“Only our individual faith in freedom can keep us free.”
Image: Carol Cavalaris
“Kennedy deserved to be shot because he was a Catholic!”
My father looked at the old man with the hottest level of anger he could muster in a split second. All of 30 with a newborn son, my father blurted back at his coworker, “He was our president, you son-of-a-bitch! No one deserves to get shot!”
It was November 22, 1963, and the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination had just spread around the print shop in downtown Dallas where my father worked. Emotions were already raw, and my father didn’t care that he – a young Hispanic man – was yelling and cursing at a much older White male; in Texas; in 1963.
The antagonism towards Kennedy and the Democratic Party in Dallas and Texas – and throughout much of the Southeastern U.S., for that matter – couldn’t be more palpable on that tragic day. Even decades later I’ve heard some conservatives say November 22, 1963 was one of the best days in modern American history. One was a former friend – an openly-gay Jewish man – in 2003. The rest of us seated with him at a restaurant table after a Toastmasters meeting were stunned.
“Yeah,” I casually responded. “Just like the day Hitler escorted the first rabbi into a gas oven.”
No one in their right mind celebrates the death or illness of a national leader. Even as much as I dislike Donald Trump, I’m not happy to know that he’s come down with the dreaded COVID-19 virus. Late on Thursday night, October 1, news broke here in the U.S. that Trump and his wife have tested positive with the virus. Earlier this evening, Friday, the 2nd, Trump was escorted to the hospital. While I’m sure some leftist extremists are thrilled with this development, I see it for the national implication it has. This poses a serious threat to our national security.
In 1918 President Woodrow Wilson was concerned with the “Great War” (now known as World War I), which was consuming Europe and now involved the U.S., when a mysterious influenza began rampaging across the globe. Now known simply as the “Spanish flu”, the scourge afflicted some 500 million people and killed an estimated 50 million. Understand this occurred long before the jet age. According to historians, Wilson ignored the severity of the health crisis, even as it began taking lives here in the U.S., and vigorously pursued the end of the war. In April of 1919, he arrived in Paris for peace talks – and left sick with the very flu he never publicly acknowledged.
Once back home, Wilson was quickly sequestered, and White House press reports simply indicated that overworking had caused the president to come down with a cold and a fever. The Associated Press emphasized Wilson was “not stricken with influenza.” In the aftermath of the greatest conflict the world had known, the mere thought of the president contracting the dreaded flu surely would have sent the nation into a panic. So the true nature of his illness was stifled.
Six months later matters worsened for Wilson when he suffered a debilitating stroke. It’s plausible the flu exacerbated the onset of the stroke. Wilson never really recovered and would die in 1924. During the 18 months he had left in his presidential tenure, Vice-President Thomas Marshall should have taken his place. But, at the time, the vice-president was little more than a figurehead. In fact, throughout Wilson’s presidency, Marshall later claimed he performed “nameless, unremembered jobs” that had been created solely to prevent him from doing any harm to the nation as a whole. But, as history eventually revealed, First Lady Edith Wilson served as de facto Commander-in-Chief. She literally presided over cabinet meetings and other presidential duties; all while hiding her husband’s grave condition.
Just less than four years after Wilson endured his stroke, President Warren Harding suffered a similar event – but with fatal consequences. Harding and his wife, Florence, had just arrived in San Francisco after touring the Alaskan territory when he experienced a heart attack. Vice-President Calvin Coolidge was at his father’s home in Vermont; a dwelling without electricity or a telephone – not uncommon in rural abodes even by the 1920s. When word reached Washington of Harding’s death, two Secret Service agents got in a car and drove all night to Vermont to rouse Coolidge.
It’s difficult to imagine that now: a house with no phone and Secret Service agents having to drive to scoop up a sleeping vice-president. It’s equally unimaginable what allegedly happened in the days following Harding’s demise. First Lady Florence Harding charged into the Oval Office upon returning to the White House and cleaned out her husband’s desk; apparently removing a number of documents along with personal effects.
Secrecy has always been a part of any presidential administration. It has to be. And sometimes it’s mixed with basic respect for an individual’s privacy. Not until after Franklin D. Roosevelt died, for example, did many Americans learn he had been stricken with polio in the 1920s and was all but bound to a wheelchair. At the 1940 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Roosevelt fell as walked to the podium. Film footage of the event wasn’t released until a few years ago, and most convention-goers remained quiet about the incident. Footage of Roosevelt being wheeled onto the deck of a military vessel almost remained hidden for decades.
Most Americans weren’t aware of the severity of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s heart attack in the fall of 1955; the White House press initially disguised it as a cardiac event. As with Roosevelt, the American public bestowed respect for medical privacy upon the president. But when Eisenhower experienced a mild stroke two years later, some questioned his fitness for office. By the time he left the White House, he truly looked like the 70-year-old man he was.
Therefore, most Americans were thrilled when John F. Kennedy – the first president born in the 20th century – arrived. He wasn’t just handsome and charming; he was vibrant and energetic. Yet not until long after his death did the public learn that Kennedy had become addicted to a variety of pain pills to help him cope with both a back injury he’d suffered in World War II and the effects of Addison’s disease.
Kennedy’s assassination was the first since William McKinley in 1901 and his death the first in nearly 20 years. It had been a given that the vice-president would succeed the president, if something detrimental happened to the latter. But, what if something happens to the vice-president? McKinley’s first vice-president, Garret Hobart, died of heart disease in November 1899. McKinley didn’t replace him, even though he selected Theodore Roosevelt as his running mate during his 1900 reelection campaign.
The question of succession became urgently relevant on November 22, 1963. Many people forget that Vice-President Lyndon Johnson was in the same motorcade as Kennedy; a few cars away. When shots rang out, a Secret Service agent shoved Johnson to the floorboard where the vice-president began complaining of chest pains. That was kept secret from the public, as a horrified nation needed no further bad news.
Thus, the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was created. It established a definite line of succession to the office of the president, beyond just the vice-president. And it received its first real test on March 30, 1981 when President Ronald Reagan was shot just outside a hotel in Washington, D.C. Vice-President George H.W. Bush was aboard Air Force Two, returning to the nation’s capital, when a Secret Service agent informed him of the shooting. Back in Washington chaos rocked the White House, as the country felt the nightmarish echoes of Kennedy’s death.
A junior in high school at the time, I vividly remember the confusion. While most of my classmates seemed oblivious to the fact the president of the United States had just been shot, I was worried. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan more than a year earlier and were poised to invade Poland to squelch a labor uprising. As with rumors about the Kennedy assassination, was this a Soviet plot? I knew Bush was vice-president, but I didn’t know he’d been in Texas.
I remember Secretary of State Alexander Haig stepping into the White House Press room and announcing, “I’m in control here.” Haig was criticized later for inserting himself as the interim authoritarian. But, in a morass of hysteria, someone had to take command!
I also recall my mother sitting before the TV upon returning home from work that evening – and tearing up as news of the shooting spilled out. It took her back to that tragic autumn day in 1963, as she sat down to watch “As the World Turns” while nursing me, and Walter Cronkite suddenly interrupted to tell of Kennedy’s shooting.
The magnitude of the Reagan shooting didn’t come into full view immediately as news figures couldn’t determine if Reagan had, indeed, been shot. (It turned out a fragment of a bullet that had hit a car had struck Reagan.) The White House later concealed the seriousness of Reagan’s health in the aftermath. Days after the incident, Reagan posed for a photograph; clad in his robe and smiling. No one knew at the time he was running a high fever and almost collapsed once the picture was taken.
Reports of Donald Trump’s condition continue to flood our news feeds. We’re now learning that several people within the President’s inner circle have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and that the outdoor ceremony on Saturday, September 26, announcing Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, may have been the “super spreader” event.
Trump is now in isolation and being treated for the ailment. I don’t bemoan that he’s being treated with the most potent medicines available and has a complete medical staff around him. Whether anyone likes it or not, he IS president of the United States, and his health is extremely important. I don’t care much for Donald Trump, but I don’t want to see him get sick and die. I only wish the best for him in this crisis.
A couple of weeks ago I watched the latest documentary series by Ken Burns, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.” It focuses on the three most famous members of this legendary family: Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor. They are also three of the most fascinating individuals of the 20th century, and this series only solidifies, in my mind, a deep longing for similar people in public life today. The Roosevelts were much like the Kennedy family of Massachusetts. They were ambitious, assertive, intellectual and strong-willed. Their progressive ideals and bold honesty shoved the United States onto a (sometimes unwilling) forward track. Yes, they were wealthy and traveled in elitist circles. But, for the most part, they had overwhelming respect for their fellow citizens. They were committed to public service, not politics. And, as the United States stumbles from one crisis to the next in this strange, new world of the 21st century, I have to ask where are people like the Roosevelts and the Kennedys now?
The U.S. never has had a royal family. Our official founders technically escaped European feudalism because of the vice grips that small bands of inbred groups had on their ancestral homelands. But, I’d have to say the Roosevelts and the Kennedys come close to American royalty. The Roosevelts produced two extraordinary presidencies, and the Kennedys produced one; albeit a tragically short one. Yet, both families charted progressive courses for the U.S. that ultimately gave freedom to so many of their contemporaries and challenged future generations to keep America as a beacon of democracy.
I’ve always viewed Theodore Roosevelt as a personal hero. It’s odd, considering he had been a sickly child burdened with asthma. As an adult, he suffered from depression. Yet, he grabbed life by the throat and rung every ounce of energy from it. He was a ball of lightning; unafraid to take on the notorious bosses of Tammany Hall and the ruthless titans of industry. A nature lover, he established the national park system.
His fifth cousin, Franklin, and the latter’s wife, Eleanor, helped move the nation closer to racial equality than anyone had before. Franklin broke from family tradition when he accepted a post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913 in the administration of Woodrow Wilson. He ran for the vice-presidency as a Democrat in 1920. After losing that race, he returned to a simpler life, enjoying his family and earning a living as lawyer. But, in the summer of 1921, while vacationing in New Brunswick, Franklin experienced a life-altering event: he contracted polio; then called infantile paralysis, a frightening and debilitating scourge (usually afflicting children) with no cure or vaccine. Franklin never regained use of his legs and could only stand or walk with the help of someone or something. He persevered, however, and became determined to heal himself as best as possible with lengthy stays at a resort he eventually purchased in Warm Springs, Georgia. There he could languish in a pool for hours, which eased the agony of twisted muscles and constricted joints.
But, Franklin also remained committed to life as a public servant. In 1928, he ran for and won the governorship of New York state. Four years later he successfully ran for president. He ran three more times, holding the office for an unprecedented 12 years.
Like his familial predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t afraid to make bold decisions and launch big projects. Whereas Theodore took on various industries, such as oil and timber; compelled the U.S. Congress to mandate safe working conditions; and commence the national parks system, Franklin forced the federal government to take control of the slew of banks still faltering during the Great Depression; created the Civilian Conservation Corps; and introduced Social Security. Franklin’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, and Hoover’s Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, boasted typically conservative attitudes about business and the economy: government had no real role in managing corporations; if a company – or even a bank – got itself into financial trouble, it was incumbent upon that entity to get itself out of trouble. Franklin knew that was true, but he also understood the true scope of the economic calamity afflicting the nation in the early 1930s. People were losing their jobs, their money and sometimes their lives, as banks folded. The crisis was gigantic in scope, and the hands-off approach of the Hoover Administration only exacerbated matters. Roosevelt created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) during his first year in office; an entity that would safeguard consumer bank assets and – slowly – reinstill trust in the nation’s financial institutions.
After the U.S. became embroiled in World War II, Franklin’s health began to deteriorate. He hardly campaigned in 1944. But, he didn’t give up. He was determined to lead the nation out of the war. Sadly, he didn’t see the day when America’s enemies surrendered, yet he maintained a high degree of spiritual vigor. He didn’t stop until his body forced him to do so.
Eleanor Roosevelt triumphed as well on many levels, but not really until after Franklin died. Like most of her female contemporaries, Eleanor had few choices in life. She had to be someone’s wife or someone’s mother, but she could never be her own person. A niece to Theodore and a distant cousin to Franklin, she felt uncomfortable in the role of First Lady. But, once she realized how desperately poor much of the nation’s citizens were because of the Great Depression, she pushed her husband to enact the strident and controversial legislation for which he’d become famous; not being given even a smattering of credit for it, of course, until decades later. Almost accidentally, she also became a torch bearer for the burgeoning civil rights movement; knowing that all Americans – regardless of gender, race or ethnicity – deserved to be treated equally. Not long after Franklin’s death, Eleanor prodded his successor, Harry S. Truman, to proceed with establishment of the United Nations and, later, battled for the “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Her tireless efforts towards gender and racial equality made her an enemy of the staid social right-wing (even to the point of receiving death threats), but they helped her carve out her own legacy in the gallery of extraordinary Americans. “No one can make you feel inferior about yourself,” she declared in her book “This Is My Story,” published in 1939.
John F. Kennedy is another personal hero of mine, but not because he was the nation’s 35th president, or an heir to a prominent and wealthy Irish Catholic family. Like his older brother, Joseph, Jr., John Kennedy joined the military during World War II. Joseph was killed in action in August of 1944, and John nearly lost his own life in the South Pacific a year earlier. John had joined the U.S. Navy shortly after graduating from Harvard University in 1940. While commanding a torpedo boat, a Japanese warship rammed the small vessel. Despite severe injuries, Kennedy led other surviving crew members to a nearby island. His back never fully healed, and he suffered with the pain for the remainder of his life.
Before his stint in the Navy, however, John Kennedy attained a modest level of intellectual notoriety. In 1939, his father was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain. During a visit to England that same year, the younger Kennedy researched why the nation was unprepared to fight Germany at the onset of WWII. It became his senior-year thesis; a detailed analysis so well-received that it was published as “Why England Slept.” Kennedy launched the space race by challenging the U.S. to “land a man on the moon” before the 1960s ended – which we did.
Other giants of the 20th century shouldn’t go unnoticed: Wilson and Truman, of course, but also Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson. Wilson was reluctant to jump into World War I (then called “The Great War”) and envisioned the U.N., which he called “The League of Nations,” a multi-national entity that forced the United States onto the world stage. Truman integrated the U.S. armed forces. Eisenhower jumpstarted the interstate highway system. Johnson signed into law some of the most important pieces of legislation of the modern age.
They were not without their faults. Theodore Roosevelt was essentially a racist in that he believed Caucasians were biologically superior. But, one has to consider that he was a product of his time, so I think he can be forgiven for that. A lot of otherwise good people felt that way back then. Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were adulterers. Johnson may have been a modernist in regards to civil rights, but he also led the U.S. into the quagmire of Vietnam.
The closest the U.S. has to a political dynasty is the Bush family, which isn’t saying much. The Bush clan has produced two of the most dismal presidencies within a quarter century. Therefore, I lament the fact I can’t point to many notable political leaders right now. I placed a great deal of faith Barack Obama, when he first ran for office. Now, I’m disappointed in him. I know it’s not completely his fault. He’s dealing with an arrogantly recalcitrant Congress; a hodgepodge of right-wing extremists who are more concerned with banning gay marriage and instituting creationism into America’s educational curriculum than more critical tasks, such as punishing those responsible for the 2008 economic collapse and rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. I’m certainly disappointed in U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder who just announced his resignation. Our elected officials are wrapped up in petty battles with one another.
There seem to be no big dreamers anymore – and I don’t know why.