Sunday, 21 November 2010

JFK: The Making Of Modern Politics: A Review

If there is dissatisfaction with the status quo, good. If there is ferment, so much the better. If there is restlessness, I am pleased. Then let there be ideas, and hard thought, and hard work. If man feels small, let man make himself bigger.
Hubert H. Humphrey

Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism.
Hubert H. Humphrey

It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.
Hubert H. Humphrey

The television documentary by Andrew Marr on Sunday night illustrated how all the poisonous tactics of today's politics entered with the Kennedy campaign first for the Democratic leadership, and then for the Presidency of the United States. It was a triumph of of style over substance, in which John F. Kennedy sold an image of himself as glamorous, virile and young. And it was also the start of a very nasty campaign of dirty tricks and lies.

When he stood for the democrat nomination, John F Kennedy had to overcome Hubert Humphrey, and how he did it was to use the power of the media to destroy Humphrey completely, by using leaks of false accusations to smear his opponent, and then denying that his team had anything to do with it:

Hubert Humphrey had a classic old-fashioned campaign. He had been too ill to fight in the war. His finances were meagre. His wife was homely and old-fashioned. He had no private plane, but a bus - with a broken heater - instead. He was one of the most intelligent, compassionate and literate politicians in modern American history, who had taken on Communists, organised crime and racialism when these were very dangerous fights to pick, and who understood middle America far better than Kennedy. But he was about to be crushed. The Kennedy team dealt with their Catholic problem above all by smearing Humphrey as a draft-dodger. They saturated the state with advertising, money and helpers. By the end, a stunned Humphrey, who had compared his fight to that of a corner store against a supermarket chain, was reduced to using the few hundred dollars he and his wife had saved for their daughter's education to pay for a final campaign ad. The 1960 US Democratic Convention selects John F Kennedy as its presidential candidate. Having smeared Humphrey and trashed his reputation, the Kennedys washed their hands and denied it all.(1)

In fact, as the Kennedy team knew only too well, during World War II, Humphrey tried twice to join the armed forces, but was rejected both times due to a hernia.

Kennedy went on to present an image of himself against Nixon as the younger, fitter, of the two, even though he had serious back problems since 1938 (and wore a canvas back brace with metal stays, and most seriously, Addison's disease, which he and his doctor both lied about:

Kennedy's Addisonism was diagnosed in 1947 by a physician in London. Kennedy had probably been suffering (literally) from the disease for years, if not decades. After the diagnosis, he was given less than a year to live. He was so ill during the sea voyage home from England, in October 1947, that he was given the last rites . Yet, during the 1960 presidential race, the JFK campaign flatly denied that JFK had Addison disease. The Kennedy campaign used a very narrow definition of Addision disease, namely, insufficiency of the adrenal glands caused by tuberculosis. This was deliberate, calculated, and grossly misleading. Bumgarner calls it "undoubtedly one of the most cleverly laid smoke screens ever put down around a politician" (2)

In the campaign against Nixon, he lied about the military capacity of the United States, knowing that it was greater, but calling for more missles nonetheless. Nixon, who as Vice-President, knew the real situation, had to keep quite because of security reasons, a fact which Kennedy was well aware of. And in the television debate, he deliberately played on his appearance, while Nixon, suffering from an injured foot, looked unwell. It was interesting that Marr revealed that the few radio listeners thought Nixon had the better of Kennedy, while the TV listeners thought the reverse, illustrating how appearance and body language dominated the impression far beyond mere arguments, and setting the tone for television debates to come.

Kennedy beat Nixon not simply with his ads, his sound bites, his jingles, the carefully posed photographs and the downright lies he told about his health. He beat Nixon by not standing for anything beyond rousing banalities. (1)

Today's politics bears the legacy of John F. Kennedy. His use of spin, of the media, of saying nothing, but saying it cleverly so that it sounded sincere and convincing, won the election, and thereby set the template for elections to come, and as Andrew Marr argues, has tarnished politics ever since. This is why we hear politicians talk about "comprehensive reviews", "efficiency", "enhancements", and all the managerial-speak that sounds statesmanlike, but says absolutely nothing at all; it is like the Emperor's new clothes, and of this kind of language, George Orwell commented:

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.(3)

How might matters have been if Humphrey, and not Kennedy had won? Well, Kennedy had a mixed record on civil rights, again a legacy of trying to play to the crowd. He had voted against Eisenhower's 1957 Civil Rights Act, when the Democratic party line was to oppose the bill. Humphrey had not only supported the Act, he had worked actively on it to get it passed. Kennedy appeared to support civil rights when addressing black voters, but when in office as President, dragged his heels, and didn't do anything until forced to with the Meredith case in 1962 (4)

Here's a speech of Hubert H. Humphrey from 14 July 1948, delivered at the 1948 Democratic National Convention Address and some very plain speaking, which he was to follow through in 1957:

We can't use a double standard -- There's no room for double standards in American politics -- for measuring our own and other people's policies. Our demands for democratic practices in other lands will be no more effective than the guarantee of those practices in our own country.

Friends, delegates, I do not believe that there can be any compromise on the guarantees of the civil rights which we have mentioned in the minority report. In spite of my desire for unanimous agreement on the entire platform, in spite of my desire to see everybody here in honest and unanimous agreement, there are some matters which I think must be stated clearly and without qualification. There can be no hedging -- the newspaper headlines are wrong. There will be no hedging, and there will be no watering down -- if you please -- of the instruments and the principles of the civil-rights program.

My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say that this civil-rights program is an infringement on states' rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights. People -- human beings -- this is the issue of the 20th century. People of all kinds -- all sorts of people -- and these people are looking to America for leadership, and they're looking to America for precept and example.

My good friends, my fellow Democrats, I ask you for a calm consideration of our historic opportunity. Let us do forget the evil passions and the blindness of the past. In these times of world economic, political, and spiritual -- above all spiritual crisis, we cannot and we must not turn from the path so plainly before us. That path has already lead us through many valleys of the shadow of death. And now is the time to recall those who were left on that path of American freedom.


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