The appointment with History occurred in 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was 45 years old and had been the President of the United States for 21 months. A decorated officer for acts of heroism during World War ii, he had an instinctive distrust of the military and boundless confidence in his brother Robert. These factors led him to mediate with Nikita Khrushchev and lean towards a diplomatic solution. When everyone, including the Good Pope, John xxiii, feared the outbreak of atomic war, Kennedy reached an agreement with the Russians based on a simple military transaction: “Remove your missiles from Cuba, and I’ll remove mine from Turkey”. The Cuban Missile Crisis remains both the pinnacle of his presidency and a vivid representation of the realism that characterized his approach to public affairs.
Kennedy was politically cautious and conservative, to the extent that a Democrat could be in the early 1960s. He was cautious in the sense that he had no intention of getting involved in Vietnam, where communist infiltration had followed French colonialism. His generals persuaded him to transform the ‘advisers’ sent by his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, into a non-combatant force of about 15,000 soldiers. Then the generals began asking for more troops, and he pretended not to notice. The Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba remains an indelible stain on his career. It was a failure, a humiliating experience: shortly after taking office, he had heeded the military’s promises of victory. He would not make the same mistake again. His presidency, though short, was an era of peace.
Kennedy was cautious in another sense as well — he didn’t want to get involved in the civil rights campaign led, among others, by Reverend Martin Luther King. Despite having met him, he didn’t have a personal relationship with King. Kennedy admired King’s oratorical skills, saying, “that man can speak”, after listening to King’s famous television speech (a reworking of a passage from the prophet Ezekiel) about the dream of a post-racial society. The president needed the votes of Southern states (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and so on) to be re-elected in 1964 and had no intention of losing white votes by making concessions to African Americans. It was his brother Robert, then the Attorney General, who authorized the wiretapping of King’s home phone in Atlanta, Georgia. Luther King would find a different kind of ally in Johnson, who, however, maintained the authorization for wiretapping.
Kennedy was conservative in the liberal sense of the term: he was a centrist. He borrowed a metaphor from a giant of California politics, Pat Brown — the canoe analogy. If you paddle always to the right, you tip. If you paddle always to the left, you tip. To avoid tipping, you have to paddle to the right and then to the left. Kennedy was a centrist in the sense that he believed in the slow, incremental progress of history and not in the decisive act of the individual. He loved to say that when the tide rises, no boat is left stranded. He was not a radical reformer. Kennedy believed in the American order, but at times, especially in unofficial conversations, he revealed an unsuspected, keen sense of the precariousness of human institutions. He was a modernizer: he wanted to modernize the government machinery by bringing in people from the private sector. He was a technocrat avant la lettre, although always respectful of ceremonial forms and the political underbrush that had delivered the presidency to him. He showed a certain reformist streak only in economic policy. Kennedy listened to his economic advisers and decided on a tax cut that put more money in the pockets of the American middle class. While Ronald Reagan’s economists would stimulate the economy with a tax cut aimed at producers, Kennedy cut taxes for consumers. The cut took a while to be approved and, in the end, benefited Lyndon Johnson. The result was a growth rate of 6 percent.
Like Richard Nixon, Kennedy believed that the generation that had fought in World War ii had earned the right to lead the country. The 1960 election campaign was the clash between two war veterans. Kennedy won in 1960, and Nixon eight years later. The former was a politician who appealed to the votes of the common people, was photogenic, and took advantage of the growing influence of television in politics. As will be discovered years later, his election set in motion a conservative movement that produced two presidential candidates: Barry Goldwater, who failed, and Ronald Reagan. On the other hand, Nixon was a coalition builder, striking deals with key voting blocs and inventing a strategy — Southern conservatives — that at the time seemed paradoxical but turned out to be epoch-making. It propelled Nixon to the White House and changed American politics for half a century. Who remembers now that the Southern states were once a Democratic stronghold?
As the second Catholic presidential candidate, Kennedy was determined not to meet the fate of the first, Al Smith, who went down in history as one of the least competitive. Addressing an audience of Protestant ministers gathered in Houston, Texas, to hear the aspiring president, Kennedy made it clear that his faith did not interfere with political decisions. And he honored that promise. Paradoxically, during his presidency, the divide between Church and State widened: American secularism, unlike its European counterpart, is constructed to defend religion from the intrusion of the state. However, Kennedy’s problem was the opposite. To avoid being identified as belonging to a religious minority, Kennedy kept his faith strictly private.
Confident (especially in himself), ironic, he had the gift of making the most difficult things seem easy. He rarely fell into doubt or showed signs of indecision. He loved making decisions and being surrounded by intelligent people; his speeches were prepared, but he delivered them with the skills of a consummate actor. He was not cynical, but certainly skeptical about the supposed virtues of human nature. He had a strong sense of the fragility of life, perhaps a legacy of his Catholic upbringing, perhaps an inheritance from the injuries sustained in war. Those back injuries, which he concealed in public, haunted him for the rest of his life. He had a wife, Jacqueline, beautiful and well-educated; he admired her but betrayed her. Of their two children, Caroline and John Jr., only the first survives; she is now the U.S. ambassador to Australia.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the last president to die while in office. After Dallas, presidents stopped traveling in open-top cars and delivering speeches outdoors without protective glass. The Camelot myth, an invention of Jacqueline after her husband’s assassination, is much more accurately the nostalgia for an America that no longer exists. It was an America still relatively innocent, where the private lives of politicians were off-limits, TV programs started at four in the afternoon, and movies were still distributed in the cinemas of rural Midwest towns.
Americans bought a car with a month’s salary and a house with a year’s salary. The future was bright, and reaching the moon seemed within reach. Then came Vietnam, Watergate, the assassination of his brother Robert, and that of Martin Luther King, inflation. Today Kennedy would be 106 years old: impossible to imagine him as an old man.
* Professor emeritus at Notre Dame de Namur University, California
By Enrico Beltramini *