From The Archives: A 2008 Conversation With Barbara Walters
A conversation from the archives with Barbara Walters about her 2008 memoir "Audition," a story of family challenges, celebrity gossip and blazing a trail in TV news.
On the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a discussion of the public perceptions and political realities in the Kennedy White House, the city of Dallas and the nation.
PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDYLet the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. He was only in office for a thousand days, but John F. Kennedy continues to garner the highest approval ratings of any post-war president. But scholars say there is a disconnect between public perceptions of the Kennedy presidency then and now.
MS. DIANE REHMHere to talk about political realities in the Kenney White House, the city of Dallas and the nation, author and presidential historian Robert Dallek, James Thurber of American University and Bill Minutaglio of the University of Texas at Austin. Joining us from a studio in Dallas, Texas, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. I welcome you into the conversation. Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us an email to email@example.com, follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Welcome to all of you.
MR. JAMES THURBERIt's great to be here.
MR. LARRY SABATOHello.
MR. ROBERT DALLEKThank you.
MR. BILL MINUTAGLIOThank you.
REHMBob Dallek, I'll start with you. Those were such inspirational words that President Kennedy spoke. I remember it was the first election in which I ever voted. Why do you think President Kennedy remains so popular with the American people even today?
DALLEKWell, Diane, he's an inspirational voice, as you just said, but a lot of it has to do with his successors. Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam and Richard Nixon and Watergate, the failed Ford and Carter presidencies, the two Bushes, especially the second one who lives under a cloud because of Iraq and Katrina and the economic downturn. People need inspiration. They want hope.
DALLEKAnd this is what Kennedy still gives them. See, he's frozen in our minds at the age of 46. If he walked into this room now, we'd recognize him. He'd look like one of us, you see. It's not as if he'd be some 19th century figure with a high collar and so he still speaks to us in contemporary ways.
REHMYou have been writing about Kennedy for years. What are some of the things that you believe are less well understood about him than the public perception of him?
DALLEKWell, of course, there was a lot that as hidden and most of all, was, of course, his health problem. I got into his health records when I published my original biography and what we found was that he had a variety of illnesses that if the public knew about them in 1960, I doubt that they would have elected him president because he had been hospitalized in the late '50s nine times for 44 days over a period of a year and a half, you see.
DALLEKAnd this was covered up. This was hidden because in addition to the fact that he'd be the first Catholic and the youngest man ever elected to the White House, the fact that he had all these medical problems, I think, would've sunk his campaign.
REHMRobert Dallek, he's presidential historian. His newest book is titled, "Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House." Larry Sabato, what do you see as the biggest myths of the Kennedy presidency?
SABATOWell, there were many myths about the presidency, many have been constructed and reconstructed after Dallas, frankly. You know, the blood of the assassination washed away most of John F. Kennedy's sins, both his public sins and his private sins. So people's image of John F. Kennedy today, even among the generation that lived through his presidency is quite a bit different than the image people had when he was president.
SABATOThough, you know, it's worth noting, if you look back at the Gallup Polls, Diane, in the '60s, Kennedy was never unpopular. Not for a minute. And he was elected only by a smidgen under 50 percent of the vote and some say he didn't win at all and it was fraud in Texas and Illinois, though I disagree with that. So it's remarkable.
SABATOIt was a different time. We put presidents on pedestals. It was a good time for America. We were economically strong and second to none militarily and I think a lot of people look back and look back with fondness at that time. And that's part of it.
REHMWhy do you believe people thought of him then and even now as a liberal president?
SABATOWell, he was liberal in some ways. It took him a while to get to the cause of civil rights, but once he got there in June of 1963, he said and did the right things and he did set the table for what Lyndon Johnson was able to do after the assassination in the summer of '64 and then later with the Voting Rights Act.
SABATOIn other respects, he wasn't so liberal, but he reflected the times. Both parties had a muscular foreign policy. They were strongly anti-Communist. You couldn't get elected president unless you were going to suggest that your defense posture toward the Soviet Union was a tough one. Kennedy was also very cautious about the budget and the debt and spending.
SABATOAnd I think people would be surprised at how hesitant he was to undertake big spending new programs, very different from Lyndon Johnson.
REHMLarry Sabato, he's founder and director of the University of Virginia Center For Politics. He's the author of the new book, "The Kennedy Half Century." James Thurber, turning to you. Take us back to that time and the issues that Americans were worried about, were coping with or dealing with.
THURBERWell, at the time, just before the assassination, of course we had gone through the catastrophe of the Bay of Pigs. We had a confrontation, a missile confrontation, with the Soviet Union. We had some high unemployment in certain areas of the United States. We had a civil rights movement that was being in conflict with the South. We had a commitment of troops to Vietnam and we had a candidate going to Dallas that was very worried about winning again because you needed to take some states in the South.
THURBERTexas was barely in his camp when he first won and he had to go down there to bring people together in the party, to fundraise. He didn't really want to go down there and Jackie really didn't want to go down there, but they did and they did it because of the upcoming campaign. It was a time that really launched civil rights reform later on under LBJ, but also really an attack on poverty.
THURBERMedicare, Medicaid came and those were things that they talked about, but he didn't do very much in that area. That was left to LBJ after the assassination.
REHMJames Thurber, he's the author of "Obama in Office: The First Two Years." And Bill Minutaglio, talk about the opposition that Kennedy faced from the Southern lawmakers in that time.
MINUTAGLIOYeah, Dallas, particularly in a cruel irony, you know, had become the epicenter of the anti-Kennedy resistance. The world's richest man lived in Dallas, H.L. Hunt, and he was bank-rolling an anti-Kennedy movement. He was really in the vanguard. He had the most powerful Baptist preacher in America in Dallas, a man named Rev. W.A. Criswell, who was very well known around the nation.
MINUTAGLIORev. Billy Graham was a member of his congregation in Dallas and they were espousing Catholic phobia. You know, we talk about Islamaphobia today and really emanating out of Dallas was the sense that Kennedy was practicing a dark art, this exotic religion. He might be on bended knee to the Papacy in some way. So the resistance to Kennedy that was emanating, at least from that part of the country was born out of sort of a moral crusade as well.
REHMYou also write about Republican Congressman Bruce Alger from Texas in your book, "Dallas, 1963." He was one of the most ultra conservative men in Congress.
MINUTAGLIOHe was. You know, as one illustration, there'd been a surplus milk program available in the country. Lawmakers here were trying to figure out how to get surplus milk to needy children around American and he was famous or perhaps infamous for being the only member of Congress on either side of the aisle to vote against it. He thought it was socialism, tantamount to Communism.
MINUTAGLIOAnd he was also rabidly against Kennedy. In Dallas, particularly, you had coalescing forces. You had a religious thrust working against Kennedy. You had a well-funded machine, millions of dollars being poured into it and then, you know, the political lightning rod Bruce Alger, the local congressman.
REHMWho also called for the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren.
MINUTAGLIOThere was a lot of vitriol in Texas. I wrestle with that a lot. You know, Texas used to be its own country and sometimes still behaves that way, back then and now. And there really was a sense that Dallas, particularly, needed to seize the reins and almost launch a war, if you will, certainly a moral crusade against Kennedy.
REHMBill Minutaglio, he's professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, co-author of "Dallas, 1963." And we should remind folks Dallas was the last city in the U.S. to integrate its public schools. Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back to our very special programming on John F. Kennedy. Today and tomorrow we are commemorating the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Here with me in the studio, Robert Dallek. His latest book is titled "Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House." James Thurber. He has a new book. It's titled "Obama in Office: The First Two Years." Bill Minutaglio has written -- co-authored a book titled "Dallas 1963." Larry Sabato joins us from Dallas. His new book is titled "The Kennedy Half-Century."
REHMJames Thurber, just before the break, I mentioned that Dallas was the last city in the country to integrate his public schools. Race was such a divisive issue at that time.
THURBERRace was divisive and you had a block of southern Democrats called Dixiecrats (sp?) that were clear segregationists. LBJ came out of that world. The president was somewhat cautious and even maybe conservative early in his political career, not as president, with respect to race.
THURBERHe was forced into action because of the violent conflicts that were going on in the south that were televised. People saw this. And so he used executive orders to push forward the end of segregation in interstate travel facilities and federal facilities, housing facilities. It really set the stage though for the '64 Civil Rights Act and the '65 Voting Rights Act.
REHMAnd who was James Meredith? Why did President Kennedy decide to intervene in that case?
THURBERWell, James Meredith was a very prominent civil rights activist, leader. And he was a symbol of that and he intervened -- after some discussion he intervened on behalf of the civil rights activists.
REHMAnd here's a brief conversation that President Kennedy has with Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett.
KENNEDYGovernor, this is the president speaking. Now I know that you're feeling about the law of Mississippi and the fact that you don't want to carry out that court order. What we really want to have from you though is some understanding about whether the state police will maintain law and order.
KENNEDYWe understand your feeling about the court order and your disagreement with it, but what we're concerned about is how much violence there's going to be and what kind of action we'll have to take to prevent it. And I'd like to get assurances from you about -- that the state police down there will take positive action to maintain law and order. Then we'll know what we have to do.
GOV. ROSS BARNETTThey'll take positive action, Mr. President, to maintain law and order as best we can.
KENNEDYAnd now how good...
BARNETTWe have 220 highway patrolmen.
BARNETTAnd they'll absolutely be armed. Every one of them will be armed.
KENNEDYI know but the problem is, well, what can they do to maintain law and order to prevent the gathering of a mob and the action taken by the mob? What can they do? Can they stop that?
BARNETTWell, they'll do their best to. They'll do everything in their power to stop it.
KENNEDYNow, what about the suggestion made by the Attorney General in regard to not permitting people to congregate and start a mob?
BARNETTWell, we'll do our best to keep them from congregating but that's hard to do, you know.
KENNEDYWell, you just tell them to move along.
BARNETT(unintelligible) up on the sidewalks and different sides of the streets, what are you going to do about it?
KENNEDYWell now, as I understand it, Governor, you would do everything you can to maintain that law and order.
BARNETTI'll do everything in my power to maintain order...
BARNETT...and peace. We don't want any shooting down here.
KENNEDYI understand. Now Governor, what about -- can you maintain this order?
BARNETTWell, I don't know. That's what I'm worried about. I don't know whether I can or not.
REHMAnd those were the words of Gov. Ross Barnett of Mississippi. Bill Minutaglio, what happened that day?
MINUTAGLIOWell, a gentleman from Dallas, Texas, of all places again, was helping to instigate a riot at (unintelligible) at the university. Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker, who has sort of been exiled a little bit to the dust bin of history but at one time had been -- he was on the cover of News Week, the front page of the New York Times as the thunder on the right.
MINUTAGLIOHe really had become kind of the man on horseback for the anti-Kennedy resistance in America. A general -- he had been exiled from the military, high-ranking figure because he was ordering his troops to read John Birch Society literature, telling them how to vote, suggesting that Eleanor Roosevelt might've been a socialist and even Harry Truman.
MINUTAGLIOEssentially during the Kennedy Administration he had been exiled and removed from the military, and decided there was one place in the world he would like to live and that would be Dallas. And from there he began espousing hatred in traveling the nation, combating integration and particularly at the University of Mississippi. He was there yelling riot, riot, riot...
REHMAnd Gov. Barnett certainly didn't sound very sure as to whether he could keep control.
MINUTAGLIOIt's a fascinating bit of audio that you just played. It's extraordinary American History because you can see the tug, the resistance, the pushback and the firm voice that President Kennedy had. And really what he said is, you know, you need to solve this and we need to arrest this guy for sedition, Gen. Walker, which in fact Kennedy did. Kennedy was quite uncompromising in this situation. He arrested Walker and had him secreted away really at a federal psychiatric facility.
REHMWhich certainly did not help Kennedy's standing with the south.
MINUTAGLIONo, the breaks were becoming real clear there between how Kennedy viewed America's future, what might be quaintly called southern traditions.
REHMLarry Sabato, do you want to add to that?
SABATOSure. Two things. First, you have to remember in putting yourself in Kennedy's position, he was being as aggressive as he could, often behind the scenes. But this was really the beginning of the civil rights revolution. And let's remember, you know, John Kennedy was many things but he was a politician. He wanted to be reelected. The memory that had been burned into his brain was that extremely close 1960 race. And he only won it because he got many southern electoral votes, not all due to Lyndon Johnson, some due to Lyndon Johnson.
SABATOHe did not want to alienate all of the south and lose all of those electoral votes traditionally Democratic. So he had to walk a fine line. As I said, eventually he got to the right place historically. The civil rights leaders wish he had gotten there much earlier. He didn't follow through on a couple of key pledges in the 1960 campaign.
REHMRobert Dallek, you write in your book that the best way to understand Kennedy's performance as president was through his interactions with his advisors. Why?
DALLEKWell, because he had appointed what he saw as (unintelligible) David Hallistan (sp?) called them the best and the brightest, or Ted Sorensen called it a ministry of talent. And so he begins his administration with the assumption that he has these wonderfully talented, intelligent wise men around him -- all men, no women, all men, and he learns pretty quickly not to trust what they're telling him because it goes through the Bay of Pigs disaster. And afterwards he says, how could I have been so stupid? And he's full of self-recrimination.
DALLEKWhen he gets the Cuban missile crisis, he is so leery of what the advisors are telling him, especially the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He holds them at arm's length. He doesn't want them in the room. And in fact, he doesn't have them except one meeting -- one meeting he brings them in. But after that he pushes them aside.
REHMDid his advisors actually let me down on the Bay of Pigs?
DALLEKThey do. And what he tells Allen Dulles the head of the CIA, that -- and some of his subordinates -- that if this were a British parliamentary system, I would have to go. But in our system of government, you're the ones who are going to leave. But he wouldn't push them out so quickly because, as Larry Sabato points out, the election had been so close. Kennedy had tried to create a bipartisan administration.
DALLEKHe brought McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara in. He had J. Edgar Hoover kept him on, Allen Dulles, C. Douglas Dillon who was in the Eisenhower Administration. He brought him in as Secretary of the Treasury. He was very concerned not to alienate Republicans and not to be seen as weak on foreign policy in any way at all.
REHMAnd yet, the Cuban missile crisis, such a disaster. Larry Sabato, should it have come down to some of those advisors leaving?
SABATOWell, if you're talking about the Cuban missile crisis, it seems to me that the lesson learned there is there is no substitute for a president's judgment. And that's the most important consideration in any presidential election. Maybe benefitting from the disaster of the Bay of Pigs and some other things that didn't go quite as well as Kennedy had wanted, he certainly made the right decisions.
SABATOWhen I started researching "The Kennedy Half-Century," Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's wordsmith suggested to me and stressed to me that above all, the world as we know it might not exist had Kennedy not made the right decisions then. Not the advisors, Kennedy.
REHMAnd here's an email on that very point from Robert. He says, "Wasn't the missile crisis -- the Cuban missile crisis the greatest worldwide threat in human history? And did not Kennedy finesse us, the human race, through it? Wouldn't this achievement alone be enough to rank him the greatest president ever," Larry Sabato?
SABATOWell, that's what the people think. We did a massive survey of Americans, not just polling but focus groups, and found that Kennedy is the most highly-regarded president since World War II, which is extraordinary because he only served the thousand days you mentioned. And people cite the Cuban missile crisis before anything else.
THURBERWell, he -- I think he learned from the Bay of Pigs. He became very cautious and independent when it came to the Cuban missile crisis. And that led also to this dramatic attempt to reach out to the Soviet Union on a limited nuclear test ban treaty, which I must say was launched at American University in probably his best speech. I think he learned from that not to trust the -- especially the military people.
THURBERI also talked with Sorensen about this. I brought him down on the anniversary of the speech and he wrote the speech with Kennedy. And Kennedy definitely wanted to move ahead and try to reduce the possibility of nuclear warfare. And that's very important (unintelligible) ...
DALLEKKennedy was terrified of getting into a nuclear war. When he first became president, Mac Bundy, national security advisor, told him, local commanders could touch off a nuclear war if there were an incident with the Soviet Union. Bundy calls up the general at the Pentagon who's in charge of the nuclear war plan, says we want to see this. And the general says, sorry we don't show it. And Bundy said, you don't understand. I'm calling for the president you see.
DALLEKKennedy then has a meeting with the joint chiefs. They tell him that they would drop 170 nuclear and atomic bombs on Moscow alone, that they would kill hundreds of millions of Russians, East Europeans and Chinese. As Kennedy walked out of the room he turns to Dean Rusk the secretary of state and said, and we call ourselves the human race. He said during the missile crisis privately, I'd rather my kids be red than dead. He never could've said that in public, but that was the measure of his outlook.
REHMPresidential historian Robert Dallek, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." There was an extraordinary amount of humor to the way President Kennedy interacted with the press. And it was just wonderful to watch and wonderful to listen to. Let's hear a couple of those interactions.
UNIDENTIFIED PRESSMr. President, your brother Ted recently, on television, said that after seeing (unintelligible) of office on you that he wasn't sure he'd ever be interested in being the president. I wonder if you could tell us whether if you had it to do over again, if you would work (sp?) for the presidency and whether you could recommend the job to others.
KENNEDYWell, the answer is -- the first is yes and the second is, no, I don't recommend it to others, at least for a while.
PRESSMr. President, you have said, and I think more than once, that heads of government should not go to the summit to negotiate agreements but only to approve agreements negotiated at a lower level. Now it's being said and written that you're going to eat those words and go to summit without any agreement at a lower level. Has your position changed, sir?
KENNEDYWell, I'm going to have a dinner for all the people who have written it, and we'll see who eats what.
REHMJames Thurber, why was John F. Kennedy's relationship with the press so good?
THURBERWell, it was new, it was crisp. He was young. We'd had eight years of Eisenhower that really didn't know how to use television. He knew how to use television. He was relaxed. He was charming. He was smart. He liked the paring back and forth with the press. It was incredible. He had a lot of energy. And it's incredible because he was so sick. You know, he had so many things going on with the pharmaceuticals and pain and things. But he was great. And we remember him as that.
DALLEKHe held the first live televised press conferences. He was told by some of his advisors, don't do this. You could make a blunder and say something that would get your administration into hot water, undermine your presidency. But he knew that television was his ally, you see. Because he had won that debate with Richard Nixon, people -- the first debate, people saw it -- who heard it on radio thought Nixon might've won. By an overwhelming majority, those who saw it on television gave the nod to Kennedy.
REHMAnd, Larry Sabato, one thing the press did not report on was JFK's womanizing. Did they know and deliberately keep it secret, or did they turn their faces the other way?
SABATOThey turned their faces the other way. I've talked to members of the press and I've quoted them in "The Kennedy Half-Century" and in a prior book "Feeding Frenzy." Incredibly, some of the White House correspondents actually saw Kennedy having sex with a woman in the presidential limousine. They knew a lot was going on. They heard the rumors, but they also saw evidence.
SABATOBut let's remember something, Diane. This was a very different time. And there was an agreement between the press and public officials that what they did privately was their business. This was true for Democrats and Republicans alike and it didn't just apply to women. There were some terrible examples of senators being dead drunk on the floor of the Senate and falling down and -- right in front of the press, and it was never reported.
REHMLarry Sabato, he is at the University of Virginia and author of a new book titled "The Kennedy Half-Century." When we come back, your calls, your email. Stay with us.
REHMAnd it's time to open the phones during our special two-hour presentation on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In this hour we're looking at the political myths and realities that surround Kennedy's 1,000 days in office, and why, even now, he is held in such high regard by so many Americans. Let's go first to Valdosta, Ga. Hi there, James. You're on the air.
JAMESThank you for taking my call. As a young person, I sensed very much that the death of John F. Kennedy created a myth and aura about a man and a presidency, you know, that very much was flawed. And we've talked about it this morning. There was the Bay of Pigs. The Berlin Wall was built. He had the Cuban missile crisis, and his stance on civil rights seems to be by federalizing National Guard troops and almost declaring martial law in the South. And then it goes to his personal life.
JAMESThere was the affairs and then all his illnesses as well. And it was amazing that -- as a Democrat myself -- I couldn't see how so many people were comparing him to Obama when he was first running for presidency. But the only thing that I do see as a comparison would be the presidential bubble. That the people, once they get into the office, seem to surround themselves with people that, you know, agree to themselves and therefore they don't get the correct information all the time.
REHMAll right, James.
JAMESAnd I just wanted to know that the panel's comments were on that.
REHMThank you for your call. Bill Minutaglio?
MINUTAGLIOHe symbolized a break with the past. He was open. The most striking images from the Kennedy presidency and the most poignant and aching really are his accessibility. Riding around in a convertible and just wanting to be there. You know, he came in September 1960 to Dallas because he wanted to confront this demonizing that was occurring. People thought, again, he practiced this dark art of Catholicism. So he said, I need to go there. I'm not going to hide out in Washington.
MINUTAGLIOAnd really the same thing happened in November. So when he was taken away it seemed extra poignant and perhaps some of his flaws and the political nuances were forgiven.
SABATOWell, first, every president's surrounded by a bubble. John F. Kennedy was no different, but let's remember that that is standard practice in the Oval Office. Second, I believe the gentleman said he was a young person. And I found a clear distinction between those who didn't live through the assassination and those who did. Those who lived through it can never forget that flashbulb moment, where they were, what they were doing, how awful they felt, not just for the four days of the unfolding disaster and the funeral, but for years thereafter.
SABATOIf you lived through that and you saw the youngest president ever elected become the youngest to die, a young widow, two children who never knew their father, you understand why people were willing to forgive so much.
THURBERYes. And add to it the norms of the time -- it was mentioned before -- from the media were not to cover his health, not to cover his affairs, not to cover these things. And they helped create a certain myth with respect to him. But he also did a lot of other things that we haven't talked about, created NASA, take a man to the moon, the Peace Corps, but, most importantly, he was inspirational to an entire generation of people -- I'm one of those -- where people trusted government.
THURBEREighty-five percent of the American people at that time trusted government. And he called them to define themselves by giving to others through public service, at the local level, at the federal level, and you go throughout Washington, D.C., Republicans and Democrats alike, that have been here for a long time, he inspired them to public service. And that's very important.
REHMHere's a tweet from Tim, Robert Dallek. He says, "How influential was Jackie Kennedy on the political matters JFK faced?"
DALLEKWell, in terms of policy, she was not very influential at all. We know from reading her memoirs, that -- or her oral histories that she did with Arthur Schlesinger and were published by Caroline a few years ago. He didn't talk to her about policy, but she provided something that was special in terms of the image of this administration and the kind of inspiration that Jim was talking about.
DALLEKAnd I'd like to go back to that point. You know people don't remember what a president did. You think they remember that Theodore Roosevelt put the Food and Drug Administration in place or Woodrow Wilson was the architect of the Federal Reserve?
DALLEKDo they know that Franklin Roosevelt did Social Security? I love the anecdote about the guy who said, I don't want the federal government fooling with my Medicare. You see. So they don't know that Johnson -- but what they remember are words. And something that inspires them, that gives them hope for the future. And that's, I think, the main thing that Kennedy -- that, in some ways, is his greatest achievement.
THURBERBut Diane on the influence of Jackie, just one small point. John F. Kennedy really helped the arts. And one of the reasons he helped the arts -- he held concerts, plays, musicals at the White House.
REHMThat's such a good point.
THURBERAnd the Kennedy Center is a symbol of that.
THURBERAnd her influence, in my opinion.
REHMAll right. To Marion, in Southern Pines, N.C. Hi, you're on the air.
MARIONHello, Diane and distinguished historians. I wanted to call because I want to offer some personal history. I was a senior at Cathedral Latin High School in Raleigh, N.C. in 1960. I was invited to be "a Kennedy girl," when the senator -- at that time -- came to deliver a speech. And I had an opportunity to meet him, to shake hands with him, and it was just electrifying.
MARIONAnd I also just wanted -- he was just so inspiring. He has inspired me for my entire life. And I also wanted to mention, though, as far as Southern Democrats, my Methodist grandfather stood up in church on the day that his minister advised the congregation not to vote for Kennedy because he was Catholic.
MARIONAnd my grandfather stood up and he signaled his large extended family -- including my cousins and aunts who were singing in front of the church in the choir -- to leave the church. And they all walked out. And when the minister visited Grandpa, he said, Mr. Callahan, what did I do to offend you? And my grandfather said, you insulted me for my choice for president and half my family who are Catholic. And I will not return until you apologize in front of the congregation. And so the minister said, all right, I will. And he did apologize.
MARIONAnd so that's my personal history, but I just want to say, as far as inspiration, I've gone from the years from 17 to 71 and I still do as much as volunteering with the Democratic Party and also in my community and currently with the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina. So thanks for listening to a southern Catholic female.
REHMMarion, I'm so glad you called. Thank you. Bill Minutaglio, what about the president's religious background and how much of a role that played across the country?
MINUTAGLIOYou know, I'm here with some of the nation's greatest historians and they could speak to this better than I can, but when you roll back and look at things contextually, it was a time of unease, incredible unease. We were worried about annihilation, integration was beyond ambivalence. It was scaring people. So you had this perfect storm and then here's Kennedy. And I think he became, you know, demonized in some way, that I consider that time period the dawn of true, almost smash-mouth demonization in American politics.
REHMInteresting. Robert Dallek, Catholicism?
DALLEKWell, you know, Kennedy took this issue head-on, as he wisely should have done. Because some of his aides were telling him don't agitate this point. It's just going to work against you. He said, no. I want to talk about this. And he went to Houston where he spoke to a group of Protestant ministers. At the end of his discussion, many of them, I think, were convinced that he genuinely believed in the separation of church and state and that this was a myth.
DALLEKAlso, Kennedy said, you will deny 40 million Americans the chance to run for president if I can't be president because I'm a Catholic. It's made a huge difference in our politics that he won. Could Barack Obama ever have become president if it weren't for Kennedy's breakthrough? We'll get a woman as president soon enough and this can be traced back to Kennedy, as well, I think.
THURBERWell, it all started, of course, when Kennedy addressed Catholicism by taking his candidacy to West Virginia and beating Hubert Humphrey. I worked for Hubert Humphrey after that, much after that. And Humphrey talked about it. And he was really very brave to go in there in a highly Protestant state, very conservative state, and address it. And he won. He won by a variety of means through the county chairman, which we don't want to go through in detail, but he won. And that was the beginning of America thinking differently about a Catholic in my opinion.
REHMHe also said something directly about his relationship to the Pope versus his relationship to the American people. Robert Dallek?
DALLEKYeah, he said, my religion is a private affair. And he said, nobody asked my brother what his religion was when he was killed on that mission during World War II. Nobody asked me what my religion was when my PT boat was cut in half in the Southwest Pacific. And so he was saying, it's so unfair to raise this as an issue. Now, there were people who voted against him, nevertheless. But it was a great breakthrough that he won that election because it so opened the opportunity for all sorts of people to run for president.
REHMAll right. And turning to you, Larry Sabato, tell us what Kennedy had planned to say when he went to Dallas on that fateful day in 1963.
SABATOI'll answer that. I just want to add one thing about religion…
SABATO…because I happened to have been a Catholic schoolboy in Norfolk, Va. I first got active in politics at the age of seven in 1960, handing out literature for John F. Kennedy. And it was the 8th sacrament in the Catholic Church to be for John F. Kennedy. And it was an election about religion, Diane.
SABATOKennedy got 80 percent of the Catholic vote. Nixon got 69 percent of the Protestant vote. I will never forget passing literature out in my neighborhood and encountering hate for the first time. A woman answered the door, was very pleasant at first, took my literature, threw it back at me and said I don't support papists.
SABATOWell, I was seven. I had no idea what a papist was. I had to ask my father. But that's what the election was about. Now, Kennedy overcame that. And Bob Dallek did a brilliant job of pointing that out in "An Unfinished Life." He overcame that. And by the time Dallas rolled around, I don't think many people were thinking much about religion.
SABATOIt was in the background. He had visited the new Pope in June of 1963, and refused to kiss his ring. He was careful about not feeding the anti-Catholic prejudice. But he was speaking about new things. He really wanted to talk about the international relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and the communist world.
SABATOAnd he was striking a note for peace. He was also sending a message, as Bill knows best, from his book, "Dallas 1963." He was sending a message to the right wing in Dallas that dominated so much of the media there to knock it off, to think about peace, as much or more than war.
REHMLarry Sabato. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Back to what he planned to say in Dallas, Bill Minutaglio.
MINUTAGLIOYou know, it was an extension of what Dr. Martin Luther King had said earlier in a not often noted visit to Dallas. Dr. King had come in January of '63 to deliver the message, I suppose, that Kennedy never really did. It just stopped the polarization. Can we have civic discourse, and can we agree, can we stop pulling to the extremes?
MINUTAGLIOYou know, ironically and prophetically, in '63, in January when King came, there was a bomb threat lodged against him in Dallas. And there was an accumulating set of circumstances through the year and notably the attack against United States Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson, just a few weeks before Kennedy came in November of '63.
MINUTAGLIOAn angry mob assailed him, attacked him, hit him with signs, spit on him. He, frankly, got away with his life. And he famously relayed messages back to Kennedy, you know, be wary. The temperature is really, really turned up here. But again, I suppose, in "A Profile in Courage," Kennedy said, I'm going to come to Dallas anyway. I'm going to confront this vitriol head-on. And his message was to essentially be the same thing that Dr. King had said, please let us talk instead of hate.
REHMRobert Dallek, here's an email from Ed, "Putting aside the Bay of Pigs, what was JFK's biggest error?"
DALLEKWell, his biggest error, I think, was not pushing on civil rights earlier than he did. See, he came to it late because he was so cautious. He felt that three major bills that he had before the Congress -- a big tax cut, federal aid to education, Medicare -- he thought the Southerners might be accepting of those if he didn't push on the issue of civil rights.
DALLEKAnd by '63 he understood that he was wrong. And he said to some people around him, you know, he said, these Southerners keep saying they'll change, but they never will. Now, we have to act. And that was a courageous thing for him to do because he was risking his reelection in '64.
DALLEKBecause, as Larry said and others have said, it was such a close election in 1960, if he lost those Southern states in '64 -- on the other hand, he thought he was going to run against Barry Goldwater. And he said to some aides, if Goldwater's our opponent we're going to get to bed much earlier on election night than we did in 1960.
REHMAnd what do you regard as his most-lasting legacy?
DALLEKHis most-lasting legacy, I think, was confronting the issue with the joint chiefs about nuclear weapons. He understood the doctrine of mad, mutually assured destruction. He was convinced that these were not weapons that you could use. I think if he had lived we would have seen detente earlier than it came about with Richard Nixon. And he was very proud of that nuclear test ban treaty. And as Jim said, that speech he gave at American University was one of the great state papers of the 20th century.
REHMAnd one of the last few lines he was planning to say in Dallas, "Let us stand together with renewed confidence in our cause, united in our heritage of the past, our hopes for the future and determined that this land we love shall lead all mankind into new frontiers of peace and abundance." Thank you all for being with me, Robert Dallek, James Thurber, Bill Minutaglio and Larry Sabato. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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