The Past Is Prologue — Charles Pierce on the warning from President Kennedy.
In the fall of 1963, President John F. Kennedy was on one of the great rhetorical hot streaks ever enjoyed by an American president. Earlier that year, he had delivered his memorable commencement address at American University, in which the lessons he had learned during the perilous days of the Cuban Missile Crisis finally found their voice in his vision for peace through rapprochement with the USSR and with Cuba.
In June, he had delivered an address on civil rights that, at last, put him clearly on the side of that movement. (It was shortly after his broadcast ended that Medgar Evers was murdered in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi, in front of his wife and children, who had watched Kennedy’s speech on their television set.)
In November, Kennedy flew to Texas on a purely political trip. He was trying to heal a split among the Texas Democrats, and he also aimed to raise a potful of money for his own reelection effort the following year.
The trip was a resounding success. The crowds were rapturous, reflective of Kennedy’s increased popularity in the wake of the successful resolution of the missile crisis. On November 22, he was scheduled to speak before a diverse audience of business leaders, country-club types and research scientists. He needed a theme common to them all and, working with genius speechwriter Ted Sorensen, Kennedy found one.
There was also a wildness in the land. In 1962, the University of Mississippi had exploded into armed insurrection over the admission of James Meredith, the first black student in that institution’s history. Evers had been killed four months before Kennedy flew to Dallas. In October, UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been assaulted by a mob in Dallas. Elements of the intelligence community and the military hierarchy were flirting with revolt; Gen. Edwin Walker was openly seditious. When JFK granted permission for director John Frankenheimer to film “Seven Days In May,” his movie about a military coup against civilian authority, at the White House, the president was sending a signal to his entire government.
And it looked like the Republicans were preparing to nominate Sen. Barry Goldwater—a fiery conservative who already was flirting with the wildness in the land—to run against him in 1964. Kennedy and Sorensen looked into the heart of the wildness and found their theme.
“America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem,” the speech began.
Then the president planned to go to town.
But today other voices are heard in the land — voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the Sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice without weapons, that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness. At a time when the national debt is steadily being reduced in terms of its burden on our economy, they see that debt as the greatest single threat to our security. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of Federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.
Ignorance and misinformation can handicap the progress of a city or a company, but they can, if allowed to prevail in foreign policy, handicap this country’s security…We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will ‘talk sense to the American people.’ But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.
I trust I don’t have to explain why Kennedy never got to deliver this speech. By the time he was scheduled to address this slice of the Dallas elite, he was already dead, claimed by the wildness.
The prescience of Kennedy’s undelivered remarks should be obvious. In fact, he was operating from his profound knowledge of American political history: There always has been pulling and hauling between the national intellect and the national id. It’s how we went from John Quincy Adams to Andrew Jackson. It’s the dynamic behind all the campaigns by so-called non-politicians, behind all the “Ordinary Joe” bait-and-switch that millionaire legislators use to bamboozle their constituents. It’s what all those reporters were looking for while haunting diners in Ohio and gas stations in Michigan.
This, of course, is contrary to what the Founders had in mind (at least for white men). In an 1822 letter, James Madison wrote:
The liberal appropriations made by the Legislature of Kentucky for a general system of Education cannot be too much applauded. A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
We are still emerging from the single-most heretical administration* ever elected. It was an exercise in exact opposites that even Orwell would have found preposterous. And its immediate legacy has been a wide-ranging assault on free thought and public education, an assault based on the threat of imaginary bogeymen and manufactured spook stories.
This is what keeps me coming back to the speech Kennedy never got to deliver.
But today other voices are heard in the land—voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the Sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice without weapons, that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness. At a time when the national debt is steadily being reduced in terms of its burden on our economy, they see that debt as the greatest single threat to our security. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of Federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.
You will note how Kennedy and Sorensen cite concrete political examples of the consequences of believing nonsense in a free society. The “threat” of the debt. The specter of a horde of bureaucrats. Eighteen years later, Republican President Ronald Reagan, a political creature of Goldwater’s imaginary menagerie, stood up at his own inauguration and said:
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?
And thus did it begin, the long march to the Capitol steps, every step of the way a refutation of the secular prayer that John F. Kennedy wanted to deliver to his audience on the day he was killed:
We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will ‘talk sense to the American people.’ But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.
Yes, we can certainly hope for that. But it’s not the way to bet these days.
Doonesbury — Long-term effects.