JFK at 100
Monday would have been John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday. The martyred youngest elected President is preserved in our memory as the dashing and energetic Chief Executive with the beautiful wife and lovely kids. And, yes, we know all the tragedies that befell the family and, yes, we now know that JFK was a reckless philanderer. Nonetheless, Kennedy is a most significant figure in American history for far more than that. Politically, he is remembered most for the Cuban Missile Crisis and his public stance on Civil Rights --- and there, too, are complicated stories. It is hard to deny the sense of renewal that JFK brought to America in 1960/61. He sold himself as part of a “new generation” of leadership, highlighting that, even though his opponent (Richard Nixon) was about the same age, Nixon was married to the “old ideas” of the Eisenhower Republicans. Facing an electorate that was wary of electing a Roman Catholic, Kennedy declared “I am a Democrat, an American, and free man” and would not be influenced by his religion. Consider that statement in contrast with Mike Pence’s oft repeated, “I’m a Christian, a Conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” As we celebrate JFK’s centenary it is difficult not to see that presidency in high relief with the current administration --- and consider where we have, or have not gone, after a little more than a half-century of our modern history.
Let’s look at Kennedy’s two great challenges --- the Cuban Crisis and Civil Rights --- in comparison to where we currently stand in those areas. In 1962 the Cold War was frigid and the U.S.S.R. was determined to destabilize the United States in whatever ways possible. They had already erected the infamous wall in Berlin and were in control of the 8 members of the Warsaw Pact, standing toe-to-toe against NATO in Europe. For those folks who have grown up in the post-Soviet world, where Germany is unified and the Warsaw Pact nations have all become NATO allies, it is difficult to describe how tenuous the world felt in the early 1960’s. My recollection of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as an 8th grader who paid attention to the news & had a sense of the crisis’s scope, I most remember that all the adults in my world were concerned to the point of seeming scared. There was a genuine sense that we were on the brink of World War III. Kennedy, showing the cool of a Mississippi riverboat gambler, guided the nation through those dangerous shoals and into a future that continued jousting with the Soviets but never again approached the frightening level of the Cuban Crisis.
Modern Russia, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, is once again determined to destabilize the United States (and Europe). The difference, of course, is that we now have an administration that believes rapprochement can be achieved with Russia. That Trump campaign officials may have actually colluded with Russia to tilt, or at the very least, disrupt the 2016 presidential election illustrates just how far we are from the Kennedy years. Every day we have a new story about this ongoing “Russia” investigation --- most recently with Jared Kushner, Princeling-in-Chief, attempting to set up some kind of “back channel” communication at the Russian Embassy! It should not be surprising that a President who has no understanding of United States history, who needs his briefings presented with graphics & his name featured in every paragraph so he will pay attention does not recognize that Russia is an adversary and a threat. While we may not see Russia in a “Cold War” light, it is certainly time to realistically recognize how dangerous Putin and Russia are to our country.
As regards Civil Rights, JFK struck the chord in a June 11, 1963 televised address to the nation:
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 Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills that were passed in 1965 were the result of this initiative and the beginning of “the Silent Majority” which morphed into our current Tea Party/Freedom Caucus. JFK’s statement, focusing on “all Americans” receiving “equal rights and equal opportunities” stands in stark contrast to the current administration’s stance toward minority groups, particularly Muslim citizens in the United States. Specifically regarding immigration, JFK had written “A Nation of Immigrants” for the Anti-Defamation League in 1958 and reiterated his belief as President:
The interaction of disparate cultures, the vehemence of the ideals that led the immigrants here, the opportunity offered by a new life, all gave America a flavor and a character that make it as unmistakable and as remarkable to people today as it was to Alexis de Tocqueville in the early part of the nineteenth century.
The current President has no idea who deTocqueville was, of course, but, worse, has total disregard for this nation’s history of welcoming immigrants and seeing that as an historic and national strength.
JFK was born May 29, 1917. Imagine if he had lived long enough to see what has become of the nation he led in the early 1960’s. A resurrected Cold War and a rollback on Civil Rights would probably find Kennedy distressed and baffled, as many of us are.