A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States

His life and his campaign
for the Democratic nomination for President

For eight years, the United States was led by the conquering hero of World War II, the former Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike, as he was known, was immensely popular and was carried to the White House on the crest of two landslide victories over the Democratic challenger, Adlai E. Stevenson. Ike's trademark smile, wartime-prestige, and moderately conservative politics proved more than a match for Stevenson's brainpower (he was derided as an "egghead," the equivalent of today's "nerd"), eloquence, and liberalism.

Most American voters felt Ike governed the country in a steady, if undramatic, manner. His background provided reassurance during the first decade of the Cold War. Prosperity rolled on from the World War into a seemingly limitless future. Ike, for his part, attempted no major retreat from the New Deal legacy of Franklin Roosevelt and instituted no major conservative initiatives, He steered the ship of state slightly to the right of the middle of the road, if the ocean had roads, that is.

After his second election, the Eisenhower administration began to sag a bit. The president, never a dynamo, suffered several heart attacks, which further slowed him up. His interests increasing seem to veer away from the Oval Office and toward the golf course. His trademark brown suits began to seem just a touch duller. Though the president was in his mid-60's--younger than Ronald Reagan when he took office--Ike increasingly seemed like an old man leading a government of old men. However the country, demographically-speaking, was getting younger. This created a sense of restlessness, a desire for something new.

After Ike's re-election in 1956, the famous American poet Robert Lowell wrote this depressing verse:

Ice, ice, our wheels no longer move.
Look, the fixed stars, all just alike,
As landlocked atoms, split apart,
and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.

There was an increasing sense that the country itself was drifting. Apart from personal health issues, Ike was also bedeviled by some bad luck. A serious recession slowed the economy in 1957.

And in that same year, Americans heard a most disconcerting beep, or more precisely beep-beep-beep! It was the sound of the first artificial satellite--called Sputnik-- that humans had launched to orbit the earth. The problem is, it had been launched by the wrong humans, the Russians, and at the very moment when the two superpowers were contesting for prestige and power at the height of the Cold War. It was a devastating blow for the United States, and one with serious military implications--clearly the Soviets now had the rocket strength to launch an A-Bomb into the heart of our country or to place them into orbit and just let the bombs hang in the heavens for a while. We fancied ourselves the most technologically-adept nation in the world. This was part of our very can-do identity as a nation. Heck, didn't we have Yankee know-how? But now we had to just sit there, be humiliated, and listen to that damn beeping!

Ike mobilized the country. The first emergency federal aid ever flowed into high schools to beef up secondary programs in math and science (The diversity of science labs at L-S were a post-Sputnik phenomenon). The president also ordered the military to get something up there quick. Our Vanguard rocket development program was rushed to completion. Americans gathered in front of their TVs to watch the U.S. enter and dominate the space race. Unfortunately, by the time we were ready to launch our own dainty basketball-sized satellite into outer-space, the Soviets were launching ones that were the size of VW bugs. And then there was Laika the space dog. Alas, dinky payload or not, things did not go well. In a million living rooms the 10-9-8-7-6.... countdown was heard. The great Vanguard rocket fired up and began to rise....but only two feet up in the air before it toppled over. The next one made it to about 500 feet when it turned around and began to head right back to mission control They had to destroy it. Humiliation piled on humiliation, and embarrassment multiplied. Commentators ridiculed our space effort with derisive names: Flopnik, Kaputnick, Sputternick, Oopsnick,  Dudnick, Goofnick, and, my personal favorite, Stayputnick.

Newspaper columnists  even began to question the virtue of national prosperity. One asked whether we weren't "wallowing in a stupor of fat"? When he wondered out loud whether we had lost our "competitive toughness," many Americans agreed. More and more columns appeared questioning whether we had lost that sense of "National Purpose" that had defined America' s journey through history.

In 1959, Ike suffered more bad luck on his watch, a cultural smashup truly beyond his control. As now, so back then, quiz shows were very popular on television, and the most popular show was called "21." A new champion, a Columbia University instructor named Carl Van Doren looked like he was going to go all the way. Millions of Americans bit their lips with him as he retreated into the "Isolation Booth" to answer the most obscure questions imaginable. He became America's new darling. Parents urged their kids to be like Carl rather than that hip-swiveling sex maniac, Elvis. This was in 1957. Two years later the truth came out: Van Doren had been fed the answers. The show had been fixed. Now a new shadow fell on the Eisenhower administration: had he presided not only over growing drift and stagnation, but over a spreading "moral rot" as well?

With the arrival of a new decade and a new election year, Ike's luck stayed bad. In 1960 alone, there were three more reverses for Eisenhower:

Anti-American riots in Japan forced Ike to cancel his planned visit there. Had we become such a feeble giant that we couldn't even get our president to Japan. Was Ike to be yet another Stayputnik?

The Russians walked out of a disarmament conference in Geneva

Finally, a major disaster. In a last attempt to end his administration on a positive note, Ike organized the first Cold War summit between an American leader, himself, and a Russian leader, Nikita Khrushchev. The summit was to be held in Paris. After the first hopeful day, while the world prayed for success and a diminution of Cold War tensions, word came that an American plane had been shot down over the Soviet Union. The timing couldn't have been worse. Actually, even worse than the timing was the American attempt to lie about the incident. Ike re-assured his Russian summit partner that it had only been an off-course American weather plane. He asked Khrushchev to send the pilot's body back. The Russian premier demurred, saying this was impossible because actually the pilot was still alive, and by the way, he had confessed to being a CIA pilot. His name: Francis Gary Powers. (Ike was dumbfounded because CIA pilots were supposed to killed themselves with a poisoned needle hidden in the side of coin. Powers had apparently decided he wished to live). Krushchev then told Ike a) Powers would be publicly tried as a spy in Moscow (He was convicted, served time in a Soviet prison, and then was exchanged for a high-level Russian spy) and b) the summit was over. And so the Eisenhower administration also ended on the rather sour notes of drift, stagnation, and tumbling American international prestige.

This was the context of the election campaign of 1960, one of the most exciting in American history. Let's meet the candidates:

Richard Nixon

He was the forgone choice of the Republican, having served as Ike's VP for eight years. He had narrowly missed getting kicked off the Republican ticket in 1952 because of a campaign finance scandal, but saved himself with his impossibly hokey "Checkers" speech on TV (To paraphrase: "I did wrong, but I will not return the little dog Checkers that was given to my children by a campaign supporter!"). As a  U.S. representative, he had risen to national prominence through his zealous participation in HUAC and the Hiss case. His patron, Eisenhower, didn't really like Nixon very well. (Nixon for his part later how hurt he was that Ike had never invited him to his Gettysburg farmhouse). Ike didn't give Nixon the greatest boost at his final press conference. "What did the vice president contribute to his administration," the president was asked. "Give me a week. I'm sure I can think of something," Ike responded.

John F Kennedy

Here was a young, dynamic personality. He had a lot going for him, most of which Nixon did not have going for him, such as: a quick wit, wealth, good looks, a great tan, a dazzling, smile, and a beautiful wife. At a time when Hollywood fan magazines were at the peak of their popularity, Kennedy appeared every inch the movie star. Some would go even further in suggesting that he and Jackie were America's first royal couple. Here's a brief chronology of his political rise:

Early Years: Born into wealthy, politically-connected Boston Irish family. Spent early years in Brookline, a half-mile from Bill Schechter's current residence. (Even I'm not certain about the connection here! Suggestions?). For a few years, he attended the Edward Devotion primary school near Coolidge Corner.

1941: Graduated Harvard. He had only applied to Harvard. I mean, was there any doubt?

1941-5: Became officer in U.S. Navy. Commands PT boat (PT-109)which is cut in half in the south Pacific one night by a Japanese destroyer. Swims several miles, all the while dragging one of his shipmates in an act of genuine heroism. Manages to reach an island specially placed there for the Kennedy family. He incurs a serious back injury. Then carves a message into a coconut, throws it into ocean, where an ocean current carries it special delivery to a navy base. He is rescued.( If Bill Schechter throws this same coconut into the ocean you just know that it's still bobbing around somewhere in the ocean).

1946: The returning war hero is elected a US. Representative from Boston, the city which his grandfather once ruled as mayor.

1952-1960: Elected for two terms as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. When he ran for re-election in 1958 he received the largest victory margin of any candidate in Massachusetts history. As a legislator, he proves to be a liberal on social issues and  a friend of labor unions. On foreign policy, he is something of a Cold War hawk. He is responsible for no major legislation during his years in the House and Senate, however.

1956: Has life-threatening emergency surgery for his back. Survives, but will wear back brace for the rest of his life. (When president , he can never pick up his small children. He lives in constant pain, but the public would never have guessed. He always looked so good and happy, through sheer conscious effort). During his long convalescence, he writes a book called Profiles in Courage about politicians who did the right thing even at the cost of destroying their political careers. The book wins the Pulitzer Prize. Sen. Joseph McCarthy was a friend of his fathers, and JFK remained rather silent during the McCarthy censure. A fellow senator commented that JFK need to "show a little more courage and a little less profile."

In 1956 he was being pushed by some supporters to be the vice-presidential candidate to accompany Adlai Stevenson in his second race against Eisenhower. Kennedy is beaten out for the post by Sen. Estes Kefauver. The defeat proves to be another stroke of luck for the young Kennedy. Had he won, he would have been buried along with Stevenson in the Eisenhower landslide and his political career might have been destroyed. As it was, his effort to become the party's VP nominee succeeded in giving him greater national exposure without suffering the taint of serious defeat.

1960: There was no question that JFK was the rising star in the Democratic Party, shining very brightly indeed after his Massachusetts senatorial reelection landslide of 1958. Though Eleanor Roosevelt, the matriarch of the party, still supported Stevenson for another run, he quickly fell out of the race. Two other potential candidates, however stood in Kennedy's way. One was Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, a liberal's liberal and possessed of a most ebullient personality; the other was Sen. Lyndon Johnson, the powerful majority leader of the Senate.

Kennedy's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was almost as exciting as his actual campaign against Nixon. Here are a few highlights:

Front and center was Kennedy himself, and his remarkable personal chemistry which had an electric effect on many voters. In fact the word "charisma" entered the American political lexicon during this campaign. Kennedy had lots of it. At a time of perceived national stagnation, with Ike growing older by the minute, Kennedy brought youth, energy, and "vigah" to national political life. Even my 70 year old Jewish grandmother thought the very non-Jewish Kennedy "looked very nice." What higher compliment?

Kennedy had one big handicap, even it my grandmother was willing to overlook it. He was a Catholic and no Catholic had ever been elected president, though Al Smith, "The Happy Warrior," had tried in 1928, There was still prejudice against Catholics in many areas of the country. Some Protestant groups feared that if a Catholic was elected president he would subordinate national policy to the dictates of the Pope, who claimed himself to the the "infallible leader" of the Church in theological matters and to whose doctrinal rulings all Catholics owed obedience. Might this not sway a Catholic president's position on matters of public policy such as abortion and birth control, some Americans asked?  Kennedy fought back against anti-Catholic bigotry in a dramatic fashion. He accepted an invitation to speak to a conference of Protestant ministers, some of whom had sermonized against JFK from their pulpits, in Houston, Texas. His speech was magnificent, and he received a standing ovation. [Check out an excerpt form this speech on the sheet which follows this reading.You'll be happy you did.]  

Kennedy beat Humphrey in the West Virginia Primary. This victory not only eliminated Humphrey but it put the Catholic issue to rest. JFK's victory showed that he could win in a predominantly Protestant state. But Kennedy's West Virginia effort was important for another reason. It help shaped the modern political campaign. Kennedy money poured into the state, and hapless Humphrey was hopelessly outspent, and overshadowed by JFK's media blitz via TV and radio ads. The modern political campaign, based on Money, Media, and Image, was born in West Virginia.

Humphrey was out, but there was still LBJ. Here Kennedy's political acumen went to work. He offered Johnson the vice-presidential slot. LBJ accepted. Now the road was clear, and the Democratic nomination for president went to John Fitzgerald Kennedy on the first ballot. A restless decade, characterized by social change and youth revolt, was preaged by a nomination which would send to the White House the youngest president in American history. The 60's began on an appropriate note. A month after his election, in a small town in North Carolina, four black students would sit-in at a lunch counter.  The Times They were A-Changin'.

As for the campaign against Nixon and the nail-biting election victory, the Kennedy presidency, and the assassination--well, that's a story that can only be told in the History Lounge. See you there, where we will Think Not About What The Country Can Do For Us, But About What We Can Do For The Country and where we will go "All the Way with JFK", though that way ended before many thought and hoped, on a sunny Friday, on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas...

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
Contact Bill Schechter
Website by Altolus Digital