“Hey Boss! Ze Flame! Ze Eternal Flame!”
I’ve seen the Kennedy-Nixon debate five times including live when it was telecast from CBS Chicago and my wife and I (then an aide to two Minnesota congressmen) were in Minneapolis handing a squealing baby…our first born, then two months old…from one to the other. Five times I’ve seen it and let me tell you each time Richard Nixon loses. So we didn’t go to see it for a sixth on its 50th anniversary last Sunday at the Chicago Prudential Plaza Branch to see him lose yet again (besides, I had a radio show).
By missing the show I didn’t get to re-meet some contemporaries: 84-year-old Newt Minow who had been Kennedy’s FCC chairman and 82-year-old Sander Vanocur, who was a panelist. Minow endorsed my becoming a Kennedy Fellow and Vanocur and I spent a long flight to California as seat-mates 32 years ago where I heard a lot of tales from him about his experiences as NBC’s White House correspondent). The next day The New York Times carried a memoir of the debate by…who else?...Ted Sorensen, 82 who was a guest lecturer at my Kellogg School class in 1975 “Influencing the System.” . All of them agree resoundingly: Kennedy won.
I do, too. The only one missing…and sorely missed…was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. who would be 93 and who did his level damndest to canonize the Kennedys.
As expected, these octogenarian survivors agree Kennedy was a great president. That’s where I fall off the boat. I’ve always asked them: why? Their answer has always revolved around style. You see he was…charismatic…witty…urbane…
eloquent…and the famous one coined by Sorensen: “an idealist without illusions.” It’s important to those old codgers before they all drop off one-by-one to cup their hands over the flickering “eternal flame” in Arlington.
They want…oh God do they want…Jack to continue to be regarded as a great president. Their hidden panic comes from the fact that history is relentless about him. Especially anent character. Particularly his lifestyle pocked with numerous careless sexual dalliances of the nature that has marked Tiger Woods’ character as such a disappointment) —his indecisiveness and policy failings. Nor were they “personal failings.” When a president allows himself to commit such indiscretions he endangers not just his presidency to blackmail but the entire country.
Idealist without illusions? In the cruel sweep of history he’s seen increasingly as the exact opposite: An illusionist without ideals.
Yep, it’s a good thing I wasn’t there. I’d have to tell all of them on the stage that they all contributed to the unjustified illusion…Minow, Vanocur, especially the absent Sorensen and the dead (since 2007) Schlesinger. They all belong in a latter day version of the film The Sting and should all brush their noses with their forefingers: the symbol telling colleagues they are in on the ongoing fraud. This Sting began with the so-called PT Boat 109 episode. Years ago Douglas MacArthur in retirement expressed wonderment that somebody who so recklessly piloted a PT that it was struck by a Japanese destroyer could parlay this into a national episode of heroism. The answer was Old Man Kennedy who paid the bills.
Later the idea that an all-but ghost-written (by Ted Sorensen) hand-me-down series of biographies should get the Pulitzer was accomplished by the same source: Old Joe. A largely undistinguished Senate career was publicized to a screaming pitch, financed by Old Joe. The presidential campaign, particularly the West Virginia primary, again: financed by Old Joe. Now we get to the Debate and the Greek Chorus that prattles Kennedy “greatness.” In fact that whole Kennedy presidential career versus the Nixon one cries out for justice. And there is the Great Debate. Oh yes, dear God will we never hear the end of it? But the times they are a changin’.
The blue-jowled, grey-suit-wearing (against a grey backdrop) Uriah Heap-like Nixon is growing to be regarded as he really was—a remarkable foreign policy sage who was hustled off the public stage as president not because of a crime he did…but because of what, in an unguarded moment on a spool of recording tape, he SAID. It was the first such media conspiracy in modern times to blacken a man who incurred their animosity by unveiling with the testimony of Alger Hiss the conspiracy without check could have very nearly undermined this country in the Cold War: Nixon paid for that with his presidency.
It was a media conspiracy topped in 2008 by the one of overt media coordination and obfuscation in which participants engaged to sell a man of very little substance and highly questionable credentials as president—for the sole reason that he was a liberal Sidney Poitier-like affirmative action individual whose background the media assiduously blocked from disclosure, ignoring the job they so sanctimoniously promote as theirs via the 1st amendment…an “all hands” conspiracy to elect Barack Obama—which Newsweek’s Howard Fineman for one pleaded nolo contendre.
Who was more effective, Kennedy or Nixon? Understand neither was great. I’m going to list the so-called accomplishments and failures of John Kennedy and then Richard Nixon and you decide.
Kennedy: BAD, in fact, disastrous: the Bay of Pigs…disastrous: support of a Vietnamese coup producing Diem’s murder… disastrous: the Cuban Missile Crisis where we surreptitiously agreed to pull missiles out of Turkey to acquiesce to the USSR (keeping this news quiet) in return for the USSR pulling out missiles from Cuba which was billed erroneously as a U. S. triumph …disastrous: JFK-Khrushchev Summit following Bay of Pigs where Soviet leader decides Kennedy and the U. S. are weak…disastrous: Berlin Wall built sealing off East Berlin from the free city of West Berlin erected through U. S. timidity…disastrous: pressure exerted from government on the steel industry forcing it to forego a price increase…
GOOD: formation of the Peace Corps…Alliance for Progress building on the Good Neighbor Policy…Space Program launched…Kennedy tax cuts passed revivifying the economy…black student James Meredith enrolls at all-white University of Mississippi with federal protection after Gov. Ross Barnett attempts to block his admission.
Nixon: GOOD, in fact, brilliant: Inducement to China including a presidential trip there which splits the Sino-Soviet bloc and immeasurably strengthens U. S. in the Cold War changing the balance of power between Communist nations and the U. S. … law and order—Organized Crime Act which bars use of mob money in legitimate business affairs…Drug Abuse Control Act including “No Knock” provision enabling officers to break in and seize evidence before it is destroyed…the cooling down of racial passions because of a refusal to pitch the inflaming rhetoric that characterized the JFK and RFK years.
BAD, in fact disastrous: Wage and Price Controls designed to curb inflation but which had the opposite effect…Watergate: needless skullduggery that divided the country because of a paranoid presidential mind-set…creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, a bad means with which to protect the environment through hiked regulation when other free market means, such as the program that cut pollution in the Ruhr, were ignored. .