American Presidents, Johnson, Medicare, Obama, Religion, Toyota

It Is Never Easy…

lbjWhen Congress created the Medicare health insurance program in 1965 and President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark legislation – that’s LBJ handing one of his pens to Harry Truman who had long advocated for the program – the law gave the Johnson Administration less than a year to implement the vast new groundbreaking program. More than 19 million elderly Americans were immediately eligible for Medicare coverage in the summer of 1966 when the law went into effect, but there was widespread concern that the program wouldn’t work.

As Sarah Kliff wrote recently in the Washington Post “nobody knew whether the new program would provide benefits to millions or fail completely.”

“What will happen then, on that summer day when the federally insured system of paying hospital bills becomes reality?” Nona Brown, a New York Times reporter, wondered in a story published in April 1966. “Will there be lines of old folks at hospital doors, with no rooms to put them in, too few doctors and nurses and technicians to care for them?”

Many of the same questions are being asked now about the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act (ACA), particularly in light of the news dump in the middle of the July 4 holiday period that one of the most controversial portions of the law, the employer mandate, will be postponed for a year. Obama and those charged with implementing the ACA should hope they fare as well as those uncertain bureaucrats did back in 1966. By the time Medicare took effect 47 summers ago more than 93% of eligible seniors had enrolled, but it required an extraordinary effort to properly launch the program that was once labeled by the American Medical Association as the “beginning of socialized medicine.” Today, of course, politicians mess with Medicare at their peril – ask Paul Ryan – doctors most often now complain about reimbursement levels and the program that many once thought couldn’t be made to work is one of the most popular government programs ever.

How did LBJ and his administration pull it off? And are there lessons in that history of almost 50 years ago for those struggling to implement Obamacare amid predictions that a “train wreck” in coming?

One fundamental difference between 1966 and 2014 (when the ACA goes into effect) is the personality and style of the men occupying the Oval Office. Lyndon Johnson possessed an almost obsessive love of pulling the levers of presidential power. With his White House micro-managing almost everything the U.S. Forest Service actually sent its personnel out into the woods to find “hermits” and sign them up for Medicare. The government hired thousands of temporary workers, opened hundreds of new offices and literally sent people door-to-door campaign style to find eligible elderly folks. It helped that no one sued the Johnson Administration over the implementation of Medicare and that both the government and the country were smaller in 1966. It also didn’t hurt Medicare implementation that the White House and both houses of Congress were controlled by the party that had for a generation or more pushed for its passage. LBJ had no John Boehner to contend with.

Still with many doctors and hospitals skeptical of Medicare the Johnson Administration faced major hurdles in the implementation effort, including the obvious need to get providers suited up for the launch. Government workers enlisted the American Hospital Association to educate hospital administrators and, believe it or not, the television networks donated time to promote the program. Private insurers were contracted to serve as intermediaries with program participants. When Social Security Administrator Robert Ball briefed the Johnson Cabinet in May of 1966 he confidently predicted that there would be some rough spots, but that the implementation would come off on time and it did.

One issue Johnson’s bureaucrats had to contend with that thankfully doesn’t exist today was a provision in the Medicare act that required hospitals to be certified in advance as being in full compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In other words hospitals could not participate in the new program unless they supplied services equally to whites and blacks. Some southern hospitals held out for a time, but eventually came around when it became apparent that elderly whites as well as African-Americans were being denied coverage.

On July 25, 1966 the New York Times reported that “M-Day” had come and gone with civil rights compliance the only major problem. The fears of vast overcrowding of hospitals or that elderly would resist signing up and paying a $3 per month fee simply didn’t materialize.

Obama has his own sticky issues, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell threatening the heads of major professional sports leagues if they even think about helping spread the word on the ACA and the House of Representatives still voting regularly to repeal the law.  Once Medicare passed LBJ had little overt opposition to contend with. In truth the Republican Party of the 1960’s was sharply split over Medicare. High profile conservative leaders like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan warned against the evils of socialism, with Goldwater asking what was next after free health care for the elderly, a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink.”

Still four of the eight Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee supported the bill in committee in 1965. In the House 68 Republicans opposed the bill on final passage – including Representatives Bob Dole of Kansas and George H.W. Bush of Texas – but 70 House Republicans voted in favor. A sizable number of conservative Democrats, many from the south – the parties in those days actually had liberal and conservative wings – also opposed Medicare.

So will implementation of the Affordable Care Act crumble under the weight of the complexity of the law and the still fierce Republican opposition? Barack Obama certainly faces obstacles to implementing his signature accomplishment that Johnson didn’t, including a hectoring House Speaker and at least a minority of the country that remains deeply skeptical of the new law. And, as he has before, Obama may find that he has to step up, become more visible and employ his considerable oratorical skills to save the day and define what success and failure would look like.

After ceding almost all of the decision making about crafting the ACA to Congress the president has done a consistently awful job of communicating about the finished product leaving many Americans to ponder, or more likely not, the “eyes glazes over” complexity of the legislation. The naysayers have largely won the battle to define the ACA, just as LBJ refused to allow Goldwater and others to define Medicare as a “communist plot,” and they now seem ready to try to win the battle over its implementation. But wishing Obama were more like Johnson in his willingness to use the power of his position is a little like damning the cat for not being a dog. Yet, it is unmistakably true that forceful, engaged executive leadership is most needed when policy and politics get the most difficult. That is a lesson for the ages.

Let’s give the last word to former federal Budget Director Alice Rivlin who could give the communicator-in-chief a few lessons in discussing complexity and politics. Rivlin wrote at the Brookings Center’s website: “In the polarized politics of our time, the opponents of the ACA have attacked it both as a federal government power grab—described as “socialism” by people who have forgotten what socialism is—and as overly complicated. But if it really were a federal power grab it wouldn’t be so complicated. The complexity is created by our two traditions of relying on private markets whenever possible and preserving diversity at the state level. These traditions are part of our political DNA, and if we value them—and most of us do–we should not complain that they make governance complicated.”

A Democratic administration once implemented a groundbreaking new law amid much skepticism and against considerable opposition. Times have changed, but it should be possible again. We’ll see.

 

Baseball, GOP, Johnson, Politics, Religion, Supreme Court

It’s the Demographics, Stupid

The modern Republican Party has a major problem with Hispanic voters and watching the party struggle to address that problem increasingly reminds me of the great Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a -dope” strategy during his bruising fight in Zaire in 1974. In this case Barack Obama is playing Ali and the GOP is cast as George Foreman, the guy who punched himself out of contention, swinging wildly while Ali crouched against the ropes and survived.

On the very day the GOP issued a highly critical 100-page report on its performance during the 2012 election and what it might do to get back on track, Republican Senators, including Chuck Grassley of Iowa and David Vitter of Louisiana, indicated that they will oppose Obama’s pick to be Secretary of Labor. That pick, of course, is Thomas Perez currently the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and a man with a classic personal resume that includes being the son of Dominican immigrants and a Harvard Law PhD.

Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions must not have gotten the memo about Republicans wanting to reach out to Hispanic voters after the party’s dismal showing in the last election with that rapidly growing demographic group. Sessions termed the Perez nomination “unfortunate and needlessly divisive.” Ali couldn’t have done a better job of setting up the rope-a-dope. As Republicans prepare to throw wasted punches at the highest ranking Hispanic Cabinet appointee, Obama pivots to his talking points about inclusion, living the American dream and finding a place in the vast ocean of American politics for everyone – especially the demographic group that will increasingly decide elections in the 21st Century.

Here is just one telling statistic about the GOP Hispanic problem as compiled by The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza: in the 2012 election just one in ten Republican voters were non-white. That is a remarkable number. At the same time, the percentage of the electorate that is white has steadily fallen from nearly 90% in 1980 to just over 70% now. Little wonder that the GOP has lost four of the last five national elections as its base – older white voters – decreases as a percentage of the overall voting population. These numbers also help explain why some in the GOP seem so hung up on making it more difficult, particularly for non-whites, to vote and why the party’s national base has dwindled to a few very conservative western states and the south of the old Confederacy.

Take a look around the west to gauge the GOP’s challenge with the changing demographics of the electorate. Arizona’s population is now 30% Hispanic, Idaho’s Hispanic population is more than 11%, while Oregon’s is 12% and all are growing rapidly. Oregon’s Hispanic population, for example, has grown by 64% since 2000. Similar numbers exist in Colorado, Nevada and Texas. California’s demographics likely mean the state is out of play for the GOP for the foreseeable future.

The left cross that follows the right jab on these demographic numbers signals even more long-term worry for the national GOP. While Mitt Romney, the champion of “self deportation,” gathered in 27% of the Hispanic vote last year – the lowest percentage in modern times for a Republican – the party has actually been losing Hispanic voters for years. Seventy percentage of Hispanics now firmly associated with the Democratic Party, a number that has shown an almost unbroken upward trend for more that the last decade.

The heart of the problem for the GOP is, of course, immigration policy. “If Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies,” the GOP’s new post-election report states. “In essence, Hispanic voters tell us our party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door.”

But in true rope-a-dope fashion one of the party’s best connections to Hispanic voters former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, while trying to navigate the choppy waters to his right and left, recently sent wildly conflicting messages about his own position on whether real reform includes a “path to citizenship” for people who have come to the U.S. illegally. The party’s two highest ranking Hispanic elected officials – Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – are so beholden to the Tea Party wing of the GOP that they can’t get on the same page regarding immigration policy.

In the final analysis, however, the rope-a-dope comparison really doesn’t work for one basic reason. In his famous 1974 Rumble in the Jungle Muhammad Ali absorbed tremendous punishment from George Foreman before Foreman finally wore himself out and lost the fight. When it comes to cementing the Democratic hold on Hispanic voters Barack Obama really isn’t taking any punches, or perhaps more correctly the GOP isn’t landing any. Obama can set back and watch as old, white GOP Senators like Jeff Sessions and Chuck Grassley wear themselves out over the appointment of an Hispanic to run the U.S. Department of Labor. Such opposition sends a powerful message that the old, white party just isn’t interested in the new, emerging majority. In the end Obama wins even if he loses on a Cabinet appointment as it becomes more and more obvious where the fastest growing demographic group in nation feels most at home.

History will record that 31 Republican Senators – Sessions and Grassley included – voted against the confirmation Justice Sonya Sotomayor, the first Hispanic appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The vast majority of those Republican “no” votes came from the South and West; from places like Texas, Arizona, Idaho and Nevada were before long that kind of vote will become a litmus test of whether you have put out the welcome mat or slammed the door shut. Here’s a guess that failing to cast an historic vote in 2009 to put the first Hispanic woman to the Supreme Court won’t look so good in the history books.

In 1967 when Lyndon Johnson nominated the great civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall to become the first African-American on the high court only 11 Senators voted against his confirmation. Ten of those Senators were white southern Democrats who made the raw political calculation that they couldn’t risk the home state political backlash that would follow a  vote to put a black man on the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, Democrats fundamentally changed as a national party as a result of Johnson and civil rights in the 1960’s and, as Johnson correctly forecast, that change cost Democrats the South. But it also helped guarantee that African-American voters would remain solidly in the Democratic camp in every subsequent national election.

The question for current Republicans is whether they are willing to make such a fundamental shift; a shift that will rile the Tea Party and the aging, white base of the GOP?  It is worth noting that the lone Republican vote against Thurgood Marshall in 1967 was Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a fellow who would find himself right at home in the current very conservative, very white Republican Party. Enough said.

 

2012 Election, Andrus, FDR, John Kennedy, Johnson, Minnick, Religion, September 11, Vice Presidents

The Veep

As the analysis continues around Mitt Romney’s selection of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate a little history may inform how, generally speaking, unimportant the Number Two’s are to the eventual success of a national ticket.

For sure Ryan brings youth, partisan excitement, strong conservative credentials and a certain policy wonk attractiveness to the GOP ticket, not to mention the potential to put dependably blue Wisconsin into play in November. Still, to believe that a relatively unknown member of the House of Representatives really could help the ticket requires a major break with what history tells us about the running mate.

Only twice in the 20th Century – 1932 and 1960 – did running mates really make an electoral difference. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt needed to give the second spot on the Democratic ticket to House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas in order to secure his party’s nomination. In those long ago days, Democratic convention rules required a two-third vote of the delegates to bestow the party’s blessing on any candidate. FDR flirted with trying to change the controversial rule that had forced the Democrats to a marathon 103 ballots in 1924, but even the popular Governor of New York had to ultimately admit that he would have to find some way to command a super majority in order to secure the nomination.

Garner, a tough-talking, bourbon-drinking, cigar-smoking southerner, was a favorite of the party’s more conservative wing and had the backing of, among others, newspaper magnate and would-be kingmaker William Randolph Hearst. Garner also controlled a large block of convention votes from his own state, as well as from California. Facing a convention deadlock, FDR and Garner did what politicians used to do – they made a deal. Garner knew that he couldn’t get the nomination for himself, but could potentially deny it to Roosevelt. A dark horse alternative could have happened at the Democratic convention in 1932 and think for a moment how that would have changed history.

Cactus Jack, a the Speaker was called, threw his block of votes behind the more liberal FDR in exchange for the vice presidential nomination. The Boston-Austin axis was created and the powerful ticket – a New York patrician and a Texas populist – coasted to victory over the humbled Herbert Hoover. A vice presidential decision made a big difference in 1932.

Another unlikely pairing, a northeastern patrician and a wily pol from the Texas Hill Country, came together to win the 1960 election. John F. Kennedy was afraid he might lose Texas to Republican Richard Nixon, since Dwight Eisenhower had carried the state in the two previous elections, so he overruled his brother and campaign manager, Bobby Kennedy, and gave the Number Two spot to the Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. Arguably, Johnson not only helped the Democratic ticket carry his home state, but also helped ensure narrow Kennedy margins in a number of other southern states. Another vice presidential candidate made a big difference in 1960.

But, that’s it.

It’s difficult to find many other examples in our history – maybe 1864 when Lincoln created a national unity ticket with Democrat Andrew Johnson – where the second place on the ticket helped contribute to victory. More often vice presidential candidates have created problems rather than victories. Think of Sarah Palin four years ago or Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who was dumped from the Democratic ticket in 1972. And, more often than not I would argue, a vice presidential decision is made for personal rather than strategic reasons. It is, after all, the rarest of rare chances when one politician can completely remake another.

Harry Truman picked the older Alben Barkley, the Senate Democratic leader in 1948, because Barkley was loyal, Truman liked him and it seemed to be Barkley’s turn. There is evidence to support the contention that Nixon selected the virtually unknown Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew in 1968 because Agnew was sure not to upstage the presidential candidate. When FDR abandoned Garner in 1940 – the eight-year vice president publicly disagreed with Roosevelt’s quest for a third term – Roosevelt insisted on the wonkish, not particularly popular Henry Wallace as his running mate. (Henry Wallace is the answer to a great political trivia question: Who went from being Secretary of Agriculture to the Vice Presidency?) If anything, Wallace hurt the Democratic ticket in 1940 and FDR in turn dumped the Iowan from the 1944 ticket in favor of Truman. The GOP candidate in 1940, Wendell Willkie, gave the Number Two spot to Sen. Charles L. McNary of Oregon, primarily because McNary was well-liked in Washington and had the political experience that the businessman Willkie lacked.

So, Paul Ryan may – or may not – turn out to be an inspired choice as Mitt Romney’s running mate, but if he actually helps the ticket to victory in November he’ll be running in the face of much political history. A safer political bet would be that a relative unknown Congressman from a Midwest state with a long paper trail of controversial votes and policy positions will prove to be a drag on the ticket. There is little precedent to support the idea that a vice presidential candidate is the “game changer” that the pundits have been discussing since last weekend.

 

2012 Election, American Presidents, Johnson, Minnick, Obama, Pete Seeger, Religion, Romney

Unfair? Sure…And Politics Always Is

Early in his political career Lyndon Johnson is famously said to have wanted to make an outrageous charge – allegedly involving sex and an animal – against a political opponent. His staff pushed back arguing that the allegation was untrue, but Johnson was unmoved. Of course the charge was untrue, Johnson said, he just wanted his opponent to have to deny it.

I thought of the old LBJ story while watching the charge made last week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Over the weekend Reid was pummeled – properly so if you believe politics is always a gentlemen’s game played according to Marquis of Queensberry rules – for saying he’d been told that there were many years when Romney paid no income taxes.

The Romney camp and the candidate himself immediately and vehemently denied the allegation with the GOP chairman going so far as to call Reid “a dirty liar.”

But, whether you believe Reid is guilty of gutter politics or the old amateur boxer is playing a politic game of what The Great Muhammad Ali once called “rope a dope,” the fact is that the Romney camp still finds itself in the awkward position of being able to decisively disprove Reid’s allegation only by releasing many more years of Romney’s tax returns, something the candidate continues to refuse to do.

Two things about the Romney tax returns and Reid allegations are, I think, noteworthy.

First, the Majority Leader’s gut punching anti-Romney attack was launched by a guy who survived one of the nastiest political campaigns in the country two years ago. With horrible approval numbers, Reid methodically fought his way back from comatose to win re-election in Nevada against a Tea Party darling. It wasn’t pretty, but was a win.

As an old Nevada Republican friend of mine, Greg Ferraro, told the Las Vegas Sun: “Harry Reid always seems to find a way to win. He never wins big and he never wins pretty, and the rumors of his demise are always greatly exaggerated. He always finds a way.”

Reid is of the generation of national Democrats who watched two of their recent presidential candidates – Michael Dukakis and John Kerry – run lackluster campaigns against opponents who identified them as squishy liberals, weak on crime and national defense. A lot of these Democrats, Harry Reid included, went to school on those and other similar campaigns and concluded that throwing a political punch is almost always better than taking one. Harry Reid is a puncher, even if some of the blows arguably land below the belt.

The second noteworthy issue relates to Romney’s tax returns, and here too Democrats have learned something from past campaigns. In and of itself Romney’s refusal to expose more about his personal finances is probably not anywhere close to a decisive factor in the current presidential race. It is, however, a window into the one real strength Romney brings to his campaign – his business experience.

With steady and persistent effort, rather like water dripping on a rock, the Obama campaign has chipped away at Romney’s one great strength, planting questions and raising doubt. Did Romney create jobs at Bain Capital or ship jobs overseas? Did he make his money the old fashioned way or by taking advantage of companies loaded up with debt and then shipping his own profits into off shore tax havens? Does Romney’s executive experience equip him to serve as a champion of the middle class in a tough economy or would his tax returns show a guy in such fundamentally foreign economic territory that he would never relate to Joe Six Pack?

Romney partisans, many pundits and even some Democrats find this “let him deny it” brand of politics unattractive, but the fact is the jabbing at Romney has kept him off his game now for going on two weeks.

In the boxing ring Ali would jab and move, jab and move and occasionally let his opponent, rope a dope style, tire himself out while The Champ bounced along the ropes. Then with a punched out opponent flaying away, Ali would launch a flurry of blows that really stung.

The overall approach may be unfair to Romney and I would argue that major elections should be about bigger things, but the fact is that right now Romney is tiring himself politically by responding to the jabs that continue to erode the story line that he hopes to ride to the White House.

And here we are in the political dog days of August where you have to believe the real fight hasn’t even begun. Make him deny it may not be fair, but little in politics is and this whole episode proves one thing for certain. If Mitt Romney could release his tax returns and explain them he would. He can’t and therefore won’t.

He’s left to deny without being able to prove. Lyndon would have loved it.

 

 

Air Travel, Baseball, Books, Britain, Brother, Football, Johnson, Politics, Reagan, Religion

Weekend Reads

Robert Caro, Jerry Kramer and More

There is a fascinating piece planned for publication Sunday, and already online, in The New York Times on legendary Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro. Caro is about to release volume four of his projected five volume bio of LBJ. To date he has produced 3,388 fascinating pages.

Caro’s work is one of the greatest studies ever of the accumulation and use of political power. The piece also has great insights into the author’s methods, which could properly be described as “old school.” He dresses for work every day in jacket and tie, for example. Great piece.

Northwest Nazarene University political scientist Steve Shaw and one of his colleagues, English Department Chair Darrin Grinder, have just released an important new book that I highly recommend. The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey wrote about the book – “The Presidents and Their Faith” – earlier this week. From Jefferson’s own version of the Gospels to Woodrow Wilson’s Presbyterian minister father to Richard Nixon’s Quaker roots, Shaw and Grinder give us wonderful mini-portraits of 43 presidents and their personal and political faith. With so much talk of politics and religion, the book couldn’t be timelier. Highly recommended.

Insightful piece in The Atlantic by staff writer Conor Friedersdorf that explains why national Republicans have spent 20 years searching for the next Ronald Reagan and haven’t found him.

“Today, would be Reagans with less charisma, less executive experience and less time spent honing their thinking and communication skills are somehow expecting to succeed even as they operate in a less advantageous political environment. Of course it isn’t happening. And it’s no wonder conservatives are divided in who they support.”

And finally, I am very aware (and happy) that baseball is back in action. My Giants open today in the city by the bay. But, the best sports book I’ve read in a while is an older book, published in 1968, Instant Replay by Green Bay Packer great and University of Idaho grad Jerry Kramer. The New York Times called Kramer’s book the “best behind the scene glimpse of pro football ever produced.”

Some think the book’s candor has contributed to Kramer being passed over for the NFL Hall of Fame. If so, that’s ridiculous. Kramer is the most deserving NFL player not in the Hall and that oversight, at long last, should be corrected. Get a copy of the book and read it. It’s great.

 

Air Travel, Books, John Kennedy, Johnson, Religion

LBJ

Our Eternally Fascinating and Flawed President

The steady re-examination and reinterpretation of our 36th president is one of the most interesting developments in the shifting world of political history and biography. There are new and often very good books all the time about the Roosevelts, Kennedy and, more often now, Reagan, but the story of the big, drawling Texan is simply a political historian’s dream.

The fact that LBJ biographer Robert Caro is about to release the fourth volume of his massive and nearly life-long work on Johnson was, in and of itself, a significant news story. The book, Passage to Power, is out May 1 and covers the Kennedy assassination and deals with the fact that the ambitious then-vice president had all but given up aspirations to sit in the Oval Office. Caro has another volume still to come. To mark the release of the book, Caro has written a piece in The New Yorker and the magazine has collected seven different pieces Caro has written over the years about Johnson. The collection amounts to soul food for the political junkie.

Meantime, another fine new book on Johnson’s presidency is just out. Indomitable Will by Mark Updegrove – he’s the director of the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin – tells the story of Johnson’s Shakespearean presidency through oral histories of those, LBJ included, who lived the experience.

Dozens of other books have been written about Johnson and Robert Dallek’s two volume treatment remains among the best. There will be more.

During his presidency, Lyndon Johnson was loathed by many for what some saw as his unsophisticated manner and for having inherited the presidency that John Kennedy’s should have held much longer. Others came to despise Johnson for his escalation of the war in Southeast Asia or his vast expansion of the social safety net in the guise of Johnson’s Great Society. Still, Johnson remains one of the pivotal figures of 20th Century politics. Rarely has there been a better politician in the White House. Rarely has there been a more effective senate majority leader. Johnson’s impact on his moment in time survives years after his death and for anyone who loves politics and the American story will find the new volumes and many of the old fascinating reading. Put another way, you cannot begin to understand the politics of the United States in 2012 – the economy, health care, foreign policy, race – without an appreciation for the life and times of Lyndon Johnson.

 

 

American Presidents, Baseball, Britain, Dallek, Election of 1944, John Kennedy, Johnson, Obama, Politics, Reagan

Kennedy

Enduring Legacy and Debate

The abbreviated presidency and unfinished life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is, 48 years after his murder in Dallas, one enduring subject in our politics that can launch a thousand debates.

Was Kennedy a mediocre, adequate or great president?  Is the “myth” of Camelot or the “substance” of a star crossed and tragic tenure just so much rosy memory or was Kennedy’s short presidency a grand testament to a simpler, elegant, even better time?

Would Kennedy have avoided Vietnam or would his hawkish anti-Communism have taken us precisely where Lyndon Johnson eventually did? And just who was Kennedy? Was he the pampered, womanizing son of vast wealth who floated through his 1,000 days with little to show for it or was he the tough, demanding, even brutally efficient Irish-Catholic intellectual who overcame debilitating health problems to be the cool head in the room handling the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Since everyone seems to have a Kennedy opinion these days, I’ll offer my own: Kennedy was all of the above and, curiously, the complexity of the man, the inability to fit him neatly into a liberal box, the roguish charm masking a unrelenting ambition make him all the more interesting. Like all truly fascinating people, Jack Kennedy was many men – all touched by unthinkable tragedy – and that, I believe, is why the fascination with him never seems to diminish.

The Kennedy Cult

Ross Douthat, the young conservative columnist for the New York Times set off the most recent round of Kennedy introspection with a piece entitled “The Enduring Cult of Kennedy.” Douthat set out to debunk three of what he sees as the most offensive Kennedy “myths” – that JFK was a good president who, had he lived, might have been a great one; that he would have kept us from the awful Vietnam disaster and that Kennedy governed during a time of vitriolic right wing hatred of everything he did and stood for.

Summing up, Douthat wrote of Kennedy: “We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement. We find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame.”

Kennedy’s best and most even handed biographer, Robert Dallek, felt compelled to respond to Douthat’s “anti-Kennedy overkill” with a letter to the editor.  Dallek’s book – An Unfinished Life – was the first to report in detail on Kennedy’s health problems and remains the best and most comprehensive story of the man.

“No serious historian,” Dallek wrote to the Times, “would suggest that John F. Kennedy’s unfinished presidency deserves to be ranked with those of Washington, Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he deserves better than Mr. Douthat gives him.”

Dallek has written elegantly and convincingly about why it is that Kennedy’s reputation still soars and Ronald Reagan’s, as well. Dallek argues it has less to do with bills passed or wars won than with the sense of hope and possibility both men brought to the bully pulpit of the White House.

“What gives Kennedy and Reagan such a strong hold on American imaginations is not what they did but what they said and still stand for,” Dallek wrote recently. “Both presidents are remembered as optimists promising better futures. Kennedy had the New Frontier; for Reagan, it was Morning in America. Both remain inspirational voices that in a time of doubt give people hope. And when you put either man alongside Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, they seem especially appealing.”

“The national embrace of Kennedy and Reagan is at one with the attraction to nostrums,” Dallek wrote. “All we need is the right man with the right formula and all will be well again. If only it were that easy.”

Vietnam

For as long as we debate the legacy of Vietnam there will questions of whether Kennedy, had he lived to be re-elected in 1964, would have been smart enough to keep the U.S. commitment to southeast Asia in check. The late Idaho Sen. Frank Church was convinced, as he told me in the late 1970’s, that Kennedy would never have committed U.S. ground troops in the way Johnson did. Church’s opinion was also held by Robert McNamara and Theodore Sorensen, among many others.

Truth be told there is no way of knowing what he would have done, but the lessons he learned from both the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the missile crisis surely had an impact on Kennedy who may have been, in terms of American and world history, the best read president since Teddy Roosevelt.

Best Sellers

Kennedy is also the subject of two current best sellers by Stephen King and Chris Matthews. King’s massive new book titled simply 11/22/63 imagines what might have been – the Kennedy assassination foiled by a time traveler. Matthews’ book – Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero – is an unabashed valentine to a kind of political leader that Matthews argues no longer seems to exist.

As to the times when Kennedy governed, Frank Rich’s recent piece in New York Magazine draws parallels between 1963 and 2011. “What defines the Kennedy legacy today,” Rich writes, “is less the fallen president’s short, often admirable life than the particular strain of virulent hatred that helped bring him down. After JFK was killed, that hate went into only temporary hiding. It has been a growth industry ever since and has been flourishing in the Obama years. There are plenty of comparisons to be made between the two men, but the most telling is the vitriol that engulfed both their presidencies.”

Rich has been defending his piece against, among others Ross Douthat. Rich’s “delusional” piece, in the view of another conservative commentator, uses “tortured logic” to show that “President Kennedy was a victim of hatred coming from the far right.” Lee Harvey Oswald was, of course, to the extent he had a political philosophy, more a Communist sympathizer than a John Bircher.

Still what really struck me in reading Rich’s take on 1963 were the selection of letters to the editor of the Dallas Morning News printed over the weeks before Kennedy made his fateful trip to Texas 48 Novembers ago.

A letter writer from Wichita Falls wrote in 1963: “The Kennedy regime tends to lead toward socialism, as shown in its soft policies regarding the Cuban situation and its constant concessions to the Soviet Union in nuclear-test-ban-treaty negotiations. The many failures of the administration are clearly shown to the public. The inefficiency of its policies has lost America prestige and has weakened our bonds with the major European countries.

“Any person who supports John Kennedy in 1964 not only is illiterate of the means of democracy but is supporting a truly socialistic regime.”

And this from a Kennedy opponent from Waco, who referred to the president as “One-Term John,” a politician so unpopular in “Central Texas that in the past three weeks I have had only one customer threaten to cease doing business with me because of remarks made concerning the dynasty and its accomplishments.

“In fact, I now expect business to pick up as the full impact of the truth finally makes its impression upon the party faithful who heretofore could neither see, hear, nor speak of the evils in a socialistic dictatorship until the confrontation by Gov. Wallace of naked federal power and encroachment upon state and individual rights at Tuscaloosa, Ala.”

The last reference, of course, was to Kennedy’s efforts to enforce federal law and permit two black students to enroll – over the schoolhouse door protests of Gov. George Wallace – at the University of Alabama.

(Kennedy’s role – some would say Kennedy’s reluctance – to push harder on civil rights is still regularly debated, as Ross Douthat and others have noted. Yet, appreciating Kennedy’s well-developed sense of humor, it’s easy to believe that he would appreciate the irony of the Crimson Tide’s quest for a national football title riding on the broad shoulders of team that in 2011 starts only five white players.)

The letters make a striking point. The hatred for John Kennedy, like Obama, was real and the misrepresentation of his views – JFK was no more a socialist than Obama – was palpable. A moderately dispassionate conservative today, one who dislikes everything Obama has done, would have to admit that those letters to a Dallas newspaper nearly a half century ago bares an eerie resemblance to today’s doings on FOX News.

The Kennedy Cult, or whatever you care to call it, persists because his presidency – both style and substance – still matters. It’s impact survives through generations. We don’t have great debates about the Cult of Warren Harding or William Henry Harrison because they did not help define a generation or bring a particular power of personality and passion to our politics. Few presidents have. Kennedy did.

We will be debating the importance of Kennedy – or Reagan for that matter – for as long as we care about what can occasionally be the uplifting quality of our politics. As Bob Dallek says, and this is particularly true at a time when our politics seem so polarized and unproductive, we hanker for the “right man (or woman) with the right formula.” If only it were that easy.

Leadership

Perhaps the true enduring legacy of a John Kennedy is really much less complicated than it might appear. At his core Kennedy was serious and incredibly ambitious. He had an approach to the job of being a senator and a president. He was a genuine and talented student of history. He wrote and spoke well. He was curious and tough as a politician and demanding as a boss. Matthews relates the story of Kennedy firing a long-time friend who he came to believe wasn’t doing his job well enough. At the same time he inspired tremendous loyalty and great affection and still does.

In short, the Kennedy legacy is one of leadership lifted by inspiration. The guy had it and we still gravitate to it and that is the real Cult of Kennedy.

 

Dallek, Election of 1944, John Kennedy, Johnson

JFK…What If

Said Death Would Protect Legacy

John Kennedy’s best biographer made a startling revelation recently that was both ominous and eerie and says a good deal about Kennedy’s appreciation of how history works.

Robert Dallak, author of An Unfinished Life, the best book on the 35th president, gave a speech recently in Ireland where he said Jackie Kennedy was told by her husband a year before his death that his assassination would protect his legacy. “If someone is going to kill me,” Kennedy told his wife, “it should happen now.”

The Kennedy comment is contained in an oral history interview that Mrs. Kennedy did in 1964 with historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  The comment came shortly after Kennedy’s success defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie Kennedy sat for a series of seven interviews that have been held all these years under lock and key. The material will finally be made public in September and will be featured in an ABC broadcast.

According to Dallek, Kennedy had one of Abraham Lincoln’s great biographers, David Herbert Donald, to the White House for a lecture. Kennedy asked the distinguished historian whether Lincoln would be as fondly remembered today if he had not been shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth as his second term was just beginning.

Donald said no. In all likelihood, Donald said, had he lived, Lincoln would have become caught up in the messy and protracted fights over Reconstruction, the post-Civil War period where southern states were brought back into the Union and bitter battles raged over civil rights. As a result, Lincoln’s reputation as a great war leader may well have suffered. Kennedy, reflecting on that “what if” of history, then told his wife if someone was going to kill him, they best do it soon as his legacy would be more secure.

A few months later, Kennedy died at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas. Kennedy, therefore, is remembered as the glamorous and martyred young president who blundered into the Bay of Pigs, but took responsibility for the mess, who served as the cool head in the room during the Cuban Missile Crisis and expressed grave doubts about American involvement in Vietnam even as he sent U.S. advisers there.

So, what if? How would we think about JFK today had he lived to defeat Barry Goldwater in 1964 and serve out a second term? Would he have avoided the quagmire in southeast Asia? Liberated from re-election pressures, would Kennedy have stood up to the “domino theorists” who argued, mostly successfully, that the U.S. had to make a stand against Communist expansion in Indochina or the entire region would fall under influence of Moscow?

Would Kennedy have been as successful – or as committed – as Lyndon Johnson was in passing civil rights legislation? Would Kennedy have found a way to rapprochement with Castro? He loved his cigars, after all. And what of the Soviet Union? After taking the measure of Khrushchev during the Cuban crisis, would JFK have been able to cut a nuclear arms deal with the blustery, but very smart, Soviet leader?

And there is the second term factor. Generally second terms in the White House are susceptible to fatigue, drift and an almost inevitable diminishment of presidential power, no matter who is in the office. Would JFK have had a successful second term? He might well have beaten Goldwater badly, as Johnson eventually did in ’64, and had a mandate to act on a broad range of issues, or he might have squandered a big mandate and his popularity, as Franklin Roosevelt did after his big re-election victory in 1936.

This much is known. John Kennedy had a deep appreciation of history. We now know his Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage benefited greatly from the deft wordsmithing of the late Ted Sorensen, but that hardly diminishes the reality of Kennedy’s understanding and insight into the wonderful political stories contained in his book. I’ve also always thought it interesting and telling that JFK had Schlesinger, a historian of the presidency, as a White House insider.

In surveys done in 2010, a third of Americans rank Kennedy as a “great president” and the vast majority says he was above average. The professional historians ranked him sixth in presidential leadership just ahead of Jefferson. Interestingly, Kennedy was the only president in the Top 10 ranked by historians who was elected only once.

As Bob Dallek has said: “For style and for creating a mood of optimism and hope — Kennedy on that count is as effective as any president the country has had in its history. The question for me is, 100 years from now, will he be remembered? … “

“At the moment, he does have this astonishing hold on the public mind.”

 Kennedy, it seems, also had an ability to visualize his own legacy.

 

Andrus Center, Baseball, John Kennedy, Johnson, Politics

Odds and Ends

catchersOf No Particular Importance…

Most major league baseball teams have pitchers and catchers report to spring training round about Feb. 14. It doesn’t mark the end of winter, but perhaps the beginning of the end and that is something.

Boston has had 50 inches of snow this winter. Do you think Red Sox fans are anxious for spring?

I’m still nursing the hurt over the Diamondbacks and Rockies abandoning Tucson in favor of another spring training outpost in the Phoenix suburbs. So much for old school. Baseball in the spring has been a fixture in Tucson since 1946. Not this year. The D-backs and Colorado will share a spanking new ballpark – Salt River Fields. I’m boycotting and plan on seeing the hapless Cubs in Mesa, the A’s in their venerable little band box in Phoenix and the World Champions in downtown Scottsdale.

Hope springs eternal in the spring. Everyone is in first place on opening day.

Kennedy Memories

My old friend Joel Connelly had a nice piece recently at the Seattle P-I’s online site on memories of John Kennedy in the Northwest. Joel, a great recorder of the region’s political lore, relates a wonderful story about JFK and legendary Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson.

The Times on the Times

I’ve long believed the single most difficult thing for “the media” to do is to report on itself. Most reporters and editors are generally loathe to criticize each other, unless its someone like Bill O’Reilly tweaking Keith Olbermann. That makes this story in the New York Times reporting on dissatisfaction in Los Angeles with the L.A. Times so interesting.

Here’s the money quote. The NYT’s media critic quotes a long-time LA Times reader as saying: “We need a paper that’s more, and this is less. I think it’s just not a world-class paper, no matter how you cut it. It used to be a world-class paper.”

Analysis and comment at the Columbia Journalism Review site further dissects the Times coverage of the Times. My take: I have long admired both papers and have had my gripes with each, but the LA Times is today a far cry from what it was when Otis Chandler was in charge.

Sargent Shriver

Lots of memorials, appropriately, to the first man JFK put in charge of the Peace Corps – Sargent Shriver. The wake for the very Catholic Shriver was a classic sad and hilarious recalling of his quite remarkable life.

The serious side of Shriver is well summarized in a nice piece by Richard Reeves and the funniest story was told in Adam Clymer’s tribute at the Daily Beast.

Clymer told a story he attributed to Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, a longtime friend of Shriver’s. “One afternoon [Shrum] and Shriver arrived at the Shriver home as Eunice was running a Special Olympics event. She had put out a wine punch for the athletes’ parents. Sarge sampled it and asked what wine was used. A servant said Eunice had told them to just take anything handy. They had opened a case of Chateau Lafite Rothschild ’48, a gift from Giscard d’Estaing, president of France when Shriver served as ambassador. Shrum reports that Shriver was momentarily nonplussed, but then smiled and said, ‘Then we’d better drink a lot of it.'”

I have no idea what a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild ’48 is worth, but a bottle of ’82 sold at a wine auction in 2009 for $3,300. The 1948 vintage is rated as a “moderate to good vintage.”

That was some wine punch.

John Kennedy, Johnson

Fifty Years Ago…

kennedyKennedy Library Launches Website

The Kennedy Presidential Library has launched a fabulous new website – http://www.jfk50.org/ – to mark the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of our 35th president – a half century ago this very day.

The site is organized by both subject matter and by a timeline of the Kennedy presidency. Take a minute to visit and walk through the historic events of 50 years ago. This is a great presentation of history and a remarkable use of the tools of modern communication.

Two words: great stuff.

And more…

Kennedy’s best biographer, Robert Dallek, has a great piece at the Salon website today. Dallek asks “why do we admire a president who did so little?”

His answer, in part, is to compare Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, two masters of communication.

Says Dallek: “Like T.R.’s bully pulpit and FDR’s fireside chats, Kennedy’s press conferences, which underscored his personal charm, wit, youth and intelligence, and Reagan’s talents as the ‘great communicator’ are enduring parts of their legacies.

“Unlike Washington and Lincoln, whose reputations rest respectively on building and preserving the nation, Kennedy and Reagan, to borrow a phrase from the historian Richard Hofstadter, were and remain the master psychologists of the middle classes.”