[Joanne Roll (Colombia 1963-65) one of our bloggers on the site sent me this piece by Carl M. Cannon Washington Editor of RealClearPolitics and suggested I share it with all of you on this Thanksgiving Day. Thanks, Joanne, and Marian Beil and I would like to thank all of you for your support as we remember JKF on this fateful November day.]
Good morning. It’s Wednesday, November 21, 2012, the eve of Thanksgiving Day. Not much is scheduled in official Washington today, which is probably just as well. Even with the “fiscal cliff” looming in their immediate future, Americans have earned a holiday from politics.
On this date in 1963, John F. Kennedy boarded the presidential helicopter on the South Lawn for a political trip to Texas. He was seeking to make peace between the feuding factions within the Lone Star State’s Democratic Party. Kennedy took Lyndon Johnson with him in the vain hope that the once-powerful vice president could ameliorate the rivalry between conservative Gov. John Connolly and liberal Sen. Ralph Yarborough.
Those strains still exist in Southern politics, although the emergence of the Republican Party in Dixie has made the battle lines clearer. JFK wasn’t worried about the long-term future on this date 49 years ago, however. He was concerned with carrying Texas in his 1964 re-election campaign.
According to JFK’s longtime confidant and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, the president assumed he’d be running against Barry Goldwater, hoped to face Nelson Rockefeller, and was a bit worried about the man he thought might be the strongest GOP candidate: Michigan Gov. George Romney.
First, Kennedy was intent on smoothing things over between Connolly and Yarborough, and was counting on his Irish Boston charm to do it. JFK asked Ted Sorensen to furnish him some “Texas humor” for his upcoming speeches, and at 10:45 a.m., Sorenson ran out to the helicopter on the South Lawn and handed the fruits of his research to the president.
In a moment I’ll have an additional observation about the events on this day 49 years ago, but first, I’d note that our front page links, as it does each day, to an array of pieces spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from RCP’s own staff of reporters and analysts.
President Kennedy wasted no time upon arriving in Texas on November 21, 1963. His first stop was the dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center in San Antonio. After acknowledging both Connolly and Yarborough, Kennedy spoke in a spirit of inclusiveness.
“For more than three years I have spoken about the New Frontier,” Kennedy said. “This is not a partisan term, and it is not the exclusive property of Republicans or Democrats. It refers, instead, to this nation’s place in history… and for the best efforts of all those who would test the unknown and the uncertain in every phase of human endeavor. It is a time for pathfinders and pioneers.”
Most specifically, it was the space race the president had in mind.
“Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall — and then they had no choice but to follow them.
“This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome. Whatever the hazards…with the help and support of all Americans, we will climb this wall with safety and with speed — and we shall then explore the wonders on the other side.”
Kennedy’s next stop was the historic Rice Hotel in downtown Houston, where he briefly addressed the League of United Latin American Citizens before introducing his wife, who spoke to the LULAC representatives in Spanish.
From there, it was on to Sam Houston Coliseum - Connolly and Yarborough still in tow - for a birthday dinner in honor of Texas congressman Albert Thomas. The president opened his speech with some of that “Texas humor” provided by Sorensen:
“When I came to the House of Representatives in 1947 as a fairly young congressman from Massachusetts,” he said, “I heard the old saying that you spend the first six months in the House of Representatives wondering how you got there, and the next six months wondering how everybody else got there!”
The crowd laughed appreciatively, knowing what was coming next: the president’s assertion that he never wondered how Albert Thomas got to Washington. Thomas was 65 years old then; Kennedy, who was only 46, wrapped up his remarks by referring to a passage from the Old Testament book of Joel:
“‘Your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions,’ the Bible tells us, and ‘where there is no vision, the people perish.’ Albert Thomas is old enough to dream dreams, and young enough to see visions. He sees an America of the future, in the lifetime of us all, with 300 million people living in this country with a $2 trillion economy which will happen in this century.”
Rep. Thomas would not live to see all that. He died 2 ½ years later, his unexpired term in the House served out by his widow, Lera Thomas. President Kennedy would not live even another full day - and his widow would do her level best to keep his legacy alive.
During the 1960 presidential campaign, liberal political journalist Murray Kempton had written that neither Jack Kennedy nor Richard Nixon “seems to be a man at whose funeral strangers would cry.”
This prediction proved to be false - millions of strangers cried at the news of Kennedy’s death — as did the bravado of the president’s father, who once said of his second son: “I know nothing can happen to him. I’ve stood by his death bed four times. Each time, I said goodbye to him, and he always came back.”
There was no coming back alive from Dallas, except that at this time of year John Fitzgerald Kennedy comes back to us all - at least to those of us old enough to remember him. This morning, I’ll give the last word to Ted Sorensen, who wrote only briefly about the assassination in his 1965 Kennedy biography, but who offered this conclusion:
“Some blame leftists, some blame rightists, some blame Dallas or the security forces, some blame us all. John Kennedy would have said it is too late to be blaming anyone - and he would have had compassion for his assassin and compassion for us all.”
Carl M. Cannon