JFK predicted Donald Trump’s America
In Dallas, he was prepared to denounce “voices preaching doctrines out of touch with reality,” which he feared could “cripple the security of this country.”
He planned to say that “we can’t expect everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, to ‘speak common sense to the American people.’ But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.
It was to be a bold statement and a sharp warning, one that could have altered the contours of our national response to today’s violent and dissociated rhetoric – had he lived to deliver it.
We often look for the final words of leaders for a deeper meaning, a message to the ages. Although Thomas Jefferson’s last words were addressed to his servants in the early morning hours of July 4, 1826, and were not recorded, and his last recorded words were addressed to his physician, “No doctor, nothing more,” we focus instead on the fact that on the evening of July 3, Jefferson woke up and insisted, “Is this the Fourth? It seems more appropriate that Jefferson’s last words relate to the independence movement he helped set in motion exactly 50 years earlier. Of course, the reason we often take poetic license with last words is that people very rarely know what their last words will be, especially when death comes unexpectedly.
Regardless of whether the speaker knew death was near or not, we attribute to these closing statements a weight we otherwise would not have. It is perhaps because we have never heard these words spoken in life that we hear them more clearly in death.
The final chapter of my new book, “Undelivered,” which covers approximately 20 undelivered speeches of historical significance, examines speeches that Pope Pius XI, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and John F. Kennedy were working on at the time of their dead. .
Each has a powerful message for a future they wouldn’t live to see.
As 1962 became 1963, President John F. Kennedy was extremely popular. After successfully weathering the Cuban Missile Crisis, he started the year with a 70% approval rating. In March, he held a 67% to 27% advantage in the polls over the main Republican challenger, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. Kennedy was also a cultural phenomenon; about half of all Americans had seen or heard of a Kennedy impersonator. But, as the year progressed, Kennedy’s emphasis on civil rights began to take its toll. His popularity fell overall and plunged in the South.
By the time Air Force One landed in Dallas, Texas had become a major political battleground. As The New York Times reported in early November, “Even if Mr. Kennedy should strike out most of the South, he won’t strike out Texas’ 25 votes.”
Examining the documents that various administration and DNC officials submitted to speechwriter Ted Sorensen in preparation for the trip, one sees basic elements familiar to anyone trying to make a political point today: a memo policy update from the Democratic National Committee, an article on the economic situation in Texas in the Texas Business Review, and “administration accomplishments” documents for Texas that included public works spending statistics, helping small businesses; and advancing oil and gas leasing. Sorensen also put together a collection of “Texan humor” that Kennedy had requested.
In Dallas, Kennedy was ready to talk to an audience made up of several different groups. It included members of the Dallas Citizens’ Council and the Dallas Assembly, two groups of local business leaders and nonprofits, with another contingent from the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest. For speechwriters, such an audience can pose a challenge: how do you address your remarks to all groups while saying something meaningful to each?
Kennedy found his unifying theme in the “link between leadership and learning”. In words, Kennedy was to deliver: “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. The advancement of learning depends on community leadership for financial and political support and the products of this learning, in turn, are essential to the leadership’s hopes of continued progress and prosperity.
While previous speeches Kennedy had given and those he planned to give on his trip to Texas were generally professional, including lists of accomplishments and solicitations of support, Kennedy was willing to take a different approach with this speech. and this audience. To begin with, he relied heavily on national security.
To the extent that Kennedy’s last unspoken words are withheld, it is because of the powerful and well-publicized conclusion. Kennedy planned to end his speech with these words:
We in this country, in this generation, are – by fate rather than by choice – guardians of the walls of global freedom. We therefore ask that we be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may wield our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may realize in our time and forever the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men. This must always be our aim, and the righteousness of our cause must always underpin our strength. For as it was written long ago, “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman keeps watch.” but in vain “.
Yes, Kennedy wanted America to serve as a watchman on the wall for world freedom. But a closer reading of the speech and the circumstances in which it was written shows that Kennedy recognized and wanted to make it clear that the watchman on the wall cannot simply look outward to see threats to freedom – he must also watch on the inside the walls too.
Although the speech is remembered as devoted to national security, nearly half is devoted to a different concern: what Sorensen described as “the fires of rage” that burned beneath the surface of peace and American prosperity.
These fires of rage have come to light in an increasingly vocal right-wing effort to discredit and demonize Kennedy. One of the leaders of this effort was Edwin Walker, a former World War II general who helped foment riots at the University of Mississippi when the school tried to integrate by admitting James Meredith in 1962.
Walker also ran as a fringe candidate for governor of Texas. Using language similar to the attacks President Donald Trump and his supporters would wage on his political opponents half a century later, Walker said the civil rights protests in Washington and Texas were “pro-Kennedy, pro-Communist.” and pro-socialists.
As we have seen all too often recently, violent words are often a precursor – and provide a permission structure – for violent actions.
In fact, a month earlier in Dallas, Adlai Stevenson’s remarks were interrupted by Walker supporters who held American flags upside down (a tactic Walker encouraged), unfurled a banner that replaced the words Welcome Adlai by UN RED FRONT and attempted to drown. Stevenson’s words with noisemakers.
The scene is told in masterful and heartbreaking detail in the book. Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis.
As one particularly combative rowdy was escorted away, Stevenson called out: “For my part, I believe in the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of ignorance.”
It was an unwitting precursor to Kennedy’s language of the connection between leadership and learning.
After the remarks, Stevenson was spat on and a protester, Cora Lacy Frederickson, began hitting Stevenson with a large sign. He said: ADLAI, WHO ELECTED YOU?
Prior to Kennedy’s arrival, Walker and his followers felt even more emboldened. They distributed fliers accusing Kennedy of treason, being “soft” on communism, and “appointing anti-Christians to federal positions.”
Indeed, that’s why Kennedy began his speech with a statement about the importance of learning, hoping to remind people to tie attitudes and opinions to facts.
American leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason, otherwise those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain popular ascendancy with their seemingly quick and simple solutions to all global problems. .
If Kennedy wanted to talk about the important connection between leadership and learning, he also wanted to remind people how much leadership can be sacrificed when we turn away from learning and embrace ignorance.
And so Kennedy sought to address this dangerous, angry and violent dissociation from reality in his speech. He distinguished this kind of attitude from the constant complainers, the “dissenting voices” who “will always express opposition without alternatives, finding fault but never favor, perceiving gloom on all sides and seeking influence without responsibility”.
These voices of constant complaint, Kennedy was to say, “are inevitable.” While he accepted the inevitability of dissenting voices, he was more concerned with those who knowingly promote and spread lies.
But today, other voices are heard in the country – voices preaching doctrines out of touch with reality, totally unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice without weapons, that the insult is worth victory and that peace is a sign of weakness. At a time when the national debt is steadily being reduced in terms of its burden on our economy, they see this debt as the greatest threat to our security. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear these supposed hordes of public servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.
Revealing hordes of immigrants for hordes of civil servants (the debt update, ironically, remains as accurate and relevant now as it was then), and that warning rings clear today.
Ignorance and misinformation can cripple the progress of a city or a company, but they can, if allowed to prevail in foreign policy, cripple the security of that country.
Kennedy’s hope? “We can’t expect everyone to, to use the phrase from a decade ago, ‘speak common sense to the American people.’ But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.
Leaders play a role in increasing our awareness of threats and conditioning our responses to them.
Would Americans have sat up and paid attention if their president had pestered them to stop listening to nonsense?
Had Kennedy lived and won a second term, would he have made countering domestic extremism a priority – articulating the threat from within as clearly as he articulated the threat from Russia in his first campaign?
Of course, we cannot know.
But what we do know is that Kennedy wanted an America with fewer people listening and falling prey to nonsense. In his last unspoken speech, Kennedy left us with a warning against the kind of angry, dissociated rhetoric that is causing so much harm to democratic governments around the world and within them.