"The class is three hours," my sister told me.
"That's okay." I swallowed hard. "I think I can stay awake that long."
Later, I called B and told her what I was doing. "That's not history," she scoffed. "You lived it."
"Yeah, I know. But it would be the same as when we were kids, and we took a course about the United States during the nineteen teens, under Taft and Wilson instead of Kennedy and Johnson. That's history, isn't it?"
So the other night we drove over to campus and found the classroom, filled with some 25 undergraduates and about ten seniors auditing the course. The topic for the evening: John F. Kennedy. Of course, as B suggested, I already knew the general outline of the Kennedy story. But I did learn a few things.
Kennedy had three main problems standing in the way of his election. First was his Catholicism. The professor had to explain to the wide-eyed students that Protestants, especially in the South and Midwest, were prejudiced against Catholics back in those days.
(As an aside, my wife was from Ohio and she once confessed to me (I was raised Catholic) that her parents would not let her date a Catholic boy when she was in high school.)
Kennedy addressed the Catholic issue in a famous speech to a gathering of Protestant clergy during the Democratic primary. He stood squarely for the separation of church and state, he told them, and no priest was going to tell the president what to do -- just as no minister should tell their church members how to vote. His campaign also made sure that the Catholic nuns who attended his rallies never sat up front where they might be photographed or appear in any news clips.
A second problem was Kennedy's philandering, which was an open secret at the time. Fortunately for him, the press was more discreet back in that era. You were okay, so the saying went, as long as you weren't caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl.
|The official White House portrait of President Kennedy|
One of the causes of the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to the professor, was that Kennedy and Khrushchev had already met in Vienna in June 1961. Kennedy was not feeling well and was taking various medications, and he made a poor showing at the meeting. Khrushchev decided Kennedy was weak, and this emboldened him to send missiles to Cuba. Basically, he'd sized up Kennedy, and he thought he could get away with it.
Well, the class was three hours long, and so there was a lot of information about JFK. He picked Johnson as his running mate because he was Protestant and would take "the stink of Catholicism" off the ticket. Johnson was from Texas and would help carry the South. And then Kennedy said: Besides, what good would it do to win the presidency if Lyndon Johnson was the Senate Majority Leader? Kennedy wanted Johnson out of the way so he wouldn't block his legislative proposals in the Senate.
The professor opined that Kennedy could probably never get elected in today's America. And it's entirely possible that, were he not assassinated, he would have died of his health complications before he could fill out a second term.
He also pointed out that Kennedy was an avid Cold Warrior. Kennedy pledged to go to the moon, not because he was interested in space, but because he wanted to beat the Russians.
When Kennedy was sworn into the presidency, there were 900 American military advisers in South Vietnam. By the time he was killed, there were over 30,000 Americans in Vietnam.
Yet the professor believes that Kennedy probably would not have ramped up the Vietnam War the way Johnson did, with over 500,000 American troops at the peak in 1968. Kennedy had already proved he was tough on communism; he could have afforded to step back in Vietnam. But Johnson felt he had to stand firm in Vietnam to prove he wasn't soft on communism. He gave the hawks what they wanted in foreign policy to allow him to pass the social welfare programs of the Great Society (including Medicare).
And the professor also wondered, were it not for Kennedy's assassination, the Great Society may have never come about. Although Kennedy finally did come around and fully support civil rights by mid-1963, he was never the avid social liberal that Johnson was. Yet his death made him a martyr. And Johnson used that to inspire many in Washington to support his programs, as a legacy to the fallen president.
Of course, we'll never know the what-ifs of Kennedy. And I guess I'll never know about the rest of the 1960s -- the Johnson years, the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the music and the counterculture -- because I have moved on from Jacksonville and won't have the opportunity to attend any more of the classes.
However, it's raining today in Florida. So maybe I'll read some of those handouts the professor gave us.