HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 20, 2008
From the Editor

John Turner


This week I went to the Vermont Technical College to talk about Robert Dallek's An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy. My appearance was one in a series of discussions about American presidents in the second half of the 20th Century.

By strange chance, on the day I went there, Robert Dallek had an op/ed piece in the Washington Post titled, "A Hale Chief? Better Check Up on That." The article ended with this assertion: "If you want to be the most powerful person in the world, you will also have to be one of the least private. Voters deserve to know the full picture -- no ifs, ands or buts."

I'm not sure I agree completely with Mr. Dallek. As he makes more than clear in his biography, if the public had known in 1960 how sick John Kennedy had been all his life, they would not have elected him to the presidency. We can't be sure that the person elected would have been worse, but the chances are that he would. Nixon would still have been the Republican nominee and it's hard to see how any potential Democratic nominee other than Kennedy could have defeated him.

The gratitude we owe to Mr. Kennedy came from his understanding more fully than most public figures in the early 1960s that nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States would be a horror from which it would have been hard for the world to recover. And, of course, the hundreds of millions of people who would have been killed would have had no chance at all.

It's hard now to project oneself back a half-century and to perceive how acceptable nuclear war was to many Americans, including major leaders of the nation. There were powerful voices saying then that since nuclear war had to come, it would be better for the United States to launch a preemptive strike against the USSR, even though they knew it would result in the destruction of many large American population centers. The only accurate description of such policy makers is crazy. But, there they were, influencing national behavior, and Mr. Kennedy managed somehow to hold them in check.

None of the less than admirable things he did, and there were many, begins to equal that gift to the nation and to the world.

One of the comments I made to my audience at Vermont Tech was that relatively few citizens grasp how our systems of advancement and promotion provide no security against insanity. We have no way of keeping deranged people out of the upper ranks of government. Every government will have persons of major authority who are perpetually on the verge of doing something crazy. This is probably the principal challenge of democracy.

I also told them that Dallek's book reminds us of how much change there has been since the early 1960s. Attitudes that would ruin a person today could be proudly advanced then. Mr. Kennedy appointed men to federal judgeships who openly denounced 'niggers" from the bench. But despite the changes in tone, the nature of politics and the people who play at it remain as they have been throughout our history. It was an extremely nasty game then and if you open your eyes you will see it is just as nasty now.

In the two weeks we have ahead of us we are going to see torrents of nastiness. We have to hope that a majority of the electorate will view it for what it is.


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