Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When the Cheering Would Not Stop

"When there were periods of crisis, you stood beside him. When there were periods of happiness, you laughed with him. And when there were periods of sorrow, you comforted him."

Robert F. Kennedy
Aug. 27, 1964

It was the president's birthday, and he was scheduled to give a speech accepting his party's nomination that night. His newly anointed running mate also was scheduled to give a speech accepting his nomination.

But the delegates at the Democratic National Convention 50 years ago tonight gave their longest, most sustained ovation to the attorney general and late president's brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

Kennedy was there to introduce a film honoring his brother, who had been assassinated about nine months earlier.

There was no love lost between Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy. Johnson feared having to put Kennedy on the ticket with him to placate party leaders; the bad blood between them predated John F. Kennedy's administration, and LBJ had worried, on the day of the assassination, that Bobby Kennedy, as attorney general, would find some way to deny him the presidency.

That did not happen, of course, but so intent was LBJ on preventing Kennedy from seizing power that he had announced, early in 1964, that no members of his Cabinet would be considered for running mate.

(In my studies of that time, I have yet to see any kind of evidence that Kennedy ever wanted to be Johnson's running mate.)

Of course, that didn't prevent Johnson from relying heavily on Kennedy to get the Civil Rights Act passed earlier in the summer of 1964. If he was nothing else, Johnson was a political creature, and he knew the P.R. value of at least appearing to be in Kennedy's good graces. But he feared being upstaged by Kennedy.

Kennedy originally was scheduled to introduce the film on Tuesday, Aug. 25, but Johnson wanted to push it back to Thursday night. He was worried that a movement to draft Kennedy, born of the emotion of the moment, could force him to put Kennedy on the ticket. Consequently, he wanted Kennedy to make his appearance on Thursday night, the last night of the convention — when the nominations would be done deals and all that remained would be the acceptance speeches.

Even though it was supposed to be Johnson's night.

Even though it was Johnson's birthday.

"I stood on the floor in the midst of the thunderous ovation," wrote historian Arthur Schlesinger. "I had never seen anything like it. Ordinarily an organ in the background controls the pandemonium of a convention. This time they stopped the organ after a moment or so. But the demonstration roared on, reaching a new intensity every time that Robert Kennedy, standing with a wistful half–smile on his face, tried to bring it to an end."

The delegates' ovation was not a surprise. The duration and fervor of it was.

As Schlesinger noted, Kennedy tried, unsuccessfully, to quiet the crowd so he could speak. Henry Jackson of Washington reportedly told Kennedy to let the delegates have their demonstration. "Let them get it all out of their systems," he supposedly said. And, for the most part, Kennedy did.

When Kennedy finally did speak, there couldn't have been a dry eye in the convention hall, particularly when he closed with a quotation from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet:"
"When he shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun."

Saturday, August 23, 2014

When Germany and Russia Signed Their Nonaggression Pact

By and large, people are pretty good about learning from their mistakes. When they do something that results in physical pain and/or humiliation, most people make a mental note not to do that anymore. It's a defense mechanism, I suppose.

But there is one lesson — well, actually two lessons — that people repeatedly refuse to learn: (1) There is evil in the world, and (2) there is always someone who will be willing to cooperate with that evil.

I think just about everyone can agree that Adolf Hitler was evil. Everything he did in World War II was influenced by his experiences as a soldier in World War I.

One of the most significant lessons he took from World War I was that Germany came closest to victory when Russia was not involved. When that changed, so did the fortunes of war.

Consequently, as Hitler was readying his forces for the invasion of Poland that would set World War II irretrievably in motion 75 years ago, he dispatched foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to Moscow to work out an agreement with the Russians: The countries would agree not to attack each other.

Hitler intended to keep the Soviet Union out of the fighting this time.

Ribbentrop's trip to Moscow was announced on Aug. 22, 1939. Actually, I suppose, things got started around Aug. 14, when Ribbentrop contacted the Soviets to work out the second of a couple of deals.

The first pact was an economic one. The Soviets promised to provide food and raw materials to the Nazis; in return, the Nazis promised to provide products like machinery to the Soviets. (This made it possible for the Nazis to sidestep Britain's blockade in the early years of the war.) The details had been worked out earlier in the summer, and the agreement was signed in Berlin on Aug. 19.

The second agreement was the nonaggression pact.

Under the cloak of darkness in the late hours of Aug. 23, Ribbentrop and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed a nonaggression pact that history remembers as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. It achieved what Hitler wanted. It kept the Soviet Union out of the hostilities.

Until Hitler himself broke the pact with Germany's invasion of Russia in June 1941.

Why did Hitler do it? I suppose you can answer that with another question: Why did Hitler do anything? The simple answer was that keeping Russia out of the war had helped him strengthen his hand in Europe. The nonaggression pact had served its purpose, and Hitler was looking to fulfill his pledge in Mein Kampf to look to the east for "living space" for the German people — and the raw materials he needed for the war effort.

He misjudged the strength of his position, and, apparently, he forgot with whom he was dealing.

Hitler's military leaders warned him that a two–front war would put enormous strain on the already weak German economy, but Hitler saw only the potential benefits. He soon saw the downside as his Army was repelled outside Moscow after the Russian winter set in.

There was a secret protocol in the nonaggression pact of which the world knew little until the Russians confirmed its existence in 1989.

Under this secret protocol, the Nazis and Soviets divided up eastern Europe into what were called "spheres of influence." In exchange for the Soviets' promise to stay out of the coming war, the Nazis gave them the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) to act as a buffer from an invasion from the west. Poland also would be divided between the two countries.

The spoils of war were already being divvied up — and not a single shot had been fired ... yet.

The Coronation of Ronald Reagan

"Isn't our choice really not one of left or right, but of up or down? Down through the welfare state to statism, to more and more government largesse accompanied always by more government authority, less individual liberty and, ultimately, totalitarianism, always advanced as for our own good. The alternative is the dream conceived by our Founding Fathers, up to the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society."

Ronald Reagan
Acceptance speech
Aug. 23, 1984

I wasn't a fan of Ronald Reagan when he was president. I had the opportunity to vote for him, but I didn't. I don't regret my choice. At the time, I was a Democrat, and I wouldn't have thought of voting for anyone other than the Democrat in any race. It's how I was brought up.

Even if I had not been brought up by diehard Democrats, that was age–appropriate for that time in my life, as I understand it. Winston Churchill reportedly said, "Anyone who isn't a liberal by age 20 has no heart. Anyone who isn't a conservative by age 40 has no brain." (Note: I say "reportedly" because I have found no proof that Churchill actually said or wrote those sentences. I don't know who did, but I do know that I have heard those sentences all my life, and they seem to be one of those unattributable truisms. Whoever said or wrote it was spot on in his/her evaluation of the progression of life.)

Well, I don't know what all that says about me. As I have acknowledged before, I am now an independent. I feel like Joe Piscopo, who recently wrote that he wasn't ready to embrace the Republican Party, but "[i]n good conscience ... I can't continue to call myself a Democrat."

That is reminiscent of what Reagan frequently told his audiences — that he had been a Democrat as a young man but became a Republican after the Democrats moved away from the things that drew him to the party in the first place. He would conclude his story by asking his audiences, "Did I leave the Democratic Party? Or did the Democratic Party leave me?"

I didn't understand Reagan's appeal to ordinary Americans. I suppose I bought the line of thinking that insisted Reagan was hopelessly nostalgic about a simpler time in American history and determined to revive that time instead of leading the nation forward into the future.

I couldn't understand Reagan's appeal. I knew people who voted for Reagan 30 years ago. Everyone did. He ended up winning 49 states and receiving more than 58% of the popular vote in the last real landslide in American history. Oh, I know that there have been times when candidates have won by "landslide" — even though they were no such thing. Historically, a landslide has occurred when one candidate received more than 55% of the popular vote and more than 400 electoral votes from 40 states or more.

Landslides were almost routine from 1964 to 1984. Three of the six presidential elections held in that time fit that description, but none of the seven elections held since 1984 have. Some have been called landslides, but none truly were. And, as evenly divided as America is today, I doubt that we will see a landslide like the one from 1984 in the near future — unless an extraordinarily charismatic candidate emerges.

To be honest, I never thought Reagan was all that charismatic, but, clearly, a large number of Americans did. In hindsight, I see some things differently than I did at the time, which is understandable, as I was quite young, but one thing that I have always known was that Reagan was an effective speaker. I didn't know why he was so effective at that time.

I was always envious of that. He had a folksy kind of charm that made many people in 1980 realize that he was not the warmongering ogre his critics said he was. There were a lot of horror stories spread about Reagan that seemed less and less valid to people the longer he was in office. There is no doubt that many of the things his opponents said about him were true, but reasonable people look at the record and see that Reagan was president for eight years — and he never launched a nuclear attack on anyone. His detractors warned that he would have America in a nuclear war within days of taking office. Once they got past that image, they wondered how many other falsehoods they had been told.

As a Democrat, I hoped he would be replaced when he sought a second term, that his election had been a mistake that voters would redress. But, on this night 30 years ago, when I watched him accept the Republican nomination in Dallas, I knew he would win in November.

I don't know how I knew. But I didn't tell any of my Democrat friends the conclusion I had reached. I didn't want to discourage them.

Thirty years ago tonight, Reagan told his fellow Americans that the choice was simple — it was between "their government of pessimism, fear and limits, or ours of hope, confidence and growth.

"Their government sees people only as members of groups,"
he continued. "Ours serves all the people of America as individuals. ... Theirs lives by promises, the bigger the better. We offer proven, workable answers.

On the surface, that sounds good. No American disagrees with that statement, right? At least, as long as "theirs" and "ours" remain undefined. It's only when you go deeper into a candidate's philosophy on individual issues that he/she can legitimately be labeled conservative or liberal.

I knew people who voted for Reagan who probably disagreed with him 70–80% of the time, but they voted for him because they thought he was a strong leader. I understood that mentality in 1980, when Reagan ran against the discredited Jimmy Carter, who rode a populist wave into the White House four years earlier. Carter was widely perceived to be a failure. Again, in hindsight, I am inclined to believe that anyone who got the Republican nomination that year was destined to win.

I disagreed with the majority's assessment, but I honestly believed Reagan's victory in 1980 had been a fluke.

But, by 1984, Reagan had a track record. It was one with which I was not impressed, but it clearly impressed others, and his acceptance speech was filled with references that resonated with his listeners, both those in the convention hall in Dallas and the millions watching at home.

Such as the misery index, a calculation Democrats used in Carter's campaign against President Ford in 1976.

"[A]dding the unemployment and inflation rates, [Democrats] got what they called a misery index," Reagan said. "In '76 it came to 12.5%. They declared the incumbent had no right to seek re–election with that kind of a misery index. Well, four years ago, in the 1980 election, they didn't mention the misery index, possibly because it was then over 20%. And do you know something? They won't mention it in this election, either. It's down to 11.6 and dropping."

Reagan never stooped to name calling. His rhetoric was almost always positive; he tended to save his put–downs for himself. Perhaps that was what people found so appealing.

It may be why he could get away with blatantly emotional rhetoric, as he did near the end of his acceptance speech when he spoke of repairs that were being made to the Statue of Liberty.

"Just this past Fourth of July, the torch atop the Statue of Liberty was hoisted down for replacement," Reagan observed. I will never forget the cameras scanning the crowd of delegates and coming to rest on the face of a young woman, a delegate standing on the floor of the convention hall, looking up at Reagan, her hands clasped in a prayerful pose, tears streaming down her cheeks as Reagan said, "We can be forgiven for thinking that maybe it was just worn out from lighting the way to freedom for 17 million new Americans. So, now we'll put up a new one."

I thought that was astonishingly corny. I was even more astonished when I realized just how many heart strings Reagan had tugged with that tale.

Reagan was no fluke.

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

"We didn't come all this way for no two seats 'cause all of us is tired."

Fannie Lou Hamer
Aug. 22, 1964

I really must apologize. I intended to write about this on the actual anniversary, which was yesterday, but it was an unusually busy day for me. Even so, I didn't want the anniversary — the 50th — to pass without observation. I want to tell the story. Because it is a good story, one that should be remembered.

It's the story of Fannie Lou Hamer.

I didn't hear of Fannie Lou Hamer until well after the fact. I think my mother was the one who told me about her, but that isn't really important. She was a civil rights activist from Mississippi who was in the national headlines for a little while in the summer of 1964, then largely disappeared from national view.

She was involved in the planning of 1964's Freedom Summer, when blacks in Mississippi were being taught how to register to vote. It was an effort that went on throughout the South during the 1960s, actually, but it was far more dramatic in Mississippi, where blacks and whites had lived separately under a social and legal system that had been in place for generations. Other places in the South were integrated — to varying degrees — but Mississippi had earned a reputation for being a "closed society."

I've only seen film of her, but Fannie Lou Hamer has always reminded me of the black women I knew when I was a child in central Arkansas — and, I suppose, she was about the same age as they were, too. I never could tell how old they were. (Guess I'm not much better at guessing people's ages today than I was then.) I knew what I needed to know, I suppose. They were always friends of my mother — at least, I always met them through her — and they were older than she was. I knew that much.

I didn't know until later the extent of Fannie Lou Hamer's suffering in Mississippi, which was much more overtly racist than Arkansas in those days — still is, to a degree, I guess. She was sterilized without her consent — by a white doctor as part of a state–sponsored plan to reduce the number of poor blacks. In the summer of 1963, she and a group of activists were arrested on a false charge and beaten so badly in police custody that it took weeks to recover.

I could understand if such experiences made her angry, distrustful and bitter. But Fannie Lou Hamer looked and sounded like the women I knew in my hometown long after her moment in the spotlight. However unpleasant their experiences had been, they were unfailingly positive. They spoke of faith and "the movement" and registering blacks to vote. So did she.

Fannie Lou Hamer sometimes seemed sad, but she had a profound faith in God and what Martin Luther King called "the promised land" — even though I don't think that King used that expression until the famous speech he gave the night before his assassination.

I guess you could call her a realistic optimist — she believed a change was gonna come, but she doubted she would live to see it.

In the summer of 1964, she was 46 years old and regarded as something of a maternal figure by the primarily young people who had been recruited and trained in the North to challenge segregation in the South.

Fannie Lou Hamer participated in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. She was there — and, as a journalist, I reserve most of my admiration for people who were there, wherever there happened to be. That commands far more respect from me than those who report on events from afar — even though, for many, it is the only way they can report or comment on most events.

Fannie Lou Hamer was there.

(It's funny, but, for some reason, I can't seem to refer to her as "Hamer" on second reference, which would be in keeping with the AP Style that has influenced my writing since college. I simply have to use her full name.)

Fifty years ago, the Democrats were preparing to hold their national convention. They would nominate President Lyndon Johnson for a full term in office. They would nominate Hubert Humphrey to be his running mate. They would hear a brief speech from Robert F. Kennedy introducing a film about the recently assassinated John F. Kennedy. The delegates would hear a lot about domestic policy, about civil rights.

Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Democratic Party of Mississippi gave the national Democratic Party an opportunity to do more than talk in the days leading up to the Democrats' national convention. The Freedom Democrats challenged the legitimacy of Mississippi's then–all–white Democratic Party, demanding to be seated.

The Freedom Democrats were careful to do all the things the national party required in order to send a slate of delegates to the national convention, including hold a statewide convention to select 68 delegates. That slate included four whites. Then the Freedom Democrats sent their delegates — by bus — to Atlantic City.

Read the words of historian Theodore White, who also was there.

"It is difficult to compress the emotion that the Freedom Democratic Party aroused at Atlantic City into the narrow proportions of importance it holds in the story of the convention," wrote White. "There was no moment when the convention machinery ... might not have imposed a solution. But the intensity of the emotion was so deep, and all other proceedings were so dull, that for three days the convention paused to consider its only excitement.

"One gets the flavor best,"
White continued, "not by considering the issues raised but by considering and listening to a voice. On Saturday afternoon, as the Convention Credentials Committee moved to consider the situation in Mississippi, a robust Negress rose to testify. She gave her name as Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of ... Ruleville, Mississippi [in Sunflower County, northwestern Mississippi] ... Then she proceeded to tell her effort to register to vote, legally, going back as far as 1962; and as her fine, mellow voice rose, it began to chant with the grief and the sobbing that are the source of all the blues in the world. The hot, muggy room was electrified as she concluded her narrative of a Mississippi Negro's life when one attempts to register."

At that point, most accounts I have read indicated that the majority of delegates would have voted to seat the Freedom Democrats, but other Southern delegations were threatening to walk out if that happened — and Lyndon Johnson, already fearful of the reaction in the South to the passage of the Civil Rights Act earlier that summer, did not want to lose additional Southern support.

So Johnson, with the assistance of his soon–to–be vice–presidential nominee and Humphrey's fellow Minnesotan Walter Mondale, worked out what was charitably called a "compromise" — two of the Freedom Democrats would be given at–large (and non–voting) seats.

The compromise was ludicrous, and the Freedom Democrats knew it. They rejected it, and Fannie Lou Hamer, who is probably best known for her statement that "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired"), summed things up beautifully.
"We didn't come all this way for no two seats 'cause all of us is tired."

By the way, Johnson's "compromise" didn't help him. He lost five Southern states and nearly lost a sixth. In the 50 years since, Jimmy Carter (in 1976) has been the only Democrat who carried more Southern states than he lost.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Where Is the Outrage?

I support Americans' right to assemble peacefully, to protest peacefully when they believe an injustice has occurred. I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

I wish my government did, too.

For more than a week now, Americans have witnessed scenes in the streets of Ferguson, Mo., where a black teenager was shot and killed. They haven't always been peaceful — or anything resembling it. What are they protesting? A young man died. That is a sad thing. Some would call it an injustice.

I wouldn't.

Before you make any assumptions about me that are not true, hear me out. My definition of injustice is when justice has been denied. Has justice been denied in this case? No. The system has not had time to do what it was designed to do.

Many of the people I have seen involved in the protests in Missouri say they want justice — but they don't. They want revenge. Those are two different things. Justice requires facts, evidence. Revenge does not.

If anyone — in Ferguson or anywhere else — tells you he/she knows the police officer was guilty of murder, he/she is lying — because no one knows all the facts. That is — supposedly — why we have trials. To see the evidence, hear the testimony, then sift through it all and decide what the truth is.

Murder, by the way, is a legal term that is reserved for a case in which a jury has ruled that someone's death was caused deliberately by someone else. Until a jury has made that determination, legally (based on the laws of the state where the death occurred), no murder has happened.


And I can tell you — as one who covered my share of trials in my reporting days — that almost no one knows the whole story until that trial has been held.

We don't really know what happened in Ferguson two weeks ago. We should reserve judgment because we do know that our system requires that we presume the innocence of the accused until he has been proven guilty in an open court. If I am ever accused of anything and find myself in court, I want that presumption of innocence. For it to remain strong, it cannot be denied to anyone. Nor can due process.

That is so important because often there is no unambiguous evidence of someone's guilt, and all the available evidence must be studied before a conclusion can be reached. Criminal charges of any kind are far too serious to be left to emotion.

We do know what happened in Iraq, though. It is not ambiguous. We don't know precisely when it happened, only when the video of the execution of photojournalist James Foley by an ISIS terrorist surfaced. Foley's beheading wasn't accidental. It was intentional. It was carried out by an apparent Briton — but nearly all of him — including his face — was hidden by black clothing.

He wasn't necessarily British. I have taught many foreign students; some spoke with distinctly British accents, but they weren't from the U.K. They came from other countries. Without exception, they were schooled in British schools by British teachers, and if you spoke to any of them on the phone, you would assume they were British. But they weren't.

The English–speaking jihadists were recruited deliberately. It's obvious. With their British accents, they can blend into places like America without arousing any suspicion while waiting for their assignments. Such accents are regarded as non–threatening by most Americans. And, even if they don't necessarily look British, with our borders as wide open as they are, who's going to notice another undocumented foreigner?

I am outraged on several levels by this act of blatant barbarism.

While I have done other things in my life, I will always consider myself a journalist. I never faced the danger that Foley clearly did, but I have known those who did. And when something like this happens, it is like a death in the family. I never met James Foley, but, as I say, I have known many like him.

The president, who never hesitates to stick his nose where it doesn't belong domestically, especially when it involves white on black crime (of which there is remarkably little), took some time from his vacation to acknowledge the murder — and took the unprecedented step of revealing details about a U.S. mission that failed to rescue Foley earlier this summer — then rushed back to the golf course in Martha's Vineyard, which is where he was when Foley's family held their emotional press conference.

He didn't have a photo op with Foley's family the way he did with Bergdahl's — even though he could have negotiated for Foley's freedom when he went against American policy to negotiate for Bergdahl's release.

What reason was there for disclosing details about the mission that failed? Politics. It was the president's way of getting credit for being tough — yes, he did try to do something, but, oops, it just didn't work. And, for all you bad guys, here's what we tried to do with material that we have at such–and–such location. Do you think that put any Americans in jeopardy? I do.

The president, along with his media enablers, is loath to use the word "evil," even when really no other word is sufficient. This is one of those times.

In just an hour or so on the internet last night, I found two references — in the New York Times and U.S. News and World Report — to ISIS' brownshirts as "militant."

My father is OK with the use of the word "militant," but I'm not. It strikes me as flippant. When I hear the word "militant," I think of the protests of the '60s — when campus militants, as they were called, threw Molotov cocktails at buildings — and people. Mostly, those "militants" were protesting for something (i.e., civil rights) or against something (the war in Vietnam). Sometimes, people got hurt. Occasionally (but, really, not that often) people were killed.

But it was never as blatant, as cold–bloodedly deliberate as the slaying of James Foley.

We need a word for these ISIS people. Judging by their behavior, people is far too generous, but there are those who would object if they were called animals, which is much closer to the truth. Do we need a new word? I'm not so sure. I think it would be appropriate to call them 21st–century Nazis. In the '40s, if someone said the word Nazi, you knew precisely what it meant.

Like the 20th–century Nazis, these people cannot be appeased. They are intent upon killing Americans. They said they would execute more Americans — and all they're looking for is an excuse. They asked for $132 million for Foley, then, when they were told that time would be needed to raise the money, they stopped communicating altogether.

They weren't interested in the money. They already control the oilfields in Iraq and Syria as well as all the sources of revenue in the larger cities. All the request for time to raise such a huge sum did was take away an excuse to kill an American, but they had another one ready. They blamed the pin–prick airstrikes and warned that, if they continue, more Americans will die. Obama said they would continue.

Do you doubt that they will make good their threat? I don't. Not for a second. They clearly want to kill Americans — and they want Americans to see them killing Americans.

It was naive for anyone to believe that the war on terror was over. Now, I fear, it will be deadly.

Do you believe that, somehow, ISIS will fail because evil always fails? The Nazis didn't fail. They were beaten by the Allies. It is the only way to deal with this kind of people. I regret having to say that because it contradicts the way I was brought up. But as long as these people exist, they are a deadly threat to us and our modern allies. Our friends in Europe should be especially concerned, being as close to ISIS as they are, geographically.

A few months ago, we observed the 70th anniversary of D–Day, the event that marked the turning point of World War II. A sustained effort is needed now if we are to rid the world of the menace that threatens us today.

We cannot delude ourselves into thinking it is over until it really is.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Son Who Was Meant to be King

Seventy years ago today, Joseph Kennedy Jr. was killed in action in World War II.

He was the oldest of nine children born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy — and he was the son Joe Sr. always expected to be president. Joe Jr. had three brothers, and each sought the Democratic Party's presidential nomination — and one was nominated and elected — but Joe Jr. died before he could attempt to fulfill his father's dream for him.

In fact, he died before his political career ever began although he clearly had political ambitions for his post–war life. He dropped out of Harvard's law school to enlist in the Navy, where he became a bomber pilot, but he and his father had begun making preparations for his political career. The plan was that he would seek the U.S. representative seat from Massachusetts' 11th district in 1946.

But he didn't live to do that.

Seventy years ago today, Joe Kennedy Jr. was part of a two–man mission to fly a plane over targets in northern France, activate a remote control system that would arm the detonators of the explosives on board and bail out of the plane before it crashed into its target. The plan was that they would parachute into the English Channel, where they would be picked up by an Allied boat.

Things didn't go according to plan. The explosives went off prematurely, and Kennedy and his co–pilot were killed.

Consequently, it was the second son, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who ran for and won the congressional seat from Massachusetts' 11th district in 1946. He held it for six years — until he sought a U.S. Senate seat in 1952. He won, was re–elected in 1958 and went on to be elected president in 1960.

It might have been Joe Jr.

John served in World War II like his brother did, but he survived and Joe didn't.

Historians have spoken in glowing terms of JFK's talents, but, from all the accounts I have read, Joe Jr. had even better people skills than JFK.

From the perspective of an historian, even an amateur one such as myself, it is natural to wonder if Joe Jr. might have beaten Nixon handily enough to prevent his ever seeking the presidency again — thus sparing the country the anguish of Watergate.

But Joe Jr. died almost 30 years to the day before Nixon's resignation, the 40th anniversary of which was only a few days ago.

His brother's win over Nixon was, of course, razor thin. Rumors persist to this day that the Democrats stole the election, thanks to falsified vote returns in places like Illinois, where Mayor Daley and his cronies were well known for fraud of all kinds, especially in elections.

So add one more to history's intriguing "what–if" list.

What if Joseph Kennedy Jr. had survived World War II and started his political career as expected?

The world might never have heard of John F. Kennedy — or he might have been known as an adviser to his brother, as Bobby was known to be for him.

Intriguing, isn't it?

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Nixon Leaves Washington

"Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."

Richard Nixon
Aug. 9, 1974

Five years ago today, on the 35th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation, my focus was on Gerald Ford, the man who succeeded him.

And that was as it should be, I guess. My memory is that the general attitude among Americans was a desire to look to the future after years of being deceived, first by the Johnson administration on the war in Vietnam, then by the Nixon administration on Watergate.

That has always been one of the remarkable things about Americans in general. No matter how tragic the circumstances, nearly all Americans are determined to persevere and to look ahead, not back.

But before Ford took the oath of office and power passed quietly from Nixon to his vice president, Nixon gave one final address to the members of the White House staff, and it was carried live on all three networks. That was to be expected, I suppose. Nixon's actions on that day were historic. He was the first president to resign.

Like the Lincoln funeral after the first presidential assassination, it may serve as the role model for future presidential resignations.

Ford, of course, already had his place in the history books as the first unelected vice president, appointed to replace Spiro Agnew in the first implementation of the 25th Amendment. After Nixon's resignation, Ford — now the first unelected president — was responsible for the second implementation of the amendment when he nominated New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to be his vice president.

If someday in the future another American president decides to resign, the protocols for his/her departure may be guided to a great extent by the record of what Nixon and Ford did 40 years ago today.

On the 40th anniversary of Nixon's resignation, it is appropriate, it seems to me, to recall what Nixon did in his final moments as president.

Nixon gave his speech to the staff, then the Fords escorted the Nixons to the helicopter on the White House grounds that would take them to Air Force One, which would take them to California. During that cross–country flight, Ford took the oath of office; somewhere over the midwestern United States, Richard Nixon ceased to be president and the jet from the presidential fleet that was carrying him to California stopped being designated as Air Force One — until the next time it was assigned to carry a president somewhere.

The speech reportedly was made without notes, but it was not entirely spontaneous. It was, to an extent, choreographed. Viewers didn't realize it, but, as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote, "The family placed themselves on the small platform behind the president. Small pieces of tape designated where each was to stand. Mrs. Nixon was on the president's left, slightly closer to him than Julie, who was on his right. David and Ed stood by their wives. Ed was carrying a book. The applause did not stop for four minutes."

At times during Nixon's speech, the cameras scanned the East Room of the White House, and viewers could catch fleeting glimpses of some familiar faces. By and large, though, the faces were unfamiliar; many were staffers who had served several administrations, not just Nixon's, but there were those there who had been exclusively part of Nixon's staff. Many probably did not predate the Watergate break–in. Few, if any, of the people in that room probably testified before Senate and/or House committees.

In such a group of people, most had only a professional relationship with the president, not a personal one. Yet many of the people in the room were crying.

Nixon started his speech relatively composed, but, near the end, he seemed to be losing his grip. At least, it appeared that way to me. He began rambling, speaking of his father and his mother, their sacrifices and setbacks.

"[Nixon attorney Leonard] Garment thought, Oh, my God, he's beginning to break down," Woodward and Bernstein wrote. "A binge of free association. Money, father, mother, brothers, death. The man is unraveling right before us. He will be the first person to go over the edge on live television."

That didn't happen, of course. Nixon got a grip on himself and concluded his remarks with advice that seemed, to me, to be very insightful. I always wondered if Nixon, in his off–the–cuff speech, understood at last in its final minutes what had been the undoing of his presidency.
"Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."

Helter Skelter

When I was in high school, I remember reading a dog–eared paperback of Vincent Bugliosi's book about the Manson family murders in the summer of '69, "Helter Skelter."

No telling how many people read that copy before I did, but it was in great shape, no matter how many people had read it. No one had marked on any of the pages, and none of the pages was torn. Only the cover was tattered — "dog–eared," as I said before.

The first page of the book had one sentence in the middle of an otherwise blank page on which people could have written or drawn things — but didn't. Perhaps it was an indication of how respectful people were of the story the book told: "The book you are about to read will scare the hell out of you."

And it did.

I slept with a baseball bat under my bed for weeks. I was convinced that, at some point, someone would come into my room when I was sleeping, and that person would probably have a perfectly legitimate reason for being there, but I would be roused from my slumber by an unfamiliar and unexpected noise and reach under my bed for the bat — and use it without asking any questions.

Fortunately, that didn't happen.

America has had a lot of exposure to cults in the years since the Manson murders terrorized southern California — and, really, the rest of the nation — so the story of that deadly weekend may seem tame to modern readers.

But it was still comparatively rare in 1969 — and it was frightening for average Americans.

And I'll bet Bugliosi's book still packs a powerful punch for unprepared readers. (Here's a tip: Don't watch the TV movie that was based on Bugliosi's book. The book kept me up at night. The movie almost put me to sleep. It's a strong story. It deserves better.)

Charles Manson's group consisted of a bunch of displaced young people. He had been predicting a race war between whites and blacks in America for a long time, but the Beatles' "White Album" provided justification for his predictions — according to his interpretations of songs from the album.

The song "Helter Skelter" was a direct reference to such a war, Manson told his followers. He saw all sorts of symbolism in certain songs — "Blackbird," "Revolution," "Piggies" as well as "Helter Skelter" — but he saw modest messages in all the other songs on the album, too. He had spoken of hidden meanings in individual Beatles songs in the past, but this was the first time that every song on an entire album — and a double album, at that — was cited.

"Every single song on the White Album," former follower Catherine Share said in a 2009 documentary, "[Manson] felt that they were singing about us."

Manson drew parallels between the songs and verses from the Book of Revelation. He always cast himself as the prime beneficiary, the one to whom both races would turn for guidance following "Helter Skelter" — the apocalyptic race war of which he warned his followers.

Bugliosi, who prosecuted Manson, explained it all in chilling detail in his book on the case. I know I was an impressionable teenager at the time I read it, but I'm pretty sure it was vivid enough to horrify the most hardened reader.

If there had been a checklist of the things that really scared people in the late '60s and early '70s, it would have included all the things that people saw in the Manson family — young, unkempt people living in a rural commune (hippies in the language of the times) under the direction of an older, manipulative, self–appointed messiah.

In the years to come, Americans became familiar with the tactics used by cult leaders to manipulate their followers. Jim Jones' followers committed suicide for him in 1978. So, too, did the members of Marshall Applewhite's religious cult, Heaven's Gate, in 1997. David Koresh and more than 80 of his followers in the Branch Davidians cult died fiery deaths in the siege in Waco, Texas, in 1993.

But in August 1969, people weren't prepared for what they about to witness.

Forty years ago today, Manson sent out four members of his family with the instruction to "totally destroy everyone" in the house he knew as the home of record producer Terry Melcher (Doris Day's son), but Melcher was no longer the tenant. Neither Manson nor his followers knew the current tenants, director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate. Polanski was out of the country 40 years ago tonight, but Tate, who was pregnant, was there, along with three friends.

All four, along with an 18–year–old man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, were killed. Well, truthfully, they were slaughtered. Manson encouraged them to be "as gruesome as you can be," and they were. Most of the victims were carved up, and code words from Beatles lyrics that were intended to incite Manson's race war were written in blood.

The same thing was done the next night when Manson sent half a dozen of his followers into the night. This time he went along "to show them how to do it." The chaos of the previous evening had disappointed him.

They went to the home of a supermarket executive and his wife, where much the same sort of scene unfolded as happened the previous night. Things were done in a more orderly fashion, though — no one had to be chased down and stabbed to death on the lawn this time.

More words were written in blood.

Needless to say, Manson's race war never happened. But Manson and the six who did his bidding were imprisoned and sentenced to death — sentences that were commuted to life when the death penalty was suspended by the Supreme Court in 1972. The death penalty was reinstated in 1976, but the sentences were not changed.

One of Manson's followers, Susan Atkins, who participated in both killing sprees, died in prison nearly five years ago. The rest are still there.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Resigned to His Fate

Forty years ago tonight, Richard Nixon announced to America and the world that he had decided to resign the presidency the next day.

There is often something kind of touching about watching someone who has fallen from grace in a very public way. Ordinarily, that person has been humbled by the experience and is conciliatory in his choice of words.

Nixon was one of the exceptions to that rule — although I must say that I thought he did an admirable job of maintaining his composure through the speech. (He really did seem to be on the brink of a breakdown the next day, though, when he said goodbye to the White House staff.)

"His eyes were pouched," wrote historian Theodore White, "the lines of his cheeks sharper than ever, his jowls puffy," but "[h]is voice was firm, the underquaver rarely surfacing."

His appearance belied a basic fact about how he perceived the world and the president's role in it. His Watergate experience seemed to contradict long–held convictions Nixon had about the presidency.

It is clear to me that, 24 hours earlier, Richard Nixon was a man suffering from severe inner turmoil. In their book "The Final Days," Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote that, the night before his speech, Nixon summoned his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to the White House. After their conversation, Nixon asked Kissinger to get on his knees and pray with him. At some point, Nixon began to sob, and he implored the heavens, "What have I done?"

Nixon was a "broken man," Kissinger said, and he tried to console him but eventually left. Later that evening, wrote Woodward and Bernstein, Nixon called Kissinger and asked him never to tell anyone "that I cried and that I was not strong."

He rallied himself, though, and gave a respectable speech 40 years ago tonight.

American Rhetoric ranked his resignation speech #39 among the top 100 speeches of the 20th century. But I wonder whether that was based on the structure of the speech — or its historical significance. Personally, I would be inclined to choose the latter.

It seems to me the speech announcing the first–ever (and, so far, only) presidential resignation would be historically significant no matter what was said — or how it was said — as long as at least one sentence had "I" as its subject and "resign" as its verb. That's really all that the hundreds of millions of people around the world who were watching and listening wanted to hear.

Besides, even with the luxury of time to prepare one's words for an important (and inevitable) moment, things don't always come out the way the speaker might have liked.

(Earlier in 1974, Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run and moved past Babe Ruth into the all–time top spot in baseball's record book. In anticipation of that moment, I have heard that the radio announcer for Aaron's team, the Atlanta Braves, spent a lot of time going over what he would say on the air, figuring that his words would be remembered and quoted. Apparently, he had several things in mind from which to choose, depending upon the circumstances surrounding the mighty blow. When the big moment came, though, he was so carried away that all he could say was "There's a new home run king." Kind of obvious, wouldn't you say?)

I didn't think the speech was especially eloquent. Nor did it strike me as being particularly generous. It certainly wasn't apologetic. Nixon started the speech — as he usually seemed to do — in a self–serving way.

"In all the decisions I have made in my public life," Nixon said, "I have always tried to do what was best for the nation." Right off the bat, he was justifying the motivation for all his actions as being what was "best for the nation."

One of those things that was in the best interest of the nation — in Nixon's mind, anyway — was his beliefthat he should "persevere" and "make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me."

He made it sound as if he owed it to the people who had voted for him overwhelmingly two years earlier — even though fewer than one–fourth of the respondents in the latest Gallup poll approved of the job he had been doing.

But, following the unanimous decision by the Supreme Court forcing him to surrender the subpoenaed tapes and the Judiciary Committee's approval of Articles of Impeachment, "it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort."

That was an understatement. After the discovery of the so–called "smoking gun" — the tape of the June 23, 1972 conversation that clearly implicated Nixon — it was reported that he could count on the support of only 10 senators when the trial was held in the Senate. He did not need a majority vote in the Senate to avoid conviction, but he did need many more votes than 10.

Beyond that, though, my impression was that people simply wanted Nixon to acknowledge what he had done. He had put the nation through two years of agony; people wanted him to take responsibility for his actions. He did no such thing. He made it clear he believed it was because of Congress' actions (or likely actions) that he was being forced from office, not because of anything he had done.

Nixon saw himself as blameless, a victim. If anyone needed any further proof of that, it came along a few years later when David Frost conducted his famous post–presidency interviews with Nixon. "If the president does it," Nixon told Frost, "that means it is not illegal."

"It," of course, was a generalization referring to anything a president did in office. It might be against the law for anyone else to do it, but the president would be doing it for the nation's good. That is entirely different from doing it for personal gain.

In Nixon's mind, the president was different from other citizens (even though, since the presidency is not passed from one generation to the next like a crown, the president always starts out as an ordinary citizen) because, by definition, the president was decent and good, and his only motivation was the welfare of the country. I suppose such a simplistic view must have its roots in childhood; unfortunately, I fear such altruistic individuals are rarely found in real life.

"I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved," Nixon said, "and my family unanimously urged me to do so."

(Well, there was considerable doubt about that at the time.)

"But the interests of the nation must always come before any personal considerations."

That was a theme to which he returned again and again. Perhaps he believed it allowed him to save a little face, this pretense that somehow he was making a sacrifice for his country.

"To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body," Nixon said, "but as president, I must put the interest of America first."

Probably the closest that Nixon came to apologizing was when he said, "[I]f some of my judgments were wrong — and some were wrong — they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interests of the nation."

John Herbers of the New York Times felt that Nixon "may well have delivered his most effective speech" since the dawning of the Watergate scandal.

I'll go along with that — since none of his previous Watergate speeches managed to keep him from his appointment with destiny.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cracks in Nixon's Stonewall

"I want you all to stonewall it. Let them plead the Fifth Amendment, coverup or anything else if it'll save it, save this plan."

Richard Nixon
To his closest associates
March 22, 1973

I suppose it's true what they say. Hindsight really is 20/20.

I say that because, in my experience as a writer/journalist, I have found that people almost never know the impact an event will have on their lives or the lives of others when it happens. Sure, sometimes you do. For example, I think most people understood on Sept. 11, 2001, that their lives had been forever changed by what happened that morning.

Still, most things only become clear with the passage of time — and that may never have been more accurate than when it was applied to Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.

From the perspective of 2014, it is easy to see that, by Aug. 5, 1974, Nixon was being nudged toward resignation by forces that were beyond his control, but the final decision was still his, and it was anyone's guess at that point what his decision would be. All would know by the end of that week.

What was known was that the last couple of weeks had been frightfully bad ones for Richard Nixon. In a Gallup poll that was completed 40 years ago today, only 24% of respondents approved of the job Nixon was doing as president. Sixty–six percent disapproved. It was almost exactly the reverse of a Gallup poll taken the week after Nixon was re–elected in a 49–state landslide less than two years earlier.

First, there had been the Supreme Court ruling on July 24 that he had to turn over all records (tapes as well as notes) of White House conversations that were regarded as evidence in a criminal trial. His gambit to cloak them all in executive privilege had failed.

Then, within a week, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment that the House would consider and almost certainly approve. That would send the matter to the Senate, where Nixon and some of his diehard defenders believed they had the votes to survive the trial — if there was a trial, and many of the diehards didn't think there would be.

But most of the folks in Nixon's corner, including Nixon's own lawyers and Al Haig, his chief of staff, did not agree. They held a strategy session on Sunday, Aug. 4, 1974, and their preference was to be spared the task of defending an indefensible client on an extremely public stage. Increasingly, they came to the conclusion that it would be best for all concerned if Nixon resigned — especially for Nixon himself.

Apparently, he still had not made decision 40 years ago today. On Aug. 5, 1974, everything seemed as uncertain as it ever had during the Watergate investigation.

Hindsight, of course, is assisted considerably when there is new evidence or knowledge, and information about Watergate always came to light slowly, sometimes agonizingly so. Most of the time, it was by design, all part of the Watergate coverup, but sometimes it was simply the result of the wheels of justice grinding slowly.

Haig and the lawyers had new evidence in their possession on Sunday, Aug. 4 — the transcript of Nixon's June 23, 1972 conversation with H.R. Haldeman. It came to be known as the "smoking gun" of Watergate, and it was the last straw for many congressional Republicans.

"Read the conversations however one would," historian Theodore White wrote, "there was no doubt that on June 23rd, six days after the Watergate burglary of the Democratic Party's headquarters, the president had been told that his former attorney general and dear friend John Mitchell was involved in that burglary. And worse ... Nixon had used the federal machinery — namely, the CIA — to obstruct and halt the FBI investigation of that burglary.

"Nixon had been lying, therefore, for more than two years, lying to the public, lying to Congress, lying to his own staff, at times probably lying to himself."

Nixon was an enigma. In the words of the Pittsburgh Post–Gazette's David Shribman, Nixon was "[a]wkward in manner — but shrewd in judgment. Flawed in character — but peerless in vision. Much misunderstood — but possessed of a peerless understanding of human nature. Tarred with mendacity — but a political magus nonetheless."

Bob Woodward, who was responsible, along with colleague Carl Bernstein, for the early investigative reporting on Watergate for the Washington Post, recently reviewed John Dean's book, "The Nixon Defense," for the Post.

"The title is misleading," Woodward wrote, "because it suggests there is a case for Nixon's innocence. Dean quickly clears that up when he writes in the preface, 'Fortunately for everyone, his defense failed.'"

On this day 40 years ago, it was dawning on his loyalists — and possibly on Nixon himself — that his defense had failed.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Half a Century Since an 'Historic Mistake'

Fifty years ago, in August 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats reportedly attacked the American destroyer Maddox and, possibly, the Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin.

See, there were (reportedly) two separate incidents. The first occurred on Aug. 2, 1964, and it seems pretty certain that one did happen. The Maddox was attacked, and a sea battle followed in which the Maddox fired nearly 300 rounds at the torpedo boats.

Two days later, the Turner Joy was reportedly fired on after it had moved into position to provide support for the Maddox. The evidence of that incident was shakier. It was initially reported as a sea battle, implying that both sides had been firing weapons, but it later emerged that the firing of Turner Joy's weapons may have been triggered (so to speak) by "Tonkin ghosts" — false radar images.

(An internal National Security Agency report, which was declassified in 2005, found that "[i]t is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night.")

Real or false, President Lyndon Johnson used the attacks as justification for escalating American involvement in Vietnam — and winning political support from some conservatives.

What most Americans did not know was that the Maddox had been sent to the Gulf of Tonkin on a special mission — to provoke the North Vietnamese into using their radar. The Americans would then track the radar — "the naval equivalent of spotting enemy artillery positions so that they can be destroyed by counterbattery fire," historian William Manchester wrote.

But the Americans apparently hadn't expected their presence to draw enemy fire.

The outcome was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a joint resolution approved by both chambers of Congress a week later. It gave Johnson the authority — without Congress' formal declaration of war — to use "conventional" military force.

The House approved the resolution 416–0. In the Senate, only two senators — Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska — voted against it.

"I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake," Morse told his colleagues. "I believe that, within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake."

It didn't even take that long.

By 1967, opposition to the war was growing and the rationale for American involvement was under close scrutiny by the public. A movement to repeal the resolution began to gather steam. The repeal was achieved as an attachment to the Foreign Military Sales Act of 1971, which was signed into law by Richard Nixon.

To further limit a president's war powers, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973 over Nixon's veto.

But there weren't many critical comments in August 1964.

It was perceived as the logical progression of the anti–appeasement policy that had been in style since World War II.

"President Johnson has earned the gratitude of the free world," wrote the Washington Post.

Fifty years later, The Hill calls it a "tragedy." To me, that seems more accurate than "historic mistake," although I guess both are correct.

And Johnson's response to the perceived aggression of the North Vietnamese apparently shored up his support on the right. In July, Gallup reported that 58% of respondents had been critical of his handling of the military effort in Vietnam, but in August, nearly three–fourths of respondents approved. That was an impressive shift. And, in November, Johnson won a full four–year term as president by the widest margin in history.

Whether legitimately or not, it is clear that Johnson reaped considerable immediate political benefits from what historian Theodore White called a "deft response" to a threat.

"For all I know," Johnson told a group of visitors in 1965, "our Navy was shooting at whales out there."