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