Friday, November 22, 2013

5 Truths About JFK

It seems that everyone talks about the myths surrounding John F. Kennedy.

Here are five truths about JFK.

1. He got elected to office as an insurgent. In an era where Conformity was King, John F. Kennedy was a non-conformist when it came to winning elections. From the time he ran for Congress in 1946 in his adopted city of Boston -- actually his district spanned the Charles River, covering three wards in Cambridge, three in Somerville and one in Boston -- Kennedy avoided reliance on party bosses. He set up parallel Kennedy organizations, pioneering the use of teas and coffees to attract women voters. When he ran for President in 1960, party bosses, or at least party committees, chose the Convention delegates in almost every state. He used the primaries in Wisconsin and West Virginia as if they were nuclear tests in the ocean, designed to influence party bosses to instruct their delegates to vote for him at the Democratic Convention. In other words, Kennedy ran as an insurgent. His father's money did not buy the nomination as much as enable him to win it.

2. He was a man of ideas and an avid student of history. He is given credit for writing two books: Why England Slept, an analysis of how Britain's passivity during the 1930s strengthened Hitler's ability to rearm Germany and pose a mortal threat to human values; and Profiles in Courage, the stories of eight U.S. Senators who stood up to their parties or their constituents to vote their conscience. When he was alive, there was a big controversy about whether he actually wrote these books. Even if he had help, he had interest in the subjects, which is a lot more than you can say about other politicians of his  day or later.

3. He was an ardent Cold Warrior who grew skeptical of old Cold War tactics once in the White House. Having seen Nazi Germany, a totalitarian regime, nearly succeed in blowing up the world, John F. Kennedy, like virtually every European and American in the 1940s and 1950s, saw the Soviet Union, another totalitarian regime, as a serious threat to American security. The Soviets set up puppet states throughout Eastern Europe within a few years of the end of World War II, and the U.S. pledged to use its military power to prevent the Soviets from invading Western Europe. Every localized conflict was seen through the lens of the Cold War, as if Communism were a unified, monolithic entity headquartered in and run out of Moscow: the Congo, Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Iran, Guatemala.  When Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon in 1960, his principal campaign plank was his charge that Eisenhower had allowed a "missile gap" to develop between the USSR and the West. He may have believed it. Once assuming the Presidency, Kennedy never dropped his belief that the Soviet Union posed a mortal threat to American security, but he became increasingly skeptical of the traditional American approach to the USSR: that it was a purely military threat that must be confronted with the implied willingness to use nuclear missiles and bombers to obliterate the Soviet Union. Eventually, he began to focus on what later was called "detente" under Nixon: figuring out a way to live with the USSR while receding from the doomsday threat of nuclear war. Hence, the Test-Ban Treaty, and the secret deal with the USSR over NATO missiles in Turkey, which enabled him to resolve the Cuba Missile Crisis without resort to war.

4. As President, he had limited political capital and was reluctant to spend it on what he saw as a lost cause legislatively: civil rights. Kennedy was elected President with 49.7% of the popular vote, winning by 119,000 votes over Vice President Richard Nixon, who garnered 49.5%. 81 electoral votes -- over 25% of his 303 electoral votes he won -- came from seven states from the Deep South (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas).  Once in office, he faced the same kind of Congress that had dominated the government for decades: power was held tightly by Committee chairmen, almost all of whom, because seniority ruled, were Southern Democratic segregationists. No bill could advance to the House floor without being approved by the House Rules Committee, chaired by the arch-conservative Howard W. Smith of Virginia. Even after the Rules Committee was expanded by three votes in 1961, it continued to thwart civil rights, labor and education bills. This lasted throughout the Kennedy Administration. During the 1960 election, civil rights was not an issue because, as between Nixon and Kennedy, there was no difference on the issue, and many blacks remained Republicans because of their allegiance to Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, prior to becoming President, Kennedy had shown no particular interest in civil rights, and for two years his and his brother Robert's main objective was to keep the peace. Slowly, however, he was dragged into action. In the early fall of 1962, he forced the integration of the University of Mississippi by ordering federal troops to accompany James Meredith in his successful attempt to enroll at Ole Miss. The following spring, he finally decided to seek federal civil rights litigation, which had been bottled up in the Congress since the first post-Reconstruction civil rights law was passed in 1957. He gave a nationwide televised address in reaction to the increased violence perpetrated on civil rights activists by southern mobs and police. For the first time, a President characterized civil rights as a moral issue:

This is not a sectional issue. Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics. This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right. 

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. 

The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay? 

The face of America and American politics was forever to change. The fact that it took JFK's assassination and Lyndon B. Johnson's far greater effectiveness with Congress to permit the 1964 Civil Rights Act to pass does not diminish the significance of the words of that speech.

5. The aura of John F. Kennedy was real. It is impossible to overemphasize the extent to which John F. Kennedy's famous aura was so attractive. It was based on a combination of factors and contrasts. He was handsome, had a full head of spectacular hair and was young, married to a 31-year old beauty, amidst a political and business culture that was dominated by middle-aged, boring, balding white men married to matrons. He had a great sense of humor, poking fun of himself, in a culture where wry humor was rare and not highly prized. He surrounded himself with academicians instead of businessmen. He seemed to be interested in facts, not nostrums and beliefs. He spoke to people's aspirations, not only their personal wants and needs. He is often compared to Ronald Reagan, but it is a false comparison. Yes, they both supported tax cuts to boost the economy. But how can anyone imagine even the ever-cynical Kennedy’s starting his Presidential campaign, as Reagan did, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a bastion of anti-civil rights violence and bigotry? And how can anyone imagine John F. Kennedy's basing his entire Presidency on the principle that government was the enemy and that the worst possible fate that anyone could face was having to pay taxes? 

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