Monday, September 1, 2008

Washington Journal

August 29, 2008

The Campaign of John F. Kennedy, Forty-Eight Years Later

It is inspiring, surprising and more than a little heartbreaking to read T.H. White’s Making of the President 1960 now that forty-eight years have passed and another presidential election proceeds on its frantic pace, as summer nears its end and the election itself is still over two months away.

The electorate is deeply divided as then. The economy is not doing particularly well. Likewise America’s reputation abroad. A two-term president is about to leave.

But as Dwight David Eisenhower was enormously popular throughout his presidency, President Bush is now so unpopular that it is doubtful he will campaign at all. Appearances by the aging but ever-ebullient Eisenhower in the last ten days of campaigning coupled with a powerful burst of television almost surged then Vice-President Nixon to victory. Yet the young Senator from Massachusetts, illuminated by his stellar performance in the first televised debates, drew even larger and more enthusiastic crowds than the President, including a crowd of over one million in New York City, and held on to win.

T. H. White wrote this book when John F. Kennedy was just finding his feet in the White House. Robert Kennedy was Attorney General and Ted Kennedy was just beginning to think of running for Jack’s seat in the Senate. Martin Luther King was hitting his stride as public orator and conscience of the nation. The Peace Corps had just begun.

I first read it in the summer of my first year in college, during lunch breaks while working at E.J. Korvette’s, an early big-box discount store, long since gone out of business. It was 1970, perhaps the dreariest year ever to be alive in America; except for the year before, and the year after. The campus protests over the Kent State killings in May were supposed to transform America. It was clear even a week afterward that they had accomplished little, if anything. It was as if Richard Nixon were the President of a United States in which the battle between Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd had finally ended, with Fudd winning.

I had come to consciousness of American politics ten years earlier. While most households in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge were dark with disappointment on election eve of 1960, including the Rodham household on the other side of town, my Irish Catholic family was dancing for joy. Aunt Caroline came over for dinner that evening, which always made for a party; that night the party began early and continued late. The adults drank and told stories and laughed: how Mom became a Democrat and voted for FDR in 1932; how Dad’s parents welcomed her, a Protestant, to the family because she was a good Democrat. Dad and Caroline talked about being Democrats and Catholic in Iowa in 1928, in public high school, wearing Al Smith buttons.

My brother and I even enjoyed the unprecedented of privilege of listening to the radio after we were sent to bed and lifted a cheer when NBC News awarded New York’s forty-five electoral votes to John F. Kennedy. In the morning I walked into my fourth-grade classroom in the Sanford E. Merrill Primary School to celebrate with the only other Democrat in the class, Mike Udolph: the only Catholic and the only Jew, a proud alliance.

T.H. White may have been the best political reporter ever, writing history with a novelist’s flair. He began the book with election eve in Hyannisport, then told the whole long story beginning in 1959 before ending dramatically in the wee hours of the following morning:

“At 5:35 Am, Easter Standard Time, Chief of the Secret Service Urbanus E. Baughman noted that television had given Michigan’s 20 votes to Kennedy, to make a tentative 285 and a tentative majority. It was now too late to wonder or doubt any longer, for his responsibility was clear, and at 5:45 Baughman telephoned Inspector Burrell Petersen in Hyannisport at the Holiday Heath Inn and instructed him to establish security at the Kennedy compound. . . . The candidate and his staff still slept as the sixteen agents in their borrowed cars set out in the night for the compound by the beach; by seven in the morning, security had been established and the President-elect was walled off, as he would be for four or eight years to come, from all other citizens and ordinary mortals.”

Later that day, as White told the story, the newly-arrived agents looked on in horror as the Kennedys indulged in an all-afternoon game of touch football that often left the President-Elect of the United States at the bottom of a pile of laughing, tangled bodies.

If nothing else, this president was fun.

White concluded with a section “The View from the White House,” surveying the state of the nation in the winter of 1960-61. He was extraordinarily prescient:

“In the sixties, the office of the Presidency, which John F. Kennedy held, was above all an intellectual exercise. For the courage and skill required in the sixties in war and peace was no longer the simple manly courage and skill that dominated war from the days of the caveman to the last screaming combat of American P-51 and Japanese Zero over Okinawa. Of this old courage and skill, this new President of the United States had much. . . . But such courage and nerve is, in modern war, all but obsolete. This old kind of courage may possibly be reflected in an ultimate decision over the telephone console to trade the death of New York for the death of Moscow, the death of Los Angeles for the death of Leningrad, the death of Washington for the death of Peking. But it would require greater courage and exertion of mind to decide to change the rules of the new chess game, and greater skill to persuade his adversaries and friends, at home and abroad, to abandon dogma and meet him on the plains of reality.”

Less than two years later, Kennedy survived just such a test. With authority from his handling of the missile crisis, his speech in Berlin and his relationship with Khrushchev and Congressional leaders, he signed the Limited Test-Ban Treaty in the summer of 1963 and was riding the waves of public opinion and world affairs like very few before him and none since.

Though only nine years old, I loved this president. This smiling, confident, radiant, Roman Catholic man was my President. He is my President still. It is his flag and the flag of his clan that I have followed.

I only saw Robert Kennedy once, in the parking lot of a shopping center in Mt. Prospect, Illinois. It was a dreary overcast day in October of 1966. He appeared with Senator Paul Douglas who was to lose a few weeks later to Charles Percy. Both men spoke briefly. Robert Kennedy, although suntanned and fit, seemed short, shy and almost infinitely sad, even when smiling. We had to strain to hear him. Only when Senator Kennedy of New York reached out to shake hands did the crowd come alive, surging forward, women squealing, hands reaching over hands like one writhing organism striving to touch him.

I saw Edward Kennedy speak at Harvard in the mid-nineties. He was warmly welcomed by a capacity crowd in the Kennedy School of Government. What I remember most from that now distant afternoon, aside from how proud I was just to be there, was the apparent absence of security other than one Harvard University policeman. There must have been a plain-clothesman somewhere. But the courage of Ted Kennedy to get up in front of a crowd year after year touched me then as it touches me know.

Then there was his voice. The most Irish-looking of them all, large and ruddy-faced, looking more like a Daley of Chicago than a Kennedy, he sounded like a Kennedy. Watching any of the Kennedys on old videotapes often gives me a lump in the throat, but it is the voice that does it, that wonderful tenor, eloquent, plaintive, inspiring. I will never forget how Ted Kennedy’s voice broke during his eulogy of brother Robert in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in June of 1968.

I find it hard to imagine a world without him, one of the last living links to the thousand days; those days when we were touched by fire.

For years to come shall their names be familiar in our mouths as household words:
Jack the President, Bobby and Ted
Sorensen and Salinger, O’Donnell and O’Brien -
Be in our flowing cups freshly remembered
These few, these happy few, this band of brothers.