The Globe and Mail’s July 21, 1969, front page was intoxicating. Bold, green, three-inch high print announced MAN ON MOON. It reported 35,000 people breathlessly glued to a big TV screen in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square who cheered at 10:56 pm when Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module. Mayor Dennison delivered a brief speech calling it, “the greatest day in human history.” He may have been right. What he couldn’t know, and the Globe missed, were the important lessons contained in the paper that day, lessons that resonate today.
The moon adventure was the culmination of an effort begun by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961. He had just returned from meetings with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. While Kennedy negotiated, Khrushchev had hectored. Kennedy became convinced that the Cold War was about to turn hot.
Upon his return, he called a special meeting of Congress and asked for a whopping $1.6 billion increase in military aid for allies and $60 million to restructure the American military. He called for a tripling of civil defense spending to help Americans build bomb shelters for a nuclear holocaust that, he warned, was a real possibility. The president also said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” His popularity surged.
It was daring and presumptuous. The Soviets were far ahead of the United States in space exploration. But that day, and later, Kennedy expressed the courageous new effort in soaring rhetoric that appealed to America’s inspiring exceptionality and Cold War fears. When cheers arose from public squares and living rooms only seven years later and that night everyone instinctively looked up, it was the culmination of Kennedy’s dream for the world and challenge to America.
Kennedy did not micro-manage the NASA project. He set the vision and got out of the way. He did not badger the agency regarding tactics or berate it over temporary failures. He didn’t question the intelligence or patriotism of those who politically opposed his ambitious goal. Rather, he met with them, listened, and tried to convince them of the value of ambition. He gave NASA the money it needed then trusted the scientists and engineers to act as the professionals they were. His vision and leadership spurred the team and survived his death.
The Globe and Mail’s July 21 front page declaring his vision’s realization did not mention President Kennedy. However, a smaller headline at the bottom noted, “Woman dies in crash, police seek to charge Kennedy.” The story explained that Senator Edward Kennedy, the president’s brother, would be prosecuted for leaving the scene of an accident.
On July 18, with the Apollo astronauts approaching the moon and their rendezvous with infamy, Senator Kennedy had attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island for six women and two men who had worked on his brother Bobby’s doomed 1968 presidential campaign. While driving 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne back to her hotel, he took a wrong turn, then missed a slight curve on an unlit road and drove over a bridge and into eight feet of water.
Kennedy managed to escape the submerged car and later spoke of diving “seven or eight times” but failing to free Kopechne. He walked back to the party and was driven home. That night he consulted with advisors and then, eight hours after the accident, called the police. A coroner reported that an air pocket probably allowed Kopechne to survive for three or four hours before drowning. A quicker call for help, he concluded, would have saved her life.
In the 1990s, Edward Kennedy would become the “Lion of the Senate,” guardian of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, and model for bi-partisanship. However, when he ran for his party’s nomination for president against the incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, many saw not a lion but liar and not a politician but playboy. Chappaquiddick appeared to reflect a belief that ethics, morality, and the rule of law applied only to others. Voters punished his conceit by withholding support.
It was all there in the Globe and Mail, nearly 50 years ago this week. We have the legacy of one brother who, despite his personal flaws, understood the nature, power, and potential of leadership. He knew what it took to be an effective president. And we have the other brother who seemed, at that point, to understand only the arrogance of privilege, the hubris to believe that he was above the law, ethics, morality, and decency. They are lessons of the moon and the bridge.
And now, as we cringe through our inability to tear ourselves from the tragedy unfolding in Washington, as we watch political leaders displaying the characteristics of one Kennedy brother or the other, we wonder if the lessons of the moon and bridge have been learned.
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Today would be John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday. Those of a certain age remember him for the hope that he inspired. For many, just the idea that he was in the White House meant that things would get better. His horrible, public murder gashed a generation. JFK’s assassination defined the precise moment between then and now, between what could have been and what was. Kennedy visited Canada four times. Let us consider one that helped change our history and helps define the man.
JFK Addressing Canadian Parliament (CBC photo)
In late 1953, Kennedy was the junior Senator from Massachusetts and forced to consider Canada for the first time. After decades of debate regarding whether the United States and Canada should cooperate in the building the St. Lawrence Seaway, Canada had decided to go it alone. The decision put the thirty-six-year-old Kennedy in a tricky spot. During his Senate campaign, he had listened to Boston longshoremen, businessmen, and lobbyists, and opposed the seaway based on the old worry that it would divert significant traffic from New England ports to the St. Lawrence. To support it would jeopardize his re-election and stymie his presidential aspirations. But he had his staff complete a careful study of the matter and had become convinced that to oppose the seaway would hurt the United States. So, would he vote for himself and his constituency or for his country? Was the book he had written, Profiles in Courage, was just a cute title or a definition of his character?
With pressure building, Kennedy accepted an invitation to speak at the Université de Montréal. It was his first trip to Canada. The senator and his wife of three months, the twenty-four-year-old Jacqueline, arrived on a cold December 4, 1953, at Montreal’s Windsor train station. Only two men met them: an American consulate representative and a Canadian Pacific Railway photographer who quickly snapped two pictures and went home. The glamorous young couple were guests of honour that evening at the annual St. Mary’s Ball, where the city’s who’s who mingled, dined, and raised money for the local hospital.
Before donning his tuxedo, Kennedy addressed the students and faculty of the university’s Literary Society. He said that Canada and the United States were fighting communism together. He explained that 20 percent of American exports went to Canada and that America was Canada’s best customer. Kennedy then explained the difficulty the American Congress was having in coming to a decision regarding the seaway. He detailed the American system of checks and balances and quoted Sir John A. Macdonald, albeit somewhat out of context, who once called the American system a “skilful work.” He quoted eighteenth-century Irish nationalist and conservative political philosopher Edmund Burke. Burke had said in his 1774 “Speech to the Electors of Bristol” that political representatives should be free to vote their conscience. Kennedy’s reference to Burke was a strong hint that he was preparing to do just that.
A few weeks later, on January 14, 1954, Kennedy rose in the Senate chamber and delivered a courageous speech. He began by noting his state’s current and long history of opposition to the seaway. His vote, he said, would rest on the answers to two fundamental questions. The first was whether the seaway would be built regardless of American partnership. “I have studied the Act passed by the Canadian parliament authorizing the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway by Canada . . . and the official statements of the Canadian government make it clear that Canada will build the Seaway alone and cooperate on the power project with New York, although the door is left open for American participation if we should so decide at this session of Congress.” A solely Canadian project, Kennedy continued, would inflict enormous costs on America, as Canada could dictate tolls, traffic, and admission of foreign shipping.
The second determining question, he argued, was whether the seaway would make America safer. Kennedy explained the degree to which American participation in the project would be part of the continued development of an integrated North American defence strategy. He concluded: “Both nations now need the St. Lawrence Seaway for security as well as for economic reasons.
He concluded, “I urge the Congress promptly to approve our participation in its construction.”
Finally, after decades of opposition, the Senate approved the daring measure. A number of Boston and Massachusetts papers attacked the young senator. Two months later he was warned by a member of Boston’s city council not to march in the city’s large and boisterous annual St. Patrick’s Day parade lest he be abused by dockworkers angry that the seaway would kill their jobs. Kennedy ignored the advice and marched without incident.
Imagine a politician with the political courage to put country over party and principle over popularity, risking re-election for what is right. Imagine a politician who bases decisions on facts rather than gut reactions, polls, or a blind adherence to ideology. Imagine a politician with an ability to speak that is clear, almost poetic, and that demands that we rise to meet him rather than pandering to the least articulate and educated among us. Imagine. And then take a moment today to celebrate John Kennedy’s life and grieve his loss.
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American presidents have ways of getting rid of governments they don’t like. Ask Iran (1953), GuatemalaAmerican presidents have ways of getting rid of foreign governments they don’t like. (1954), Congo (1960), Dominican Republic (1961), South Vietnam (1963), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973). Or, as explained in my November 7th blog, part one of this story, ask Canada (1963). President John F. Kennedy played a direct role in helping to topple the teetering government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
Now for part two. Kennedy’s efforts would be wasted if Lester Pearson’s Liberals, his preference to form Canada’s government, did not win the ensuing election. Kennedy set out to put Pearson in power.
Pearson’s team had all read Theodore White’s brilliant The Making of the President 1960. It outlined factors that determined Kennedy’s success, including the use of frequent and targeted polling. Kennedy had hired former marketing executive Lou Harris. For the first time in electoral politics, a pollster worked exclusively for a campaign and employed daily random sampling to correlate and analyse massive amounts of data then suggest changes that shaped the candidate and message.
The Liberals had asked Harris for help in the 1962 election. He had previously been asked to assist the British Labour Party but the president wanted the Conservatives re-elected and so asked him to decline the job. After the call from the Canadian Liberals, Harris again asked Kennedy’s permission. He was soon on a plane to Ottawa. Now, a year later, he heading north again.
Like before, the Liberals sought to hide Kennedy’s man so Harris again assumed his wife’s maiden name and used the phony passport forged by the State Department. He avoided Parliament Hill where he might be recognized and attended weekly meetings at Pearson’s home. Harris hired 500 women who made daily calls across the country. The polling determined, for example, how Pearson would dress – in a straight and not bow tie – which cities he would visit, the policies he would emphasize, phrases he would use, and that the campaign would sell the team and not the leader.
Harris later said that Kennedy was, “…all but shouting from the sidelines. He hated Diefenbaker…He obviously couldn’t say anything publicly. But every day or two he would want to know how the election was going.”
One of Kennedy’s closest friends was Newsweek magazine’s Washington bureau chief Benjamin Bradlee. Several times the two had discussed the need to get rid of Diefenbaker. In the campaign’s first week, Newsweek arrived in mailboxes and on newsstands across Canada with an arresting cover showing a disturbingly close-up and alarmingly unpleasant photograph of Diefenbaker over the title: Canada’s Diefenbaker: Decline and Fall. The accompanying article embarrassed even the prime minister’s staunchest critics: “It would be too flattering to dismiss him just as a superficial fellow – he’s really much dimmer than that.” The article claimed that that Diefenbaker lacked leadership skills, was unable to make decisions, and had been bad for Canada, NATO, America, and the world.
At a news conference the morning after the magazine’s release, Diefenbaker was greeted by reporters holding its cover up over their smiles. He laughed but burned inside. The Newsweek issue allowed him to openly add Kennedy to those he said were out to unseat him.
Among the newspapers clearly against Diefenbaker was the widely read Toronto Star. It published over a dozen articles by Sam Lubell that were crammed with quotes gathered from Canadians. None supported Diefenbaker. Typical were these from an April 2 article: “He’s so irresponsible he makes me ashamed I am a Canadian.” “I can’t stand to look at him on TV.” “He’s out on a limb sawing off our relations with the United States.”
Lubell was an American journalist, pollster, and political strategist. Among his closest friends was Kennedy’s national security advisor McGeorge Bundy. After the election, Lubell left for Europe carrying a letter of introduction from Bundy that stated, “He has been very helpful to the Government on more than one occasion, and he is a very able and disinterested reporter.”
The American ambassador to Canada was an old friend of the Kennedy family, Walter Butterworth. As all ambassadors do, Butterworth sent home regular reports that summarized the editorial stands of a host of Canadian newspapers. He went further, though, and held regular, secret briefings with a select group of Canadian journalists who were known to be critical of Diefenbaker. Throughout the campaign, he fed them information to augment their pro-Pearson, anti-Diefenbaker articles and editorials. In communications to Washington he boasted of the degree to which he was shaping Canadian public opinion.
The Kennedy administration’s interference became so blatant that Pearson was forced to deny that he and the president were in direct contact. He was repeatedly heckled as an American stooge. As he approached the podium to address a large Vancouver rally, an American flag was unfurled before the stage and burned. Hecklers shouted “American Slave” and “Yankee Lover” as a group of young men in the balcony loaded long straws and pelted him with frozen peas. He shouted his speech while his wife, Maryon, sat stoically on the platform with tears streaming down her cheeks.
A couple of days later, Pearson was about to speak in Edmonton when he was told that he and Kennedy’s mutual friend,Washington-based Canadian journalist Max Freedman, was on the phone from the White House press room. Pearson was rushed to a janitor’s room to take the call. He was told that Freedman and Kennedy had been having dinner and discussing the election and that the president wanted to speak with him. A tired and frustrated Pearson explained how Kennedy’s actions were backfiring and finally shouted, “For God’s sake, tell the president not to say anything. I don’t want any help from him. This would be awful.”
Lou Harris reported to Kennedy that all the American interference in the Canadian campaign was actually hurting Pearson and pleaded with the president to “call off his dogs”. “And for God’s sake,” he said, “keep quiet about Pearson no matter what you’re thinking.” The chastened president directed Bundy to order staff not to necessarily stop interfering in the election, just stop getting caught. A memo read: “The President wishes to avoid any appearance of interference, even by responding to what may appear to be untruthful, distorted, or unethical statements or actions. Will you, therefore, please ensure that no one in your Departments, in Washington or in the field, says anything publicly about Canada until after the election without first clearing with the White House.”
When Kennedy had visited Ottawa in 1961, he had mistakenly dropped a briefing memo written by his deputy national security assistant Walt Rostow. It was given to Diefenbaker who was incensed that it listed policies Kennedy would “push” Canada to adopt. Near the end of the 1963 campaign, Canadian journalists learned of the memo and wrote of the degree to which Kennedy was indeed “pushing” Canada.
The next morning, Kennedy saw an AP news story about the Rostow memo and immediately called Assistant Secretary of State Tyler. Kennedy read him excerpts and noted parts that he said were false. “Now it seems to me,” he said, “that he may have leaked this – Diefenbaker. It makes him look good and us look lousy…he’s a liar.” Kennedy asked Tyler to see what reaction the story was sparking in Canada and said, “If it is helping Diefenbaker we ought to knock it down. The question is how.”
A new Montreal Gazette article suggested that the memo contained a margin note, scribbled by the president, in which he referred to Diefenbaker using a “derogatory term” that was quickly purported to be “SOB”. Kennedy and Bundy discussed how they could handle the latest bad press without lending credibility to Diefenbaker’s claim that they were involved in the campaign. They decided that Kennedy’s press secretary would call the Gazette reporter and deny the SOB rumour. Minutes later, Time magazine’s Hugh Sidey was ushered into the White House for a previously arranged meeting. Still upset, Kennedy declared, “Now I want you to get this damn thing about Diefenbaker correct. I’ve been in this damn business long enough to know better than that. There are a lot of stupid mistakes I make but that isn’t one of them.” He added with a smile, “Besides, at the time I didn’t know what kind of guy Diefenbaker was.” Ben Bradlee later reported that Kennedy confided with him that he did not think Diefenbaker was a son of a bitch, he thought he was a prick.
Kennedy’s press secretary privately briefed selected reporters on the Rostow memo. From that meeting came an article by New York Times syndicated columnist James “Scotty” Reston, a mutual friend of Kennedy and Pearson. It appeared in the Montreal Star on the morning of April 8 – Election Day. It blamed Diefenbaker for the whole kerfuffle saying he had been wrong to have kept the memo, probably leaked news of its existence, had lied about it, and was wrong in using it for political advantage. As Canadians went to the polls, they pondered whether their prime minister was a liar or political rapscallion, and perhaps whether the president they admired so much thought he was a son of a bitch.
Canadians did as Kennedy had hoped and elected a Liberals government. Lester Pearson became Canada’s prime minister. What had just happened was not secret. Washington Daily News columnist Richard Starnes noted, “It is an irony of history that President Kennedy’s Administration while properly charged with failures in Cuba, Laos and Europe is prevented by the rules of the game from claiming credit for a skilfully executed triumph elsewhere. The victory occurred in Canada where adroit statecraft by the American State Department brought down the bumbling crypto anti-Yankee government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and replaced it with a regime which promises to be faithful to the concept of Canadian-American interdependence…the Kennedy Administration must congratulate itself in private for its coup.” The Starnes column was passed around the State Department and White House with readers adding smug handwritten notes to its cover page. Assistant Secretary of State Tyler wrote to McGeorge Bundy: “Mac, You see how smart we, I mean you, are!”
Canadians knew too. In a column that appeared in papers across Canada, syndicated columnist Charles Lynch wrote, “Diefenbaker was defeated by Kennedy.” His observation was echoed even in France where the Paris-Presse headline was succinct: “Canada has voted American.”
This question that comes first to mind is how this could have happened. The second, and more important given the Donald Trump victory, is could it happen again.
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Time travel is fun. It’s what first attracted me to the study of history. I scour old newspapers when researching my books but time and mission are constant pressures so, usually with eye-straining microfilm, I jump to what I need then leap out. Yesterday, however, an old friend gave me an unexpected gift: a pristine copy of the Tuesday June 11, 1957 Peterborough Examiner. Its stories and ads are fun and revelatory.
The big bold headline reads: PC’S 110, LIBERALS 103. The black and white picture is of John Diefenbaker; the Progressive Conservative leader whose party had just captured what would become a minority government. The trick with the old paper was to enjoy it while knowing not the warp and woof of the day but the context and future.
Diefenbaker’s election presaged an era of contradictions. The cancelling of the Avro Arrow would hurt thousands but Canada’s new Bill of Rights would protect millions. The nationalist Diefenbaker would seek to make Canada more sovereign but a new American president, John F. Kennedy, would try to make her more obedient. Aboriginal people would be granted the right to vote but their children would still be kidnapped for residential schools.
Like now, most Canadians shrugged and accepted the changing political landscape while focussing upon more immediate concerns, distractions, and dreams. Not just cottages but suburban home ownership was an important element of those dreams. Bank and life insurance company ads offer 5.5% mortgages. Another ad presents the chance to move into Peterborough’s “Finest New Home Development” – Westmount Gardens – with a Delux Split Level home that boasted 3 bedrooms, cathedral ceilings, a fireplace, 2 bathrooms, and a 2-car garage, all for $20,900.
Another ad offers a sixteen-foot cedar strip boat, Evinrude motor, and trailer. And for men, Westminster dress shirts are only $4.95. The interesting part of all these consumer dreams, and others the paper offers is that the products were all made in Canada and sold not in national or international chains but by locally owned businesses and companies. Canadians were having Canadian dreams.
(Love the chrome, tailfins, and pushbutton transmission)
In sports, Terry Sawchuck is happy with his trade from Boston back to the Detroit Red Wings. The team welcomes the all-star goalie back after having won the Stanley Cup eight out of the last nine seasons. The reporter notes that Sawchuk had suffered from mononucleosis and nervous tension while in Boston. No one could guess that his health and demons would see him dead in only 13 years. In the article’s last paragraph, Red Wing general manager Jack Adams offers up for trade the team’s all-star veteran, and league’s highest scoring left-winger, Ted Lindsay. Few knew the trade was punishment for Lindsay’s trying to start a player’s union.
Local sports are generously reported with league play in golf, softball, bowling, lawn bowling, and lacrosse. The number and popularity of the leagues reveal the extent to which people were getting out of their homes to join with others. Nobody bowls alone.
The weekend and weekday leagues also showed that, in 1957, work was not just something you did but somewhere you went. Work had a beginning and end time. Clocks were punched. Overtimes were calculated and rewarded. Technology did not allow work to follow you home. As a result, there was time for sports and fun with neighbours and friends.
Hollywood offers the world to Peterborough’s working class, hockey culture. The Drive-In has Janet Leigh and Jack Lemon in My Sister Eileen and Gregory Peck in The Purple Rain. Two movies! Plus everyone knew a cartoon or two would begin as you were settling in your car with popcorn and pop and adjusting the steel speaker to your window. Downtown theatres presented three more movies, the latest from Robert Taylor, William Holden, and Bob Hope. If that were not enough, the Memorial Centre, the town’s big arena, was presenting, in person, The Lone Ranger and his horse Silver and “the world’s most beloved dog “Lassie.” The boats, houses, and shirts may have been all-Canadian but culture came with an American accent.
The Examiner’s editor was Robertson Davies. Yes, that Robertson Davies who would later write exceptional novels that would help spur a new and overdue interest in Canadian literature. It was perhaps his writer’s eye that led to the paper’s excellence. In every story of substance the vocabulary is challenging, the tone serious, the arguments cogent, and the sentences complex. The paper clearly invites readers to rise to a higher standard rather than pandering to a lower one.
Like the city and society the paper served and reflected, it is very much for and about men. Nearly all the ads are for men including two job postings for “salesmen.” The letters to the editor are all written by men. Nearly all the sports are about men except for a report on a businesswomen’s golf league that is entitled “Business Girls.” Similarly, there are photographs of three local women who graduated from the Kingston General Hospital School of Nursing. The photo’s caption begins, without irony, “Three Peterborough Girls…”
The paper is surprisingly big. The gift’s gift was bigger. It allowed a time travel adventure. It was also a reminder to ignore the muck of life and observe the horizon, to seek context amid distracting details, and, most of all, to enjoy the wonders and blessings of the moment for no one knows what tomorrow will bring. My hour with the paper reminded me that to worry about the past invites depression and to fret about the future brings anxiety so I should more gratefully and completely accept the gift of now – the present of the present.
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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, 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, 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.
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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.
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.
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:
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.
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.