the Cuban Missile Crises that the Russians were not as frightened as the Americans were about looming nuclear danger, nor were they anxious to get into another conflict. The Russians had already suffered great tragedies and huge loss of human life throughout the 20th century, so negotiation was preferable but they would fight if they must.
Notwithstanding the rhetoric, diplomacy and negotiation is essentially how the Cuban Missile Crises unfolded. U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk asserted, “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.” Actually, we compromised our way out of calamity. We agreed to dismantle all US-built Jupiter IRBMs in Turkey and the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crises may have scared the wits out of everyone, but better yet it burnished John F. Kennedy’s image as a solid leader.
In a larger sense, John F. Kennedy was the leader of our collective fancy. If the republic of the United States is modeled on Great Britain’s parliamentary system, then the United States President represents the executive branch in its totality; the President is not merely a Prime Minister, but a King, encompassing both the substance of one and the flair of the other. In style, charisma, intelligence and imagination, John F. Kennedy was unmatched. At the Democratic convention, where he accepted the nomination, he said,
“But I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be pioneers on that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age–to all who respond to the Scriptural call: “Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed.”
For courage–not complacency–is our need today–leadership–not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously. A tired nation, said David Lloyd George, is a Tory nation–and the United States today cannot afford to be either tired or Tory.”
Like Pat Nixon’s “good Republican cloth coat,” a Tory Nation was staid. Kennedy’s dream, forward looking and full of imagination, was of course mixed with salesmanship. Eisenhower disparaged the Moon race as a “stunt”, which it was. But it was also visionary and when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon and said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” it conjured Kennedy. Kennedy at Rice University declared:
“Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain?”
Nixon greeted the Apollo 11 astronauts when they arrived home, but the splendid accomplishment was all Kennedy.
John F. Kennedy’s regal image was burnished brilliantly by Jacqueline Kennedy’s stunning beauty, style, elegance and grace. Even the Queen of England couldn’t match Jackie’s chic! Aside her grace and off the cuff eloquence in Spanish or French, was her unequalled fashion sense.
There was the Norman Norell’s Blue Day Dress and Oleg Cassini’s mélange of gowns, from the Celadon Dress to the Black Silk Dress, the Beige Wool Melton Coat and the stunning Azure Blue Silk Gown. Givenchy’s Daisy Embroidered Evening Dress was a favorite, as well as Coco Channel Black Ribbed Wool Day Suit. Then there was the ill-fated Pink Chanel Suit.
Soon after the assassination, during her interview with Theodore White of Life Magazine, she compared the Kennedy years in the White House to King Arthur’s mythical Camelot. The entirety of her actions combined with her well-groomed presence embossed a splendid image Kennedys into our collective memory.
If John F. Kennedy was the perfect king, then Lyndon B. Johnson was the ideal prime minister. He implemented Kennedy’s vision for good and bad. The Great Society is LBJ’s gift to JFK, and it is both their legacies. Kennedy couldn’t have gotten it passed through Congress, and Johnson wouldn’t have tried had he not been President Kennedy’s Vice President. LBJ’s substantial congressional experience in both the House and Senate, culminating as the Senate Majority Leader, substantially augmented his ability to get things done, and the list is not merely substantial, but in fact unmatched in American History.
Encompassing the “Great Society” and the “War on Poverty”, there is an array of acts and bills too long to list. There is the Clean Air Act, the Food Stamp Act, the Higher Education Act, the Social Security Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, public broadcasting, the Gun Control Act, and the Civil Rights Act. Kennedy was too cowed by Southern “Dixicrats” to overtly confront them on Civil Rights until the Birmingham campaign and Bull Connor’s fire hoses made silence impossible. Johnson was bully needed.
The list of LBJ’s accomplishments is long. He completed JFK’s Moon project by spearheading the development of the Gemini and Saturn V rockets and initiating the Apollo program, leading to the first man on the moon just months after he left office. As was true with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Mario Cuomo quipped, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”
And that governing could be dirty! Biographer, Robert Caro, details in rich abundance LBJ’s relentless tactics. LBJ’s method, called “The Treatment”, which Caro describes as, “supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint and the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.”
On the flip side, Lyndon Johnson expanded the Vietnam War as part of Kennedy’s vision. As Kennedy proclaimed in his inaugural address,
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
And so it was and so we did. Beautiful words and dangerous. The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s memorable book titled with rotten irony on the lead up to the Vietnam War, demonstrates the wide disparity between the remarkable intellect of Kennedy’s “whiz kids” and their inane inanity in war. Certain phrases resonate wearily from that era: Lost China. Strategic bombing. The Domino Theory.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s seeming precision and outward certainty belied his complete failure in Vietnam. In 1966, Jackie Kennedy publically demanded that he stop the killing in Vietnam. By 1967 his resignation from the Johnson Administration was inevitable. He parted to lead the World Bank, much like Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, did after Iraq’s quagmire.
We cannot separate Kennedy from Vietnam, much as many would like to. Irregular warfare, as the colonists perfected in the American Revolutionary War, is the most effective way for an inferior military to defeat a superior enemy. The idealists and visionaries of the Kennedy Administration imagined much, but couldn’t foresee an adversary as wily, tenacious, brutal and ingenious as Vo Nguyen Giap. Without JFK’s overstretching vision, the Tet Offensive would probably not be linked to our national memory and that horrible, elegant, painful and richly beautiful black granite gash in the Earth at the Washington Mall would not exist if it weren’t for Kennedy’s exuberance.
So on these days of great sadness when we remember the legacy of a vital young President, it’s essential to remember him in the context of the time, to appreciate his flaws as well as his virtues, and remember that the legacy of Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and a parade of acts and bills that Lyndon B. Johnson finalized would not have happened if not for John F. Kennedy.