Posts by Jeff Greenfield
It was the signature moment of a remarkable evening.
A hundred guests had just finished dinner on Saturday, Nov. 9, in a tent outside the imposing house of Nancy Dutton, whose late husband, Fred, had served as secretary of the Cabinet in the White House of John F. Kennedy, and later as the de facto campaign chief of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 effort to depose President Lyndon Johnson. And there stood Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, with her arm around the waist of Lynda Johnson Robb, eldest daughter of the man Townsend’s father had sought to unseat.
There was John Doar, who as a civil rights lawyer in Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department had faced down club-wielding thugs to protect Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Ala., in 1961, who had confronted Mississippi’s white supremacist Gov. Ross Barnett when that state’s university was integrated a year later, who had prosecuted the killers of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo.
If I were putting together a presidential staff — an unlikely possibility — my first hire would be a rhetorical inspector general for the White House speechwriting office, whose only job would be to examine every prepared speech for particularly memorable lines — and think long and hard before permitting the president to utter them.
Sure, we remember our leaders for the inspirational words they’ve spoken: “The only thing we have to fear...” “Ask not what your country can do...” “The shining city on a hill...” But these words are disconnected from any specific proposal or policy or controversy.
When it comes to a matter of substance, presidents have often found themselves suffering from self-inflicted wounds that come in the form of especially compelling words. President Barack Obama’s promise that “if you like your current insurance, you can keep that insurance,” is only the most recent example.
Why? It’s the problem with memorable words; people remember them.
Jeff Greenfield's new book, "If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History" will be published Tuesday, October 22 by G.P. Putnam's Sons. This is an excerpt from the book's introduction. It was Thursday, July 14, 1960, in Room 9333 of the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, and Kenny O’Donnell was furious at the man he had just helped nominate to be president of the United States.
Again and again, Sen. John F. Kennedy had assured the unions, the civil rights leaders, the liberals and intellectuals whose support he was seeking that Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson would not be his choice for vice president. Yet now, little more than 12 hours after the Massachusetts Democrat had won a first ballot nomination with a razor-thin margin of five delegates, he had offered the second slot on the ticket to Johnson — and Johnson had accepted.
“I was so furious I could hardly talk,” O’Donnell remembered years later. “I thought of the promises we had made … the assurances we had given. I felt that we had been double crossed.”
The polls say it, the pols say it, the pundits say it. The government shutdown and the brinksmanship over default -- which may or may not be (temporarily) resolved by the time you read this -- has been an unmitigated disaster for the Republican Party. Senator John McCain’s decades-old joke about the popularity of Republicans in Congress --”we’re down to paid staffers and blood relatives”-- is approaching arithmetical accuracy.
All of which tell us...a lot less than it might about the electoral prospects of the GOP. The party had already begun an agonizing reappraisal of its condition after the 2012 presidential contest, where Republicans lost the popular vote for the fifth time in the last six presidential elections. It might seem as if the recent damage to the party’s brand, combined with the demographic challenges of a younger, browner and blacker electorate, all but dooms the GOP to years in the wilderness, unless the centrists wrest control from the party’s more militant (or zealous, or screw-loose) wing.
Bottom line: Between the Internet and the deep pockets of the Koch Brothers and company, a candidate of the party’s most militant wing will not lack for resources.
So, you ask, how could the wealthiest nation on earth, the linchpin of global financial stability, really be heading toward a default whose consequences range from the seriously harmful to catastrophic?
For me, the answer lies not in the complexities of 21st century international finance, but in the last line of a 19th century drama.
When the aristocratic Hedda Gabler finds herself threatened by scandal, she leaves the room — and a moment later, a shot is heard. Judge Brock, the family friend whose behavior triggers her suicide, exclaims: “Good God — people don’t do such things!”
For generations, that conviction has been at the heart of our assumptions about how the American political system works. It’s a conviction that is and has for some time been “inoperative.”
— When a law was passed, however controversial, that law was not subject to endless relitigation. In 1993, President Clinton’s tax and budget measures passed both houses by a single vote; not a single Republican in the House or Senate voted for it. But when the GOP won both houses in 1994, the party did not seek to undo the Clinton tax hikes on the most affluent of Americans. Legislators did not do such things.
Let me see if I’ve got this right:
The most implacable foes of Obamacare are alienating their allies and may inflict grave political damage on their own cause.
The most enthusiastic supporters of Obamacare are increasingly suspicious that some of its provisions may inflict serious economic harm on them.
The chief justice of the Supreme Court, whose vote “saved” Obamacare, may have fatally undermined one of its key provisions.
Some key Republican office holders, all of whom opposed Obamacare, may be in the process of salvaging it.
Now remember the fury on the right and the relief on the left when Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote that upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare? Less noted at the time was that the Roberts opinion also struck down the requirement that states expand their Medicaid programs to ease the financial burden on lower-income people of Obamacare's insurance mandate. As a result, as a Politico column notes, millions of people will be required to bear the costs that this part of the law was supposed to cover.
There was a time when a presidential speech to the nation was a moment of high drama — when most Americans gathered around their radios or televisions to hear words of great consequence. When President Franklin Roosevelt spoke, Doris Kearns Goodwin noted in her book “No Ordinary Time,” you could walk through a neighborhood and hear every word of his talk through the windows of every home. When President John F. Kennedy announced a U.S. embargo on Soviet ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and when President Richard Nixon appealed to “the great silent majority” to support his Vietnam policy in the fall of 1969, there was a sense that big matters were at stake.
President Barack Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday night is not one of those times.
Indeed, if the subject at hand were not the murderous use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, there would be something comic about the setting for the speech.
What makes Obama’s speech far less portentous than those of other presidents, however, is not just the specifics of the Syrian dilemma. It goes to the heart of the power of a president to persuade.
If we really want to mark the meaning of the March on Washington of 50 years ago, we would do well to put aside the endless invocations of “the dream” and remember the harsher realities of race in 1963.
Yes, the speech was a classic; I was in that crowd, and from the first moments that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke, there was a sense that something historic was unfolding. Yes, it was a memorable gathering: a protest that was celebratory, joyous, captured for me by an old black man sitting on a stoop, weeping with happiness as he proclaimed, over and over, “All my life I’ve been waiting to see this day come to pass.”
But to understand fully the nature of that day, and what has happened in the half-century since, you need to grasp just how embedded the legacy of racial injustice was on the day of that march — and on the days, months and years that followed.
Honoring the words of Martin Luther King is (as another great speech might put it) altogether fitting and appropriate. But the true measure of the mountaintop that King — and the country — had to climb was just how steep and rocky that mountain was.
I don't know if Elon Musk will ever build that 800-mph “Hyperloop” that’s supposed to speed passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes. I don’t know if he, or anyone else, will even try to construct the 400-mile aboveground tube that will carry people safely encased in “pods” between those two cities. I don’t know if Musk’s interview Monday with Bloomberg Businessweek was just a way of reminding everyone he spends most of his time concentrating on his Tesla electric car and his SpaceX ventures.
Whatever his intentions, he deserves the thanks of us older Americans for reminding us of the future we were denied.
As a child of the 1950s, I was certain of the wonders in store when I became an adult. We’d fly to Europe in an hour; we’d vacation on the moon; we’d commute to work in personal aircraft or jetpacks or helicopters. The same transit breakthroughs that had transformed the world of my parents' and grandparents' would transform mine, too.
It was September of 1998, and President Bill Clinton was apologizing to his Cabinet for dissembling — OK, more or less lying — about his involvement with Monica Lewinsky. His deceit had led many top women in the White House to proclaim their faith in his innocence; but for one Cabinet member, personal embarrassment was the least of her concerns.
Donna Shalala, Clinton’s secretary of Health and Human Services, told the president his behavior would have gotten him fired from the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, where she’d served as chancellor. His accomplishments in the White House were no defense against his behavior, Shalala said.
As she recalled years later in interviews (with me among others), Clinton replied by asking in effect: Would the country have been better off if Richard Nixon had defeated John F. Kennedy in 1960?
I offer this not as more proof Clinton could have sold sand to the Saudis, but to raise an honest-to-God serious question about the Anthony Weiner-Eliot Spitzer-Bob Filner-I Don’t Know Who’s Next world of civic sexcapades.