Charisma in the Capital: Trudeau or Kennedy?

A charismatic, handsome, photogenic leader gobsmacked a capital, turned the media into cheerleaders, and left the people agog. We saw it last week and we’ve seen it before with its lessons as clear as a radiant smile.

Trudeau in Washington

Trudeau, with Obama, in Washington (Photo: blogs.wsj.com) 

On a slate gray afternoon, in May 1961, Air Force One touched down at Ottawa’s Uplands airport. Two thousand guests rose from their bleacher seats inside the massive hangar as 500 children hooted and waved little American and Canadian flags. Applause erupted as the plane’s big white door yawned open to reveal President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline.

Tanned from a recent Florida vacation, they smiled, waved, and descended the stairs. They moved slowly, shook hands with the governor general, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, and their wives, and then strolled along the red carpet into the building. Coronation trumpets blared a royal welcome. The Honour Guard was inspected, an RCMP band played the American national anthem, and outside, a twenty-one-gun salute pierced the breeze.

In his welcoming speech, Diefenbaker said some nice things then self-deprecatingly apologized before offering a few words of what he called “fractured French.” Kennedy responded by saying of Canadian-American relations: “Together we have worked in peace, together we have worked in war and now in this long twilight era that is neither peace nor war we must stand together even more firmly than before.” All was going well but then, as he had at the White House press conference before Diefenbaker’s February trip to Washington, Kennedy mispronounced the prime minister’s name—“Deefunbawker.” Diefenbaker winced.

Jacqueline Kennedy was fluently bilingual. She had helped her husband memorize a few lines in passable French. Rather than simply say what he had practised, however, Kennedy admitted that he did not speak the language and then said, “I am somewhat encouraged to say a few words in French, having heard your Prime Minister.” The crowd laughed. The thin-skinned Diefenbaker again felt insulted.

As the Kennedys walked toward the waiting motorcade, the clouds parted as if on cue and bathed them in sunshine. Throngs of cheering people waved from the sidewalks as Kennedy approached the city. The cars were forced to slow several times as admirers surged forward with many holding children on their shoulders. Fifty thousand normally staid and steady people of Ottawa welcomed Kennedy to their city like teenage girls might greet Elvis.

The reception was not unexpected. Kennedy’s popularity was soaring as high Canada as it was in the United States. Kennedy knew policy and actions mattered but believed that his personal popularity was an important key to advancing his agenda. He understood his celebrity and took pains to enhance it with films of him playing touch football and photographs of his photogenic family. Every week viewers watched a riveting display of his prodigious memory, impressive intelligence, clear understanding of complex issues, and razor sharp wit in a live, televised news conference. He told speechwriter Ted Sorensen, “We couldn’t survive without TV.”

The next morning, after enjoying a state dinner at the governor general’s mansion the night before, Kennedy was cheered by a large crowd gathered at the Canadian War Memorial. The brief ceremony began with the American national anthem. Kennedy inspected a one-hundred-man Honour Guard, laid a wreath, and then stood for “O Canada” and “God Save the Queen.” With people waving and cheering, he and Diefenbaker walked slowly across Wellington Street toward the Parliament Buildings’ Gothic splendour.

Kennedy in Ottawa..

Kennedy, with Diefenbaker, in Ottawa (Photo: ici.radio-canada.ca)

With a massive crowd impatiently waiting on the Parliament Hill lawn for another glimpse of Kennedy, the president and prime minister repaired inside where they experienced nothing but frustration. Kennedy had arrived with a shopping list of requests for policy changes but Diefenbaker declared each contrary to Canadian interests and, over and over again, said no. They agreed on nothing except their dislike for each other. The people, however, saw none of the private machinations, only the public smiles.

President Kennedy was, and remains, a phenomenon. Born to wealth and privilege and with terrible health, he could have done anything or nothing at all. Instead, he became a war hero, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and then a Congressman, Senator, and President. The blinding light of Kennedy’s celebrity shone so brightly that its 100-watt brilliance overwhelmed Canadians and shaped their perception of their country and its leaders.

Like Macdonald, Lincoln, and Churchill, Kennedy is a standard against which Canadian leaders are measured. When Pierre Trudeau rode to power in 1968, he was complemented for the degree to which his intellectual cool and charisma reminded Canadians of Kennedy. A Trudeau biographer observed: “The mood was conditioned by nearly a decade of jealousy. Canadians had enviously watched the presidency of John Kennedy, and continued to wish for a leader like him.”

Now, Canada seems to have another Kennedy. Last week in Washington, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acted the heir of Kennedy’s charisma and celebrity. When Kennedy arrived in Ottawa and Trudeau visited Washington they had both been in office for about four and a half months. However, Kennedy went on to add gravitas and a legacy of accomplishment to his celebrity. We’ll see if Trudeau can do the same. We’ll also see whether the next president will be to Trudeau as Diefenbaker was to Kennedy; a personal thorn, ideological nemesis, and challenge to every political skill he can muster.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. The full story of JFK’s relations with Canada is told in Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front, available at sensible book stores everywhere and online here:

https://www.amazon.ca/Cold-Fire-Kennedys-Northern-Front/dp/0345808932

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/search/?keywords=john+boyko

 

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The Day JFK Visited Toronto

There was no welcoming crowd. There were no reporters. Although the 1960 presidential election was three years away, Senator John F. Kennedy had been vigorously campaigning and so he must have found his silent arrival in Toronto on that slate grey November afternoon either amusing or disconcerting.

Throughout 1957, he had been a frequent and entertaining guest on American political chat shows. His office flooded newspapers and magazines with press releases and articles he had written or at least edited. He accepted 140 speaking engagements. The herculean effort to render his already famous name even better known had spilled over the border, as these things do, and so Canadians knew of him and his ambition.

The Day JFK Visited Toronto.

John F. Kennedy (photo: historynewsnetwork.org)

Twenty female University of Toronto students certainly knew of him and were waiting. They were outside Hart House, where Kennedy was scheduled to participate in a debate. Since Hart House was opened in 1919, its lounges, library, and recreational facilities had become the university’s social and cultural hub. The impressive gothic revival building was a gift from the Massey family that had insisted on guidelines stipulating that within its stone, ivy-covered walls, Hart House would allow no studying, drinking, or women.

The first two rules were often and flagrantly broken but Margaret Brewin, Judy Graner, and Linda Silver Dranoff led a contingent hoping to end the third. They asked the Hart House warden to allow women to see the debate. When rebuffed, they gathered friends and created placards and greeted Kennedy with chants that alternated between “Hart House Unfair” and “We Want Kennedy”.

Kennedy smiled but said nothing as he was escorted through the drizzling rain and noisy protesters. Beneath its towering, dark oak-panelled ceiling the Debates Room could seat two hundred and fifty. It was packed. A scuffle interrupted introductions when a sharp-eyed guard noticed a guest’s nail polish and removed three women who had snuck in disguised as men. With the women locked out, the men inside prepared to argue: “Has the United States failed in its responsibilities as a world leader?” Kennedy was given leave to present remarks from the floor in support of the team opposing the resolution.

Reading from a prepared text, he offered that Americans did not enjoy immunity from foreign policy mistakes but that the difference between statesmanship and politics is often a choice between two blunders. He expressed concern regarding the degree to which public opinion sometimes dictated sound public policy and admitted that the United States had misplayed some recent challenges. Regardless of these and other errors, he argued, American foreign policy rested on sound principles and his country remained a force for good.

The Day JFK Visited Toronto

Hart House (photo: toronto.cityguide.ca)

The address was well written but poorly delivered. Kennedy read in a flat tone and seldom looked up. The student debaters tore him apart. Leading the team against him was a nineteen-year-old second-year student named Stephen Lewis. As a member of the four-man U of T debate team, he had competed at various Canadian and American universities and won accolades, including the best speaker award at a recent international competition. Lewis argued that the United States consistently acted in ways that violated the tenets of its Constitution and Declaration of Independence. He accused America of trying to be, “policeman, baby-sitter and bank to the world.” The audience offered good-natured ribbing throughout the debate. Cheers rewarded good points and witty rejoinders. Kennedy seemed to enjoy himself and was heckled along with the rest.

The audience gasped in disbelief when adjudicators scored the debate 204 to 194 and declared Kennedy’s side victorious. Afterwards, at a participants’ reception, Lewis and others spoke with Senator Kennedy and expressed confusion as to why a Democrat such as he would defend the hawkish policies of the current Republican administration. Kennedy startled them by confessing that he was a Democrat only because he was from Massachusetts. He agreed with the suggestion that if he were from Maine, he would probably be a Republican.

Kennedy was not through raising eyebrows. When leaving Hart House, a reporter asked his opinion of the women’s loud but polite demonstration. He smiled and said, “I personally rather approve of keeping women out of these places…It’s a pleasure to be in a country where women cannot mix in everywhere.”

Although his side won, Kennedy had impressed few with his speech, fewer with his confession of political opportunism, and fewer still with his flippant dismissal of women and the concept of gender equality. His brief meeting with a small group of the protesting women the next morning changed no minds. Kennedy’s Toronto flop was surprising because by 1957 he had become quite adept at handling gatherings that demanded a blend of political chops and charm.

The next time Kennedy visited Canada it would be a president. In pursuit of his Cold War goals he would ask Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to meld Canadian policies with his own. Diefenbaker’s response offered Kennedy an even rougher reception than he had received three years before on that chilly November evening in Toronto. Diefenbaker wanted Canada to be more sovereign. Kennedy wanted a satellite. And there it began.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. The above is among many stories found in Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front. Published on February 2, 2016, it is available at bookstores everywhere, Amazon, Barnes and Noble,, and at Chapters Indigo right here:

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/cold-fire-kennedys-northern-front/9780345808936-item.html

Five Reasons Why JFK Still Matters

On a bright and frigid afternoon fifty-five years ago, John F. Kennedy became America’s 35th president. It was an exciting day. The unabating flood of articles, books, and movies suggest that his life and leadership continues to enthral. Let’s consider why he still matters by pondering questions he still poses.

5 Reasons Why JFK Still Matters

(Photo: mauialmanac.com)

Leadership and Wealth: The one percent who own and influence so much is under attack. In Canada’s recent election, Justin Trudeau’s opponents argued that his inherited wealth precluded him from understanding and helping working- and middle-class Canadians. Hillary Clinton is taking similar hits.

Kennedy grew up in mansions and was chauffeured to school in his father’s Rolls Royce. He could have done anything or nothing at all. Instead, he worked tirelessly to improve the lot of those toiling in shops, fields, and factories. He implemented a middle class tax cut, a higher minimum wage, and proposed universal health care. Does money kill compassion?

Government Power: Kennedy was more practical than liberal and more pragmatic than conservative. He decried ideological blindness that seeks victory without compromise while trying to tip the balance of power between government and business too far in one direction. He believed government was a positive societal force, essential for the collective good.

Because government cannot and should not do everything, should it do nothing? Does a government’s inability to completely solve a problem invite rejection of first steps?

Celebrity: Kennedy did not invent the celebrity politician but he was the first to exploit looks, charisma, and a photogenic family in the TV age. The 1960 campaign swung when he beat the more experienced but less-media savvy Richard Nixon in TV debates. Kennedy confessed that he would not be an effective president or possibly even have become president without television.

A journalist once wrote of Canada’s 1968 “Trudeaumania” election: “Canadians had enviously watched the presidency of John Kennedy, and continued to wish for a leader like him.” Last year, Canadians watched Trudeau’s son ride a wave of Kennedyesque celebrity while Nixon-like opponents attacked his appearance and gaps in his policies and resume, all the while forgetting Kennedy’s lesson. And now Trudeau commands, Donald Trump confounds and Kevin O’Leary considers. Must our leaders now also be celebrities?

Public Privacy: Kennedy’s legacy was later tarnished by revelations of reckless sexual liaisons. He also hid serious health problems and daily drug injections that managed symptoms. The press was complicit in the secrecy and silence.

The post-Watergate media changed the relationship between public and private. Social media shattered it. Canada’s last election saw candidates humiliated and others withdraw due to social media gaffes and attacks. Many good people now avoid public service, fearing slander and privacy’s surrender. Can a flawed person be a valid candidate or good leader? Are there limits to our right to know?

Aspiration: Many recall lines from Kennedy’s stirring inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you…” or “The torch has been passed to a new generation…” In June 1963, he called for world peace based on our shared humanity. The next day he went on TV and reframed Civil Rights as a moral imperative.

We are well served by neither demagoguery nor technocratic managers masquerading as leaders. Instead, with so much and so many dividing us, Kennedy reminds us that real leaders really lead and that we need words that inspire, dreams that unite, and the positing of challenging questions and grand goals. What’s wrong with shooting for the moon?

Kennedy still matters because, in the final analysis, his enduring gift was not programs or policies but his inspirational leadership. We should consider the questions he still poses and answers he suggests. We owe it to ourselves and our children to consider his audacious exhortation that idealism is not naïve, hope is not foolish, hardship is incentive, and community can extend beyond one’s family, class, race, or even country.

This column originally appeared as an op ed in the Montreal Gazette on January 20, 2016, the 55th anniversary of JFK’s inauguration. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it with others.