Kennedy

The 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination has brought about an inevitable burst of interest in the man and the shooting which ended his presidency. The Kennedys are the American royalty, it seems. Our proclivity for annointing presidents who are the child of privilege and who seem to view their ascension to the presidency as their natural right always puzzles me.

Old Minnesota DFL politicos aren't quite so fawning in their admiration of Camelot. They remember how Kennedy beat Humphery in the primaries of the election of 1960. Old Joe Kennedy took no chances; Humphery's entourage frequently showed up in a town only to find that all the hotel rooms had already been rented, even though they were empty. In West Virginia, nasty leaflets about Kennedy's Catholicism purporting to be from the Humphery campaign appeared everywhere on the eve of the election. Humphery had nothing to do with them, but they made him look bad.

After trouncing Humphery, Kennedy came close to naming Minnesota governor Orville Freeman as his vice-presidential candidate. In fact, Kennedy offered the job to Johnson only as a sort of formality; nobody expected Lyndon to step down from his powerful position in the Senate to take one of the worst jobs in politics. But, he did, and the rest is history.

After he won, Kennedy called Humphery in and said, fix us up a legislative agenda. Humphery was ready. When Humphery first came to the Senate in 1949, he had introduced 59 bills, most of them very big ideas--such as the Civil Rights Act, the Peace Corps, the first Nuclear Arms Limitation treaty, and so on. None of them passed until Kennedy's administration. Humphery didn't get much credit for having authored those ideas over a decade before. He was truly a legislative giant, but Kennedy and Johnson have gotten the credit (or the blame) for what was in essence Humphery's program.

Perhaps Humphery was too Minnesota-nice for presidential politics. After Johnson named Humphery his VP, Humphery had to put up with endless personal humiliations from the president, including one instance where Johnson insisted that Hubert deliver a speech to Johnson in his living room at the ranch. Hubert was reluctant, but Johnson wouldn't give up. So Hubert started his speech and Johnson promptly went and sat on the toilet with the door open for the remainder of the speech. "Keep going, Hubert, I am listening." Can you imagine?

As for Kennedy, accounts of his personal behavior make Bill Clinton look puritanical. He was a true cad. He learned his behavior from his father, who would bring girlfriends home with Rose in the house and expect her to treat them as guests. Drugs. Mafia connections. General sleaze. Kennedy's administration had it all.

And, of more concern to a historian, Kennedy was, for all his intellectual brilliance, an incompetent administrator. The Bay of Pigs fiasco was caused in large part by confusion at the White House. Who's in charge of what? Nobody really knew. Eisenhower, a supremely intuitive administrator, noticed this and called Kennedy on the carpet at Camp David after the Bay of Pigs. Set up a hierarchy, Ike said, and stick to it. But Kennedy seemed to enjoy the chaos. He probably modeled his administration after FDR's, forgetting that FDR had the talent for managing the chaos he created when he confused his subordinates and set them up against each other.

And then Clinton modeled himself after Kennedy, in more than one way, creating the same sort of administrative chaos, and other distractions. Both seemed to think they represented the intellectual elite and that their brilliance, as well as that of the Harvard-types they brought in with them, would cut through all resistance. Neither ever figured out that old Ike was the real genius in running a White House.