Lessons from the Moon and the Bridge

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.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon

(Photo: thedailydigi.com)

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.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon.

(Photo: karmadecay.com)

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.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon..

Car being pulled from river. Photo: www. www.latimes.com

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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Are We The 5-Year-Old Us?

I am currently reading Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye. It’s the latest of many I have read about the man who was a childhood hero of mine and for whom I still have a great deal of respect. Among the things Kennedy taught me, when my Mom used to say was too young to be thinking about such things, was existentialism. He spoke of being one and so I looked it up and thought it was a tremendous philosophy. I told myself that I was one too. An essential notion is that we are in control of our own destiny and able to create and recreate ourselves regardless of both nature and nurture. This new book, which is very good by the way, had me thinking about that notion again. But it also reminded me of an event whose anniversary is approaching that made me wonder if I should throw existentialism into the ditch. It involved a report card.

You see, about this time last year, my three younger brothers and I were cleaning out my father’s house. My Mom had been gone for some time and it was time for my Dad to be where he could be happier, healthier, and safer. So there were with a dumpster in the driveway, in what had been our home but had suddenly become just a house. What had been family treasures was bothersome stuff. “Why take this,” my one brother said, “only to have my son throw it out thirty years from now?” He was right. Furniture and kitchenware went to a Syrian refugee family and more went to local charity re-use centre, but a lot was going straight into the steel bin of sin. But then we were stopped cold.

My Mom had saved a box full of our old report cards. We stood together, laughing as we read comments from the days when teachers were allowed to be honest and communicate in English. I found my kindergarten final report card which said, “Johnny likes to sing songs and write stories.” Well, so much for Bobby Kennedy and existentialism.

I still like to sing songs. I learned to play guitar when I was nine and sang in a band in high school, then in coffee houses and bars with a friend and later alone. I recorded three songs that I had written as singles and still write a song every month or so to prove to myself that I still can. I play in a little band. We love working out new songs and playing the occasional gig. It is a rare day that I do not pick up the guitar and enjoy time singing and playing; it slows me down and slow is good.

I still like to write stories. I am writing one now. I also write newspaper editorials, magazine articles, book reviews, entries in the Canadian Encyclopedia, and am now writing my eighth book. There is a warm satisfaction earned by composing a well-constructed sentence or in weaving a lucid argument. The muse can occasionally be kind.

So the report card led me to wonder if I have really been living the existential life that I thought I had been living for all these years. Have I really been rediscovering and reinventing myself or was I set at kindergarten?

Consider yourself at age 5 and whether you are significantly different now. How have you changed, or not changed, since high school? When together with old friends, is everyone looking a little older but essentially the same? I wonder if despite the buffeting winds of change, the moments of celebration and chagrin, and the years that colour our hair and idealism, whether we are really that different than the five-year-old us?

Bobby Kennedy was assassinated 49 years ago last week at age 49. It was just weeks before he would have won the Democratic Party’s nomination and gone on to defeat Richard Nixon to become president in January 1969. Think about that. Vietnam would have ended earlier with thousands of lives spared. There would have been no Watergate. He most likely would have been president until 1976. God, he may have even stopped disco – ok, perhaps I’m stretching it.

Robert Kennedy

The point is, that if Kennedy had lived then policies would have been different, the media would have been different, America and the world would have been different and, perhaps most significantly of all, we may have been spared the cynicism born of his having been killed so shortly after his brother and Martin Luther King. The existentialism in which he believed would have been writ large through his example and legacy.

Of course, last year I would have still found the old report card that inspired both a smile and furrowed brow. Even Bobby Kennedy could not have changed that.

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Imagine a Man Like John F. Kennedy

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.

Imagine a Man Like John F. Kennedy

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.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with other. For more on the many ways that Canada was effected by JFK and that we affected him, consider reading Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front. It is available at bookstores and online through Chapters Indigo and Amazon.

The Woman Who Changed the World

The crowd hushed, cameras snapped, and Senators sat respectfully still as the slight, pale woman limped slowly to the big table then, painfully, took her seat. It was June 4 1963, and Rachel Carson was 56 but looked much older. She was dying. Cancer had fractured her pelvis, taken a breast and, hidden by a dark wig, her hair.

Carson had worked as a United States Fish and Wildlife Service marine biologist and written articles for a number of magazines. She had turned her love of the sea and outrage with what was happening to rivers, lakes, and oceans into three best-selling books: The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea-Wind, and The Sea Around Us. Each presented disturbing ideas and scientifically sophisticated arguments without jargon, preaching, or rancour. She married her knowledge, passion, and writing and investigative skills in the creation her next book: Silent Spring.

While researching the book, Carson had served on the Natural Resources Committee of the Democratic Advisory Council where she became aware of Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy having initiated the Cape Cod National Seashore Act. Kennedy had read her books on the sea and then the committee report and so when he sought his party’s nomination for president, he invited Carson to join the Women’s Committee for New Frontiers.

rachelcarson

Photo: Rachel Carson Council

As president, Kennedy read Silent Spring pre-publication excerpts in the New Yorker magazine. He was moved by Carson’s detailing the devastating effects of pesticide use on animal and human health and invited her to attend a White House conference on conservation. The conference led to Kennedy announcing that, because of Carson’s work, he was ordering the Department of Agriculture and the Public Health Service to investigate the dangers of pesticide use and the establishment of the President’s Science Advisory Committee to study links between pesticides and health.

Silent Spring became an instant bestseller when published in September 1962. It explained how pesticides, and specifically DDT, had been around since 1874. The American army had used DDT in both world wars to delouse soldiers and that Paul Hermann Müller had won the 1948 Nobel Prize for determining its effectiveness in killing mosquitoes and other pests. Carson’s book explained how DDT was also killing fish, birds, and people. Her title warned of the day that birds would be gone and skies without song. Most shockingly, Silent Spring told of how the government, scientific community, and the companies making and selling pesticides knew of their harmful effects. But there was money to be made. And so, the evidence was ignored, hidden, and denied. Carson asked an essential question: “How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the whole environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”

silent-spring

Pesticide manufacturing companies Cyanamid, Monsanto, and Velsical were outraged. They attacked. Velsical threatened to sue Carson, her publisher, and the New Yorker. They even tried to stop the publication of an article about the book in the Audubon magazine. The companies paid scientists to write editorials and articles that belittled Carson and her conclusions. The National Agricultural Chemicals Association published a booklet, Fact and Fancy, that savaged Kennedy and Carson. It was argued that Americans would suffer a food shortage without DDT.

In May 1963, the President’s Science Advisory Committee released a 46-page report, Use of Pesticides. With point after well-supported point, it said the companies were wrong and Carson was right. It stated, “Until the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides…The Government should present this information to the public in a way that will make it aware of the dangers while recognizing the value of pesticides.”

A month later, as part of that public education process, the sick, fragile, and wan Carson took her seat before the Senate subcommittee. She briefly summarized Silent Spring’s findings and then listed specific recommendations. The government should ban aerial spraying without the permission of landowners. Citizens should enjoy guaranteed security against poisons used by companies, governments, and private individuals. Corporations making pesticides, and all those using them, should be strictly regulated. She advocated the outright banning of DDT. The government should fund and support grass roots citizen organizations and non-government organizations to encourage awareness of environmental issues.

The environmental movement was born. American companies sold 90,000 tonnes of DDT in 1963 but production decreased the next year and every year after that. It took a while, but in 1972, American DDT production was banned. Carson’s name was raised and Silent Spring was read by those advocating and then celebrating President Nixon’s Clean Air and Water Acts, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and, in 1970, his establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

In his 1996 book, Our Stolen Future, Dr. Theo Colborn wrote about chemicals that interfere with our body’s hormonal system called endocrine disrupters. He credits Silent Spring with awakening him and other scientists and researchers to the dangers of manmade chemicals and noted how it was still inspiring discoveries and environmental advocacy.

Breast cancer took Rachel Carson in 1964. But her voice still echoes for Silent Spring is still read. It still inspires. It still exasperates.Silent Spring is still discussed around the world every Earth Day.

Books that matter always educate and infuriate and important authors, like important ideas, are always ignored, then mocked, then attacked, and, in time, celebrated. Books measure how far we have come and how far remains to go. As the American government appears ready to deregulate corporations and eviscerate environmental regulations, and women are leading the charge to fight the turning back of the clock on this and other issues, perhaps Silent Spring is more important now than ever.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped change the world. It may need to change it again.

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JFK and the Myths We Need Now

Myths matter. They are important in all societies. They help create, define, and preserve the values and institutions we deem important. They provide structure and stability. Myths present themselves in many forms and sometimes as people who were once politicians but somehow became much, much more. The Americans are quite good at myth-making. Abraham Lincoln became a myth; his deeds and character recalled in hushed, reverent tones as a model for citizenship and a reflection of all that is good about an entire people. The most recent of American politician-myth is President John F. Kennedy. His youth, looks, vigour, promise, and the degree to which he inspired hope and optimism, coupled with the Shakespearean tragedy of his bloody and public death, rendered his elevation from man to myth almost inevitable. That transition is instructive and important for us today.

jfk-myth

The public murder of a man who represented so much to so many, and by such a puny little assassin, was incomprehensible and overwhelming. People who had never met or even seen him wept as if a family member had passed away. I’m old enough to recall arriving home from Grade Two to find my mother weeping before the television. It was the first time I had ever seen her cry. French president Charles De Galle said, “I am stunned. They are crying all over France. It is as if he were a Frenchman, a member of their own family.” In London, famed actor Sir Laurence Olivier interrupted a performance and had the audience stand as the orchestra played the American national anthem. Other Londoners stood in the multi-coloured glow of Piccadilly Circus neon and openly sobbed.

Canada declared November 23 to 29 an official period of mourning. Polish churches were crowded on its national day of mourning, and the Nicaraguan government declared a week of mourning. Flags were dropped to half-staff in Ottawa and other world capitals, including Moscow. In the United States and around the globe, airports, schools, streets, libraries, public squares, and more were renamed after him. In the Canadian Yukon, a 14,000-foot snow-peaked mountain became Mount Kennedy.

Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, was shattered by the murder of her husband, killed just inches from her side, but at the moment of the unspeakable violence, she understood what would happen and what she wanted to shape. She took charge. She arranged for the state funeral to reflect Lincoln’s. She insisted on an eternal flame at his grave and that he be buried at Arlington National Cemetery just across the Potomac River from Washington which, since the Civil War, had become a revered burial place for veterans. She chose a hilltop location overlooking the city that the president had actually visited and declared a fine spot to be placed at rest.

From a popular play addressing the legend of King Arthur, she coined the name Camelot – that mystical place of missed opportunity, to describe her husband’s thousand-day presidency. Kennedy’s brother Robert also moved quickly. He ordered files to be removed from the White House and Oval Office and Cabinet Room tape recordings were taken and squirreled away. The myth could only grow properly if the legacy was carefully sculpted.

The myth grew quickly. Kennedy transcended politics and entered popular culture. A movie based on his Second World War military exploits had already been made. In March 1960, Senator Kennedy had met the former British intelligence officer Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond adventure novels. A year later, Life Magazine listed Fleming’s From Russia with Love as among the president’s favourite books. The endorsement led Fleming’s American publisher to push the previously underperforming titles and to Sean Connery taking the British rogue to the big screen. The favour was returned when a character in The Spy Who Loved Me said, “We need some more Jack Kennedy…They ought to hand the world over to young people who haven’t got the idea of war stuck in their subconscious.”

Kennedy had created the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. In the summer of 1963, DC Comics had written a story based on Kennedy asking for Superman’s help to urge Americans to take better care of themselves through diet and exercise. The project was shelved after the assassination but Kennedy’s successor, President Johnson, leant his support and so the comic book was published in July 1964. Its cover showed a ghostly JFK towering over the Capitol Building and Superman in mid-flight, glancing sadly back, one mythical hero in awe of another.

myth-makingCBR.com

The Beatles second album was released on the day Kennedy died. Three months later, they arrived for their first American tour and 50,000 kids screamed their welcome at the newly named JFK airport. While Elvis had offered sex and daring, the Beatles offered love and fun. On a subsequent tour, in September, they toured Dallas. They smiled nervously and waved from an open limousine as they passed through Dealey Plaza, the very spot where Kennedy had been killed. Many of those trying to understand the band’s unprecedented popularity claimed that their songs and wit personified the same youthful enthusiasm as the Kennedy promise. They renewed that promise while providing a welcome tonic to America’s grief. The Beatles, it was argued, allowed the black bunting to be removed and the country to smile again.

John F. Kennedy was an imperfect man and an imperfect president but the perfect stuff of myth. His assassination tore time. For millions of people, the assassination was an irreparable rending that forever split before and after. The violence in Dallas was visited not just upon the man but also on the very idea that everything was possible and all problems solvable. For in the final analysis, Kennedy’s gift was not his programs and policies, but himself. His most important contribution was the courageous, audacious determination that idealism is not naïve, hope is not foolish, hardship and challenge is incentive, and that community can extend beyond one’s family, city, or even country. His violent death, like Lincoln’s, challenged those ideas and asked if they were worth preserving, celebrating, and fighting for.

So let’s ask the question. Are those ideas of clear-eyed idealism, unifying confidence, hope, and ambition, and the notion of a broader, deeper community, worth the fight? If so, let us embrace the myths, whether they be people like Kennedy or, in Canada, the myth of the rich, giving, but untameable land, and ask what they say about those ideas and about us. Then, let’s pick our fight. In these foreboding days of Trump, Brexit, and racist, intolerant notions disguised as political programs among leadership aspirants in France and Canada, the fight has never been more urgent. And so, more than 50 years after his death, perhaps we need John F. Kennedy more than ever. 

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. There is more on JFK and his relationship with Canada in Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front, available  in bookstores and online through Amazon and Chapters https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/cold-fire-kennedys-northern-front/9780345808936-item.html

 

An Election Really Rigged – Part One

We Canadians are a smug lot. For the last while, we’ve pressed our noses to the window on our southern border and been shocked and chagrined by the gong show masquerading as a presidential election. We’ve been stunned by, among other things, all the talk of rigged elections and secret shenanigans. Let’s get over ourselves. Let’s consider a Canadian election that was truly rigged. First, let’s see how the Americans helped topple the Canadian government.

President John F. Kennedy hated Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Their political difference would have put them at odds even if they had gotten along famously. The final straw in the feisty fight was Kennedy’s rage over Diefenbaker’s failure to offer enthusiastic and unreserved support during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy needed the Canadian government changed. He usually got what he wanted.

Raffi final

Photo:Toronto Star

Strike One: Two and a half months after the Cuban crisis ended and the world returned to the gritted-teeth peace, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander General Norstad ended his career with a tour of alliance capitals. On January 3, 1963, he arrived in Ottawa. Resplendent in his medal-bedecked uniform, Norstad made a brief statement and then, in response to reporters’ questions, suggested that Canada’s prime minister was a liar. He had been lying, the general said, about a number of things including the need for Canadian troops in Europe to have American nuclear weapons.

Many newspapers and people had already turned on Diefenbaker but Norstad’s stunning declaration turned more. A few days after igniting the firestorm, Kennedy welcomed Norstad to the White House, pinned a Distinguished Service Medal on his chest, and praised him for displaying “great skill” and “sensitivity” in his diplomacy and especially for having, “…in a unique way held the confidence of our allies in Europe and, of course, our partner to the north, Canada.”

Strike Two: Amid withering attacks from all sides, Diefenbaker rose in the House of Commons to explain and defend his government’s nuclear policy. He concluded that his government’s policies would always reflect Canadian interests and not those of “people from outside the country” who cared only for their own national interests.

The speech was a grand performance but confused more than clarified. It intensified questions about Diefenbaker’s leadership in the media and among his cabinet and caucus. The Americans then poured oil on the gathering flames. The American ambassador sped a message to the State Department in which he took specific exception to nearly every point Diefenbaker had made. The letter was reworked by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and then Secretary of State Dean Rusk took it to the president. Kennedy agreed to the letter’s release saying, “We can’t let these fellows get away with this.”

Late in the afternoon of January 30, the State Department press release was given to Canadian reporters in Washington. It was astonishing. Point by point, it explained how Diefenbaker had misrepresented a range of issues and facts. Only three weeks after General Norstad had told the Canadian people that Diefenbaker was being disingenuous regarding nuclear weapons, Kennedy’s State Department, even more bluntly, had called their prime minister a liar.

In the House of Commons Diefenbaker thundered: “[Canada] will not be pushed around or accept external domination or interference in the making of its decisions. Canada is determined to remain a firm ally, but that does not mean she should be a satellite.” The fury of indignation led by media on both sides of the border forced Secretary of State Rusk to respond. Far from apologizing, he said that after hearing Diefenbaker’s speech the Kennedy administration was justified in laying out the facts. News of Rusk’s statement appeared on the front page of the New York Times and was reprinted in papers across Canada. Yet another high-ranking American, the third in three weeks, had called the Canadian prime minister a liar.

Kennedy called his special advisor George Ball twice that night to say that he understood the effects of his government’s action in Canada but that Diefenbaker deserved it. Ball confirmed that as a result of their interventions the Diefenbaker government could fall. Kennedy doubled down saying, “We should feed some…up there that Diefenbaker’s in trouble. We knew that he has always been running against us so that it’s very important.”

 Strike Three:  The growing tension brought all that had been tearing the Diefenbaker cabinet asunder to the fore. In an unprecedented shouting match meeting at the prime minister’s residence, the cabinet split and the defense minister resigned. Shortly afterward, Rusk appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Canadian Affairs that had been called to investigate the State Department’s intervention into Canadian domestic political. Revealing that he obviously had an Ottawa mole, Rusk said that six or seven Canadian cabinet ministers were splitting from the prime minister. He then bluntly reiterated everything the State Department memo had said. For those keeping score, it was the fourth time a senior Kennedy administration official had publicly called Diefenbaker a liar.

Ottawa fell into chaos. There were bizarre late night meetings, hushed hallway conversations, private deal making, and public back stabbings. On the evening of Tuesday, February 5, for only the second time in Canadian history, a government was defeated on a vote on non-confidence. Diefenbaker visited the Governor General and the election was set for April 8.

The news sparked laughter and celebration at the White House. The American ambassador telegrammed the State Department to gloat about America’s role in having brought down Diefenbaker: “In effect, we have now forced the issue and the outcome depends on [the] basic common sense of Canadian electorate… we see grounds for optimism that over the long run this exercise will prove to have been highly beneficial and will substantially advance our interests.” Kennedy said nothing publicly about his administration’s role in the Canadian government’s fall. However, McGeorge Bundy later admitted to President Johnson, “I might add that I myself have been sensitive to the need for being extra polite to the Canadians ever since George Ball and I knocked over the Diefenbaker Government by one incautious press release.”

Let us not be naive. Politics is tough. Politicians will do things to advance their careers, political appointees will do things to support their bosses, and political leaders will do things to advance their agendas. Occasionally that leads one government to overthrow another with a violent revolution or coup. Sometimes, such as in Canada in 1963, it leads to a nudge through shaping perceptions and changing course.

Kennedy’s efforts in helping to overthrow the Canadian government would not have been worth it, of course, unless Lester Pearson and his Liberals won the ensuing election. The president would not leave that to chance. But that is for part two.

I have been away from my Monday blog for a while to complete my next book but I’m back. Part two of this story will appear next week with more in the weeks that follow. For more on Kennedy and Canada you could check out Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front which is available online and at bookstores throughout Canada and the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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