High Crimes & Misdemeanors, II

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. 

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. 

Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy, 20-January-19611

 camelot

They called it Camelot, the brilliant 1,022 days of the Kennedy Presidency. The young president with his beautiful wife and young children entered the White House full of the hope and dreams of a nation, the baton was passed from old guard to new. It was a new dawn where politicians, actors and artists mingled over meals and danced together into the dawn. The nation was mesmerized, as they watched on their televisions this young and handsome president, his brothers and friends take Washington by storm.

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Inarguration Day

JFK was the youngest president ever elected; he was also the first Roman Catholic. His campaign was the first ever televised his speeches the first seen by more than those in the room with him, the four presidential debates the first both seen and heard. Though his Catholicism was considered a deterrent by many he was able to deflect questions about his religion when asked, ultimately this became a non-issue with many voters though not with all especially among Southern Protestants. The one thing to keep in mind when considering the Kennedy Presidency, he barely beat Nixon, it was a neck-and-neck race right down to the end with the electoral vote finally deciding the presidency and even this being questionable due to the unpledged Southern Segregationist Electors who refused to cast their vote for the Kennedy ticket. Ultimately, this is what both the popular and Electoral College vote looked like:

Candidate Popular Vote Electoral College % of Vote
Kennedy / Johnson 34,220,984 303 49.72%
Nixon / Lodge 34,108,157 219 49.55%
Byrd / ThurmondByrd / Goldwater Never on ballot, no popular vote 15 (1)15 (1)

So now, we come to it 1,022 days of Camelot. What did he accomplish and during this time what nefarious acts, scandals and outrages was the Office of the President or those around him involved in? Surely, given the advent of television and the hunger of the American public for gossip we know what went on in the inner circle of this damned near American Royal family inhabiting the White House.

Of political scandals, poorly managed foreign affairs there have been much written over the years. The question becomes, why was so much so closely held for so many years? What drove this Administration to muck up relationships with USSR Premier Khrushchev was it simply generational and language barriers? Or, as some who witnessed the Summit of 1961, both public and private the egos of both men that played large parts in their inability to find any common ground. It is likely we will never know however certainly we can consider the cocktail of drugs the young president relied upon for pain management as one possible reason for his inability to process information, think quickly on his feet and act pragmatically rather than emotionally.

There are key political issues that haunt the Kennedy tenure in the White House; these were all driven by the Cold War and the legacy of the Eisenhower administration. All were failures in their execution though not all were considered failures at the time or even today, all have been white washed by press and biographers alike.

  • Invasion of Cuba, aka Bay of Pigs: 17-April, a CIA led excursion was originally planned by the Eisenhower administration, ultimately cost $53M in food and medicine in exchange for captured 1,189 survivors of the Spring Mobilizationfailed invasion and attempted overthrow of Fidel Castro. Many consider this a failure of Eisenhower plan rather than of JFK.
  • Cuban Missile Crisis: this really was more than a US issue, based on spy plane pictures of Soviet ballistic missile sites built in Cuba the National Security Council and the President reacted by beating the drums of war. The world reacted differently, with the UN Secretary General stepping in to request a cooling off period after the announcement by the President of a naval blockade. Ultimately, the world prevailed and good sense won. The missiles in Cuba were removed, the offending US missiles in Turkey were removed and the US promised to never invade Cuba again. Many believe this represented a success for the administration and the president saw is ratings rise to 77%.
  • The CIA was the first line of defense against communism throughout the world. One focus was South America and stopping the spread of the dread political enemy of freedom in nations so close to our own. One tool was assassination, Fidel Castro of Cuba and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic. In the case of Castro, we know they failed. In the case of Trujillo, there has always been a debate whether they were involved or not in his assassination and to what extent.
  • NATIONAL SECURITY ACTION MEMORANDUM NO. 124, 18-January-1962: Authorized the escalation of troops in the first war that couldn’t be won, Vietnam.2

The beleaguered JFK was not originally intended for political office, upon the untimely death of his brother Joe Jr. he was queued up to fulfill the family ambitions. Jack was plagued by health problems from an early age; over time, these would be exacerbated by his reliance on cocktails of drugs including painkillers and amphetamines. He was also what today we would call a sex addict, though frankly this is simply an easy out for someone lacking self-control. His womanizing was well known within his inner circle and included both the famous and infamous; many of those who were tasked with protecting him extended their protection to include his reputation, even the press corps of the day kept his secrets.

The ambiguities of JFK the man versus JFK the public figure, father and husband were kept or was it simply that as a nation we were not interested in the personal lives of those in power? That the President cheated regularly on his young wife with stars the likes of Marilyn Monroe did not cause us to raise our moral hackles in outrage so long as he continued to do the work of President. One can only wonder why this President with known ties to Sam Giancana the Chicago Godfather, Frank Sinatra leader of the Hollywood Rat Pack and his many lovers was not in the eye of the storm for his many indiscretions.

JFK_America

Did this young president during the course of his 1,022 days in office do good? He set the stage to do good in some arenas certainly. He set the foundation for Civil Rights to move forward. He established the Peace Corps, which continues to this day. He signed the first Nuclear Test Ban treaty. Many of the Kennedy proposals for domestic policy including those for the New Frontier would not be carried out prior to his assassination in Dallas, Texas on 22-November-1963 but would ultimately be signed by his successor Lyndon B. Johnson.

JFK_EDUCATION

How would we, as a nation have viewed this young and morally challenged President had he lived? Would his indiscretions come to light? Would the nation have cared? Would Vietnam continue to escalate; there are some who believe he would have pulled our troops out but for re-election concerns; “We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at any point. But I can’t give up that territory to the communists and get the American people to re-elect me”.3

I know many deify JFK, frankly seen through the prism of history; he is not my favorite president. My personal opinion is he was without a moral compass, he was arrogant and self-centered, drugs impaired his cognitive abilities and he had a tendency to be ruled by his emotions, including his feeling of not being ‘good enough’ based on his relationship with his overbearing father. JFK frequently did what was right, not because he believed in it, not because it was the right thing to do but instead because of the political consequence, he had to have his hand forced.

I thought I would be able to write both the Kennedy and Johnson tenures into a single post, I was wrong. Thus, I bring to an end part two of the High Crimes and Misdemeanors series.

1http://www.powerfulwords.info/speeches/John_F_Kennedy/5.htm

2http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v02/d26

3Reeves, Thomas. A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (1991)

http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=24146

http://www.infoplease.com/t/hist/state-of-the-union/176.html

http://www.infoplease.com/t/hist/state-of-the-union/175.html

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/jfk-nyliberal/

Comments

  1. Brilliant posting here Val.. Let me say I had my eyes opened wider several years ago from who I thought JFK really was.. Living at a place named after him I have ever been curious . Watching films ect..
    Loved reading and also through the excellent comments and replies too…
    I keep telling you, you should be a politician 😉

    • Watching women in politics get torn up one side and down the other, no I don’t think this is an arena I would gladly enter. To bloody and ugly, even for me.

      It is interesting doing the research on these “gentlemen” though.

  2. Val, this is really good. I am a real history buff, was a Kennedy fan (preferred Bobby), but have taken a different look at JFK’s presidency in recent years given all the inappropriate sexual revelations and drugs. I agree with you that I think the drugs and the sexual exploits were problematic. I’m most appalled at the sociopathic way JFK treated Mimi Alford, the former White House intern who claims she had an 18-month affair with the President –passing her amongst his male staff while he watched her service them. She claims he took her virginity in the bed he shared with Jackie. That type of detachment and abuse of women scares the hell out of me. I think character is who we are when we think no one is watching.

    I also agree with you that JFK gets more credit for the success of the civil rights movement than he should. I often remember his infamous quote when he was told about the beatings and lynching of blacks in the South as he sat on his yacht: “Poor Bastards” and then he went back to yachting! It was Johnson (a child of the South) that finally facilitated the Civil Rights Act and carried the scars of the (white) South’s rejection–they never forgave him for it. I still remember when someone in Texas spitting on Lady Bird after the passing of CRA.

    Thanks for writing this post. As your first commenter indicated, a lot of people simply adore JFK but don’t know the back story. His life proves the adage that history makes the man–not vice versa.

    • I am also a history buff and especially like the Presidents and their back stories, who was behind them and who they were as human beings. While I don’t get overly excited by sexual infidelity, I like you have real issues when it reaches sociopathy as it did with JFK and I think Clinton as well.

      I think it is really difficult for to separate Kennedy and those 1022 days of Camelot from the reality of his presidency. There were good things that started there, however there were also many things that were not laid at his feet and should have been. The nation was enamoured with him, but mostly with the heroic image and not the reality.

  3. Hey Val. I really enjoyed that. I never heard any of that before. All I ever heard about kenedy was how great he was. This has been an interesting series so far. I cant even believe I am enjoying it (for reasons we have discussed). I really like the calm tone that I imagine your voice to be to be as I read this. I am really looking forward to the rest of these posts.

    Thanks Val. You have gotten Tom Nardone interested in History. How in the Hell did you do that?

    • Tom, I am especially glad you are enjoying this one. Next up is one of the more interesting figures of our time and a fellow Texan, LB Johnson. I am working on this one already and hope to have it ready next week. I don’t take these lightly as I don’t want to short sheet them.

      Hope you enjoy the next one as much.

  4. I have certainly enjoyed reading this one Val and
    there is lots of interesting reading all the way through
    this one, you definitely treat us to a fine history lesson
    that is for sure 🙂

    Have a lovely Tuesday
    my sweet and great friend 🙂

    Andro xxxx

    • Thank you my friend, I am glad you enjoyed it. It is sometimes difficult to take on historical figures, especially those held in such high regard.

  5. JFK, like Clinton, were “feel good”: Presidents. Despite their flaws, people felt they represented and cared for them . “Would we have seen the continued escalation of Vietnam?” probably. But would anyone have cared? I doubt it.

  6. I’m from the other side of the pond, but it is certainly true JFK had charisma: so many the world over admired him.

    • He did indeed have charisma, as did both his brothers. I think this was a family trait. This nation remain fascinated with the Kennedy family for three generations.

  7. I am always interested in knowing about those who surround powerful figures. JFK’s speech writers for instance, who were they? Where are they now? Keepers of his secrets aren’t the ones who fascinate me. Certainly in today’s climate of “transparency” the news media, even if it were a reliable reporting mechanism, instead of a chattering bobble head of speculation and opinion, wouldn’t facilitate worthwhile public discourse. What we are left with is fragments of history, largely unexamined for any value that might further ideals for education and peace. Excellent post, Val.

    On a side note – A photo of Nixon and JFK during the first ever televised presidential debate was used as a critical thinking exercise in the GED prep class for which I volunteer. The discussion question asked what could be extrapolated from the photo in which Nixon is sweating profusely and wiping his face with a handkerchief. His complexion is pale and his posture is not commanding. By comparison JFK appears confident, tan, and relaxed. The background info states that Nixon was recovering from an injury and in severe pain while JFK had taken the day before the debate to rest at the beach. Radio listeners polled afterward thought Nixon won the debate. Those who watched it on TV thought JFK was the clear winner. Interesting.

    • Consistently, those who only listened thought Nixon commanded the debates. I believe the overall outcome was 3 Nixon, 1 Kennedy. However, Kennedy was always the clear winner with those who watched, especially the first one where Nixon was not only recovering from an injury / surgery but also refused television make-up. Kennedy was clearly a man for the times, clearly the man of the generation.

      As I was reading through my library I wondered the same thing Honie, who were his speech writers. Who were his behind the scenes advisors, not those who surrounded him in public, but those he truly went to when he struggled with questions. He was honestly an elusive man in many ways despite the very public life he lived.

  8. For sure, those time were turbulent, and US-Soviet relations were quite tepid. The image of Camelot, his ability to deliver great words, being president in a growing television era, and the assassination all helped established a masked legacy.

    • It was fascinating to take a look back into this presidency of 1000 days. He was an interesting man, never intended by his father to hold such public office then thrust into his brothers shoes. He had to overcome much, including both his shyness and physical disability to reach the presidency.

      As I said, he was not my favorite. This is mostly though due to the escalation of Vietnam. I am I know very biased because of this issue, it is personal. I tried hard to balance my view but must admit it is difficult.

      His legacy, carried out ultimately by Johnson, well I wonder how much would have been accomplished with him in office? How much was the country responding to his untimely death, mourning the loss of Camelot.

  9. This is a fascinating series Val – so looking forward to the next instalment.
    I’ve sometimes wondered if a weakness for philandering ( to put it mildly) makes for a more tolerant humane person making decisions and judgements that affect a whole nation…???

    • That is a take on human nature I hadn’t thought of, one that might have to be given some real consideration. We only have two more presidents to go with this particular weakness laid at their doorstep though, so I am not certain we can judge by this pool.

      I am glad you are enjoying this one. I enjoy looking through my libarary at books I haven’t read in years for source material. I like also going and finding the source of quotes and finding my own quotes, not the ones find in normal places. So it is actually interesting to write, thus the slowness of production.

  10. What an interesting commentary. Thank you!

  11. I think the assassination made him the hero. We looked at the ones who lose their lives, be it at others’ hands or natural causes, as giving their lives in service and hence the ultimate sacrifice meant to atone for whatever wrongdoing may have occurred. On my island, dead azzhats are just that… still azzhats just dead now.

    Excellent post.

    • I think there were any number of things, including his election itself that made him a hero his assassination only secured his place forever. While me agree he was imperfect as a man and a president, he like most other men had both good and bad on his side. I find he was an enigma, even now all these years later it is difficult to find people who have written about the ‘real’ Jack Kennedy as a man, or the underbelly of the Camelot years.

      I find that fascinating in and of itself.

  12. Excellent and reflective post. I remember those days well.

    • I was still quite young but remember well my parents reaction. I remember being sent home from school.

      I find him an interesting character. His personality fascinating and his administration a combination of old and new but all seemingly willing to protect him from the glare of recrimination.

  13. Very enlightening, Valentine! And it seems honest and not emotional or partisan.
    I can just see what would have happened if that close an election were to happen in this day of instant info and pseudo journalism. Especially if masked by the religious right. Remember “chad”?!?!
    I fail to see (always have) why the promiscuity of our presidents is such a big deal, though. It happens every day around us, at home and in public. We have such a salacious appetite for scornful gossip, is that our Puritan heritage evolved into today’s vapid gossip fueled desire to point out the low moments of the famous, of our supposed role models? So we feel better, superior, especially if we haven’t yet been outed.
    I hope to enjoy more of this series. I imagine it was hard to not include many other bad behavior from the ‘royal” family. I admire how succinctly you touched on so much of the highlights/lowlights of JFK’s reign.
    We need to see the past and histories “heroes” without judgment, accepting them as the humans, with all their strengths and weaknesses, they are.

    thanks for an informative and easy to read piece of historic note.

    🙂

    • I have always found our fascination with the sex lives of our political figures to be bizzare. My initial reaction has always been, “so what?”

      JFK holds was a bridge in our history, generational and pivotal. His assassination brought a nation to its knees.

  14. For all his faults, I still view John F. Kennedy as a truly heroic American figure. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II where he almost lost his life. He didn’t forgo military service because he had “other priorities” and he didn’t get a cushy position in some local National Guard. And, despite his Roman Catholic faith, he didn’t seek a draft deferment to spend time doing missionary work in France. He had a true commitment to the American dream of equality and justice for everyone. This latter factor is why many White Southerners of the time didn’t like him. He also set lofty goals for the nation; mainly the space program and defeating communism (for better or worse). President Obama would do better to mold himself after Kennedy instead of Ronald Reagan.

    • His service in the Navy was in part the reason for the excacerbation of his health problems and his reliance on extensive drug cocktails for pain. I do not fault him, believe me he did great service including saving several lives. He was a war hero in the truest sense.

      When we look at his record though, especially for civil rights we should never do so through just his words but through his actions. His commitment was incomplete and his hand was often forced. Though his words were lofty, his actions did not jive and he was often quite angry with the civil rights leaders.

      On the other hand, his commitment to education was significant and to evening the entire playing field for all members of society was clear in each of his State of the Union addresses. It is why I not only quoted them but linked to them.

      As I said, though he is not my favorite president he holds a unique place in our history. I find his ambiquity interesting and I wonder what the world would have been like had he lived.

  15. I will have to disagree on this one, Val. I’m a big Kennedy fan, though I have more admiration for Bobby than Jack.

    Bay of Pigs was Eisenhower’s, and I find myself sympathetic with the lieutenant who didn’t change the general’s plan. And I think that Kennedy’s blockade, done over the objections of many on the Joint Chiefs of Staff was on of our finest moments as a country.

    And I must say, power and sex always ave gone together. They always will. I don’t think sex should play any role. I don’t care what Jack did (and if there were any proven allegations of pillow talk leaks we’d all know them). I don’t care what Clinton did. They were good presidents. They didn’t fuck up the country.

    And I honestly think that something broke in America that day in Dallas.

    • I agree something broke in America and something broke our political system that day. I also agree the Bay of Pigs was Eisenhowers plan, if I didn’t make that clear I should have. However, he really wasn’t prepared for the presidency, especially given his physical condition.

      I agree the blockade was a good alternative, however it required the UN to step in to cool down both the Soviets and the US. Based on everything I read, this would have likely escalated had it not been for the additional pressure.

      Do I particularly care about his affairs? No, but I do believe his emotional ambiguity played a role in his presidency. His lack of discretion and emotional attachment plays a role a role also.

      It is why I ask the questions at the end. Would we have seen the continued escalation of Vietnam? Many say our involvement would not have continued, yet he escalated it initially, prior to Bush this was one of the greatest military disasters of our lifetime.

      Of the Kennedy’s Bobby was by far my favorite, though he was also flawed. All this series does though is look at the Presidents one at a time, look at their accomplishments, their scandals and how America treated them.

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