Sunday, October 13, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Thirty-Five, The Reflective Chrome Mask of the New Frontier

They sat on the stony ground/
And he took out a cigarette out/
And everyone else came down/
To listen./
He said "In winter 1963/
It felt like the world would freeze/
With John F. Kennedy/
And The Beatles..." - "Life In a Northern Town" Dream Academy

Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings. - William Shakespeare

I grew up in the shade of the John F. Kennedy administration.

Oh, I was born in 1970 but by the time I was in school and learning history JFK had been inserted into the textbooks, which makes it ancient history to me.  But it was still recent enough, much like the Eisenhower years, that I personally knew people - hi Dad, hi Mom! - who were living in that era and coping with the moments as they happened then.

And as I grew up, talking about history at the dinner table or watching the TV shows and the movies and the anniversary specials about Nov. 22nd, it got to be pretty clear that Dad was not a huge fan of JFK.  When I got older to be braver about asking Dad's opinions on JFK I did, and Dad gave a few points on Kennedy's dissembling and dishonesty which to be fair fit a good amount of the textbook materials I'd read to that point.

What did surprise me was when I got to University of Florida and ran into a college history professor who shared the same disdain for Kennedy.  Having gone in with the stereotypical view of professors as liberals, and informed by my Old School Republican Dad of how liberal JFK was, I was just a tad shocked.  And I found myself raising a hand and interjecting that while Kennedy's administrative goals were not as grandly achieved as the hagiographers would make it, I argued that Kennedy was an effective President as someone who inspired action in others, a form of leadership through oratory and forward thinking.

This was about the time I learned of James David Barber's Presidential Character textbook - it might have been the same class - but it was awhile before I read up on Barber's review of Kennedy's tenure to see if I could be right about Kennedy's inspirational qualities.

Was Kennedy a liberal, a conservative, or what?  His energy was apparent, its direction obscure.  He seemed detached, cool, reluctant to commit himself ideologically... Kennedy's priorities - the causes he would be willing to go to the wall for - were unclear... (p.342)
There was not a great deal of talk about "style" in politics before the Kennedys.  The campaign had an elan, a dash and flair... People saw in him what they wanted to: the Irish lad made good, the crisp Harvard mind, the battle-scarred veteran, the scion of unfathomable wealth, the handsome humble fellow destined for mysterious greatness.  Whatever it was, it added up to charisma... For all his apparent modesty - perhaps in part because of that - Jack left people feeling they could do better and enjoy it.  Even then, Kennedy and the Kennedys went around enspiriting people, calling forth their hope... (p.357)

Kennedy as the Inspiration figure: he had crafted for himself a mask of sorts upon which other people's beliefs could find reflection.  The mask itself projected the image of Kennedy being motivated towards accomplishments - fixing the economy, fighting the Russians over Berlin and Cuba, working on civil rights, pushing a space race program to reach the Moon by the end of the decade "not because these things were easy but because they are hard."  To that persona, Barber determined JFK to be an Active-Positive character, considering above all the Adaptive trait that such a veiled identity allowed Kennedy more flexibility in his decisions.

But that mask was also infuriating for people who had to deal with Kennedy, and for both his allies who expected so much more and his enemies who felt his youthful inexperience and weakened Presidential mandate: He barely won a close race against Richard Nixon in 1960, and was balanced by a Congress that was more conservative and demanding than an A-P President would like.

For all the efforts of presenting himself as an ardent defender of the growing Civil Rights movement under Martin Luther King, Kennedy moved about as fast as Eisenhower did during the first few years of his tenure: it wasn't until the lid blew off the cauldron with Birmingham in 1963 that Kennedy got more out in front on the issue.  For all his being a Cold Warrior fighting the Soviets, the Far Right types pushing for a hot war - especially JFK's own Joint Chiefs of the military - were frustrated that Kennedy wouldn't invade Cuba outright nor stop the Soviets from building the Berlin Wall.  And for all of Kennedy's inheritance of the New Deal from FDR and Truman, Kennedy's economic platform seemed more pro-business than even Ike's tenure.

What seemed - still seems - like ineffectiveness to observers was really Kennedy's Active-Positive traits of being Adaptive, Compromising, and less-discussed but more subtle trait of Game-Playing (read Barber's review of the Kennedy family traits that JFK grew up in, p.343 to 347 and elsewhere).  By Game-Playing I mean "being a chessmaster," someone who looked at the board, figured out how the pieces moved, better still figured out why those pieces move that way, and game out a situation (including deal-making compromises) that would lead to wins.  It's also known as "Playing the Long Game," and some of the more successful A-P Presidents are masters of it.

Where the generals wanted war, Kennedy saw the larger picture of global disaster (Mutually Assured Destruction) if the U.S. and U.S.S.R fought each other directly.  Kennedy wasn't too thrilled either to find he'd been lied to about the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba: the estimations of support were way off, and the organizers were really operating on the belief that once committed in part (the landing) the U.S. would commit in total (air support) if the invasion floundered.  When Kennedy didn't bite, they felt betrayed... even though they betrayed him first with unrealistic projections.

Like Truman, Kennedy was not keen on war as the ends of any engagement with our Cold War opponents.  When the Soviets began their Wall around Berlin to stop the out-flowing tide of refugees, it was another call to action for the hardliners... but Kennedy held it in check, showing action through calling up more troops to show Khrushchev he was serious, but letting the Soviets finish their wall because it ultimately kept the peace (if more people kept fleeing Eastern Europe it would well have been war).

The biggest test was of course the Cuban Missile Crisis: for all intents the closest the entire planet got to nuclear war.  The United States was still backing exile Cubans to overthrow Castro even with the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs on everyone's mind: the Soviets also weren't thrilled with a set of nuclear warheads placed within Turkey figuratively a stone's throw away from Moscow.  In response, the Soviets sent missiles into Cuba, a figurative stone's throw from Washington DC.  Literally a stone's throw away from Florida.

When the U.S. found out... when the spy plane came back with photographic proof... we entered the 13 most panicked days in American (and global) history.  The generals - Air Force General LeMay in particular - wanted to invade Cuba and hit the missile strikes with air and land assaults before they felt the missiles could be deployed (they didn't know or didn't care to know that some of the missiles were ready to go).  Taking the diplomatic route without a show of strength would have taken too long, given the Soviets and Cubans more time to obstruct and hide their efforts.

Kennedy took the third option (A-Ps usually do): he formed a naval blockade instead, daring the Soviets to cross it in such a way that the burden would be on them.  It wasn't full war, but it was hardline enough to convince Khrushchev and the rest of the Soviets that Kennedy had strength to follow through.  And even as that played across the TV sets, the White House kept communications open with the Soviets, and then jumped on an opportune moment when two different proposals had been floated to take the earlier better deal.  When the crisis ended with a public agreement that the Soviets will remove the missiles and that the U.S. would not invade Castro's Cuba (and a secret arrangement to remove those ICBMs from Turkey), everyone - except the war hawks who wanted to fight the dirty Commies - breathed a sigh of relief.

In all other matters, Kennedy kept playing the long game, stringing out decisions ranging from Vietnam - neither fully committing to efforts there, nor pulling completely out - to the Civil Rights movement.  While not as Confident as Truman had been to make the Big Decision, JFK was more content to work behind the scenes and wait for the right moments.  Even though such moments were running out for him.

As for Kennedy's assassination... well, now is not really the time to discuss it.  A more appropriate moment will be the 50th anniversary - yes it has been that long - coming up this November 22nd.  I'll talk more about it then... and discuss my arguments for one of the conspiracy theories - yes I am a conspiracy nut, I hope I am honest enough to admit to that...

The thing about Kennedy in the final analysis is that he's a mirror to us, to the nation, to our psyche.  We see of him what we want to see: the hopes or fears he generated, the weakness or strength he conveyed, the nobility or the crassness his fans admired and his haters despised.  We apply our theories and our conspiracies on him and his administration, which ended all in "What Ifs" and "Never Weres".  The best we can say is that Kennedy's New Frontier - a dazzling dream of ongoing progress into a shiny chrome future - died with him that day in Dallas: neither of Kennedy's immediate successors had the vision or the skill to pull it off the way Kennedy could (even LBJ, who tried but had his own personality flaws trip him up, but that comes later).  A practical review of the Kennedy years would be doable, but no one would notice because they'll still insist on seeing the ghosts of their beliefs.

We may not get a clear-sighted view of JFK's tenure for another 50 years.

Next Up: The Best Horse-Trading Brow-Beater You'd Ever Meet Who Could Sell You Anything... Just Not The Idea Of Him As President

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