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Monday 22 November 2010

When It Became Dirty

Yesterday’s fascinating JFK: The Making Of Modern Politics, fronted by Andrew Marr, was for me must-watch TV, even though some of the detail of Kennedy’s march to the Presidency was a little short on the shades of grey that inevitably surround modern history.

Specifically, the idea that “dirty politics” started in 1960 should not be given serious consideration, and in this one need look no further than the Republican candidate that year, one Richard Milhous Nixon. He had been Eisenhower’s vice President since 1953, and his character had come under scrutiny over time, notably by Democrat challenger Adlai Stevenson in 1956.

In a speech given in late October that year at the Gilmore stadium in Los Angeles, Stevenson had been brutally frank about the then Veep: “Our nation stands at a fork in the political road. In one direction lies a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win ... this is Nixonland. America is something different”.

Dicky didn’t suddenly become Tricky in 1968: the idea that Nixon was some kind of innocent in politics does not stand serious analysis. Nor was the covering up of Kennedy’s medical condition – he suffered from chronic back problems, as well as having Addison’s Disease - an original act. Franklin Roosevelt would never have been a candidate in 1932, let alone President, had his disability been known.

And then there was Kennedy’s religion: no Roman Catholic had ever been President, and I felt that Marr didn’t sufficiently stress the size of the mountain that had to be climbed to overcome the prejudice that JFK faced. Many believed that if he became President, Kennedy would have a Vatican hotline installed at the White House, and would instantly do the Pope’s bidding on any matter in which Rome had an interest.

The truth was, as ever, more complex: the Kennedys were not so devout, and in New York, his eminence Francis Joseph Spellman was backing Nixon. The Kennedy clan did not forgive him: the day after the inauguration, JFK observed “... here is Kennedy, the first Catholic President, being inaugurated, and Cardinal Spellman is having to watch it on television”.

And Kennedy’s rivals in the Democratic party weren’t above playing dirty, either: the man who became JFK’s vice President, Lyndon Johnson, knew all about the Dark Arts, which in part was why he was thus chosen.

I’ll look at LBJ in a later post.

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