In the late ’40s, a veteran Washington secretary named Mary Davis was summoned to help a newly elected congressman compose a speech. Her expectations going into John Kennedy’s office were low. In a future interview, Ms. Davis admitted that she thought the congressman would “stumble around” and “er, ah and um,” his way through the speechwriting experience. She later recalled, “I was never so startled in my life! He sat back in his chair and it just flowed right out.”

Ms. Davis was not unusual in her misjudgment of Kennedy. JFK would be paired against Lyndon Johnson, George Wallace, Nikita Khrushchev and many others. They would all find out the hard way that John Kennedy was a consummate politician, pragmatist, and orator with a first-class mind, but arguably, no one learned that lesson more forcefully than his classic political rival, Richard M. Nixon.

Early in the pivotal election of 1960, Richard Nixon did his best to portray Kenned as glib, inexperienced, naïve and not a particularly distinguished member of the ineffectual debating society known as the U.S. Senate. The Vice President, on the other hand, had eight years of highly visible experience and had served, as he constantly reminded people, “a mere heartbeat away from the presidency.” The Republican candidate could reasonably expect to use the new vehicle of a televised national debate on September 26th to trot out these themes, and effectively clinch his election for the highest office in the land.

Much has been written about items that might have negatively affected Richard Nixon’s efforts, such as his swollen knee, five o’clock shadow, lack of make-up, etc. While all of this might somewhat be true, far less attention has been given to Kennedy’s masterful performance. A study of this provides insights into the man, his political philosophy and perhaps what either party must do to regain or retain the presidency.

Right from the beginning, Kennedy demonstrated that he knew that the Democratic Party was and is a coalition, and acknowledged that by the bullet points he raised. For seniors, he talked about Social Security and health care for the aged, and for rural people, farm subsidies and the TVA.

Kennedy argued that we should pay teachers more and improve educational opportunity for “Negroes,” Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans. He paid homage to the icons of the Democratic Party – FDR, Truman and Wilson, and twice invoked the name of Abraham Lincoln.

Nixon, on the other hand, ignored the aged, ethnic and regional interest groups and their signature issues, and spent most of his time defending the administration and highlighting his personal accomplishments. He dared not try to match Kennedy’s flowing rhetoric, and instead conceded that strength by saying twice he “agreed with Kennedy on much of what the Senator said.” The only “icon” Nixon brought up was an aged, tired and retiring Dwight Eisenhower. By not invoking Lincoln, for example, he inexplicably conceded the greatest Republican to Kennedy and the Democrats, who happily included the rail splitter in their pantheon of heroes.

Interestingly enough, later in the debate, when Nixon was given the opportunity once more to attack Kennedy’s inexperience, he wisely decided “not to comment on that.” Kennedy’s strong debate performance had manifestly eliminated a central Republican campaign argument, and Nixon knew it.

Ironically, and in an historical context, many of the things Nixon said were more factually correct. The American economy was fundamentally strong, and Communist Russia could never catch up to us. But this forum wasn’t an exercise in pedagogy, but a campaign debate, and in that, he was hopelessly outclassed. The defeated Nixon, of course, “came back” in 1968 and 1972, and this time could have worn make-up or shaved better, but he wisely knew it was more than that, and chose never to debate in either of those elections.

Kennedy, it should be noted, was not a man who was comfortable with labels. While he was a proud Democrat, he never called himself a “liberal” or “progressive.” His Republican Treasury Secretary, Douglas Dillon, said he was “a conservative,” which I think was going too far. In any case Kennedy, who famously said, “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer,” demonstrated an admirable pragmatic streak that we could use today.

So, how would we characterize the politics of John Kennedy, as expressed in this debate? Perhaps it could be seen as a kind of “muscular liberalism.” The issues and concerns, such as health care and equality, are unmistakably liberal, but they were reinforced and imbued, both in the debate and later, by an unmistakable infusion of national pride and commitment to renewal.

America, to John Kennedy, was a nation that was justifiably proud of itself as a champion of freedom. He felt it was, in general, the true hope of this world, and saw no reason to apologize for its occasional mistakes. Throughout the debate, and later as president, Kennedy constantly invoked pro-American and anti-communist themes and arguments. Our system was not just different from theirs, he would argue; it was better, and worth fighting for.

In addition, the Senator voiced concern in the debate about an underperforming steel industry and an underfunded educational system. Kennedy did not concede then, and never would accept, that we as a nation had to accept decline, or that in many industries, our only alternative was to retrain workers (too often, for lower wages in the service industry). A can-do spirit was encouraged, both for the government and its people.

John Kennedy, would go on, of course, to become a well-beloved president, admired by many because of his pragmatism, compassion, insight, and of course, his speaking ability. Ironically, the woman who originally discovered this innate skill would never become a fan. Mary Davis, the secretary who took his early speeches in dictation, called him a “spoiled young man” and quit. Ms. Davis felt that JFK, a man whose father was a multimillionaire, refused to pay her what she felt she was worth. Go figure.

Larry Koch, Ed.D.

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