Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — John Kennedy’s Death

John_F._Kennedy,_White_House_photo_portrait,_looking_up

President John F. Kennedy, Photo from White House Press Office, Public Domain

I was in Ms. Adamiak’s fourth grade class at Washington Elementary on November 22, 1963 when we heard the news over the PA system that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. We were being sent home early that day, perhaps in the hopes that our parents would know what to say. But it seemed no one really had words that day, only tears.

I remember worrying about what would happen to the United States without a president. I remembered watching President Kennedy on our black and white television as he sought to reassure the nation during the Cuban missile crisis. I remembered him at the Berlin wall, confronting Communist repression. I remembered that inaugural speech and those ringing words, “Ask not what your country can do for you….” I remembered seeing him, so seemingly young and vital during a campaign trip through the Youngstown area a few years earlier. My mother assured me that Lyndon Johnson was now president and fulfilling the responsibilities of the office.

This hit Youngstown, as well as the rest of the nation, quite hard. Recently, I saw this media clip of WKBN interviews with people on the streets of Youngstown on that day. I remembered the day as cloudy and dismal, and so it appears in the video. It matched the mood as our hearts were filled with grief and disbelief.

This was perhaps the first national tragedy that had us glued to our television sets. We watched as Walter Cronkite wept. We saw footage of the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson, and of Jackie Kennedy nearby, still spattered with her husband’s blood. We watched the horse-drawn caisson bring Kennedy’s body to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda, the riderless horse with boots reversed, John-John saluting as his father’s body passed, a moment where the tears flowed again. And more horror as Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin, was himself murdered by Jack Ruby while cameras were rolling. Then, following a funeral mass, with the widow, Jackie Kennedy in black with her children, we watched the procession to Arlington Cemetery, and Kennedy’s burial.

We returned to school the next day. Life seemed to resume its rhythms. But I think for many of us who were alive at that time, something died in our hearts with President Kennedy–whether it was dreams of Camelot, of a better society with guarantees of civil rights, care for those in poverty, and technological progress captured by reaching the moon by the end of the decade.

In many Youngstown homes, and in my own room, you could find framed pictures of President Kennedy, sometimes cut out from a magazine or The Vindicator. I can’t remember doing that for any other president before or since.

The world changed that day. It seems that we took a much more violent turn that has continued down to this day, as it seems we rarely get much of a respite from another report of gun violence.

This is not a happy memory for any of us alive in Youngstown at the time. But it is part of our stories. We all remember where we were when we heard the news. This, too, was part of growing up in working class Youngstown.

“Johnny, we hardly knew ye.”

Review: Three Days in January

Three Days in January

Three Days in JanuaryBret Baier with Catherine Whitney. New York, William Morrow, 2017.

Summary: An account of the final three days of the Eisenhower presidency, focused around his farewell speech, highlighting Eisenhower’s principled leadership and contribution to the nation.

Dwight Eisenhower is the first president I remember. My recollections seem to be mostly of Eisenhower on the golf course. He didn’t hold the attention of this five-year old when he spoke. He faded quickly into the background when the dashing Jack Kennedy took office. His successors were much in the news in my growing up and adult years from the Vietnam war to Watergate and the pardon to the Iranian hostage crisis to “morning in America” to “shock and awe.” I didn’t think much about Ike as a president, probably more as the general who led us to victory in Europe in World War Two.

Bret Baier suggests that a re-assessment might be worth it. Behind the bland exterior was a president who ended the Korean War and presided over eight years free of war (if not the threat of nuclear war, which he skillfully addressed). He launched the Interstate Highway System revolutionizing travel and transport in America. He signed some of the earliest civil rights legislation (though many will criticize him for not going further) and balanced budgets. He argues he gave the right kind of presidential leadership to a nation weary of Depression and war.

Baier explores the life and contribution of this president through the window of his last three days in office beginning with his Farewell Speech, most known for his prescient warnings against the “military-industrial complex.” But first he goes back. He begins with narrating the meeting he had with recently victorious Jack Kennedy in early December, and Eisenhower’s determination to make a much better transition than Truman had in handing the presidency over to him, briefing the incoming president on everything from the policy apparatus he had put in place (which Kennedy dismantled) to world and domestic situations.  Significantly, he briefed him on a covert operation in the planning stages against Castro’s Cuba involving a landing in the Bay of Pigs. He warned against moving forward unless adequate leadership was in place. Kennedy mistook this for an endorsement of the operation.

Baier then recaps Eisenhower’s life from boyhood, to military service to his rise to the Allied command, post war activities, and his entry into politics as a very apolitical Republican (much to Truman’s disappointment, perhaps accounting for the frosty reception he gave Eisenhower).

He recounts the Farewell Speech itself, which he sees as modeled after Washington’s. He explores the writing of the speech and Eisenhower’s interactions with his speechwriters. He describes a relationship with Congress that was “interdependent,” striking because Democrats were in the majority for six of the eight years of his presidency. Eisenhower regularly hosted bipartisan meetings of Congressional leadership and fostering warm personal relations with Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson.

He describes the hostile global situation, particularly significant because of the chill in relations with the Soviets despite Ike’s efforts to pursue peace, recognizing the necessity of a strong deterrence. He had fought along with the Soviets against Germany, forging personal ties with General Zhukov, and hoped it could eventuate in a more durable peace, which was not to be. He goes on to discuss Ike’s frustration both with the false accusations of a “gap” in the arms race when the U.S. enjoyed superiority, and with his inability to find a way out  of that race, which he recognized an exercise in futility.

Finally, he turned to the “military-industrial” complex in which peace-time defense industries and their survival threatened to co-opt American foreign policy for its own perpetuation. He warned:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

The concluding section of Baier’s book covers the last three days. He discusses the thorough work Eisenhower did in planning the transition from his end to provide continuity and to allow the new president to be able to lead well from day one. He held a good-bye press conference. On his last day, he dealt with the huge snowfall that blanketed D.C. and prepared to greet the incoming president and for the handing off of power. He said goodbyes to the White House staff, met the Kennedys, heard Kennedy’s magnificent address, and then departed for Gettysburg.

He would meet again with Kennedy a few months later at Camp David, where he discussed the failed Bay of Pigs mission with Kennedy and helped him debrief that experience and consider how he would handle future instances of proposed actions. Eisenhower unfailingly offered his advice when sought, wrote his memoirs and enjoyed a resurgence of popularity until his health failed in 1968 and he passed in 1969.

Baier’s account seemed to me more adulatory than a balanced history. Yet he underscored several important points about Eisenhower worth consideration by our present political leaders. One was his willingness to work with the whole Congress and not just his own party. There was clarity about the common task they shared to serve the whole country, even while they differed at times how to do so. Country was always ahead of personal ambition. A second was the soldier committed to pursuing peace, perhaps truer to his Quaker roots than many thought him. He got the country out of Korea and kept it out of war, while never sacrificing a clear-eyed strong defense. And finally, he was a man of principle, not perfect but honorable. Baier’s point is that these are qualities that we should look for in all of our presidents, something I cannot dispute. The tougher question to my mind is, why don’t we?

Review: God in the White House

God in the White House

God in the White House, Randall Balmer. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.

Summary: Traces the history of the religious faith and presidential politics from the election of John Kennedy as the first Catholic president up through George W. Bush and the religious-political alliances by which he was elected to two terms as president.

One of the most surprising discoveries in reading this history of religion and the White House was how the religious lives and views of the Presidents were not a significant issue, with few exceptions until the 1960 election campaign between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. In this history, written in 2008, Randall Balmer traces the changes that occurred in presidential politics where religion became a bigger issue and religious voters, particularly evangelicals, became an important factor.

Balmer begins with the fears aroused in the 1960 campaign that Kennedy, by no means a fervent Catholic, would take orders from the Vatican. On September 12, 1960, Kennedy gave a speech [The text of this and other key presidential speeches referenced in the text are included in a series of appendices] at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas, that helped put this issue to rest. In it he said:

“I believe in an America that is neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish, where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source–where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials–and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

What Kennedy did was preserve the understanding of the relation of religious faith and politics that had been the status quo. Yet Balmer notes, a group of evangelicals led by Norman Vincent Peale, Billy Graham, and Harold Ockenga, convened first in Switzerland and then at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., to organize opposition to Kennedy. Kennedy’s speech, and the resultant backlash against this group’s efforts may have made the difference in this closely run election.

Later Graham mended fences and called on Kennedy and thus began a history of Graham’s involvement with presidents. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford were all friends with Graham, even while the role of religion in their presidencies remained subdued. Johnson’s Great Society and civil rights efforts certainly conformed to deep religious impulses even while his involvement in, and deception of the American people in Vietnam contradicted those impulses (even while being couched in language of “moral uplift”). Nixon held regular services in the White House, passed landmark environmental legislation, brought an end to the war, yet also perpetrated a great deception in the Watergate scandal, that embarrassed Graham who supported him and brought down his presidency. Gerald Ford was not a man to wear religion on his sleeve but his pardon of Richard Nixon may have reflected deep conviction and not mere politics, and that, along with the contrast between him and an openly evangelical Carter, probably cost him the election of 1976.

The Carter presidency led to the rise of the evangelicals as a political force as Carter spoke openly of his own faith. Balmer portrays Carter’s deeply principled faith combined with his ineffectual presidency. He also traces the rise of the religious right, galvanized initially, not by abortion, but by threats to the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of civil rights violations, laid at Carter’s feet even though it was during the Ford administration that these actions began. Only in 1980, as Ronald Reagan adopted a pro-life stance, did the religious right adopt this issue in alliance with Reagan against Carter, which became a litmus test for Republican Party candidates and cemented an alliance between evangelicals and the Republican Party, carrying through the administration of George H.W. Bush.

The Clinton administration simultaneously welcomed evangelical leaders to the White House, including various personal counselors like Bill Hybels and Tony Campolo during the Monica Lewinsky affair, yet pursued a decidedly non-religious agenda. The narrative then concludes with the George W. Bush presidency, marked by his open appeals to faith, his affirmation of Jesus as his favorite philosopher, his embrace of religious right culture wars issues, even while he countenanced water-boarding and other forms of torture in post 9/11 America.

In his concluding chapter, Balmer turns from the religiosity of the presidents to what it is that the American people look for, and what they overlook, in their presidents. It is clearly, at the end of the day, not moral rectitude. Jimmy Carter was probably the most morally upright of all, evidenced in his concerns for human rights, the Camp David accords and environmental efforts, yet we repudiated him after four years. We re-elected Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush despite personal flaws and deep moral issues raised by their policies. Balmer proposes that a more significant question than what a candidate’s religious faith is, is how does that faith inform their thinking on the national and international issues in which a president must lead. Is faith just a window dressing or does it provide a moral compass? This is a form of questioning that takes significant thought and attention, that cannot be summarized in a soundbite. Yet to do less, Balmer argues, is cheap grace.

Balmer exposes both the dangers of “religious bodies trying to impose their will” and becoming politically captive, and of politicians who pander to these bodies for their votes, even while pursuing their own ends. What is troubling as one reads Balmer is that it appears to me that we are even worse off today than in 2008. Religious groups are still trading support for influence even while candidates with deep moral and lifestyle inconsistencies appeal to religious groups for their support. Given the sorry history of these entanglements, I wonder when people of faith will repent of these political captivities to pursue a more thoughtful engagement with office holders and seekers. Sadly, it does not seem that 2016 is the year where we say, “enough”.

Further Up and Further In, C. S. Lewis

CS lewis smallIn the US, many today will be remembering the assassination of John F Kennedy. Indeed, the memory of where I was when I heard this news and the images of that weekend are seared in my mind. But another man died that day, C. S. Lewis, and the impact of his work has been far more pervasive in my life than the memories of JFK’s presidency and tragic death.

C. S. Lewis modeled for me communication of one’s faith in a manner that was logical, thoughtful, and connected to the experience of everyday people, even though he was an Oxford and later Cambridge don. It is an ideal I strive after in my own life, speech and writing, if poorly. Mere Christianity is a masterpiece of such writing.

Lewis taught me in the Screwtape Letters and elsewhere that one could use wit to convey a very serious matter, the warfare for our souls. In an age where humor has been reduced to the sexual and scatological, and thus avoided by most believing people, Lewis teaches us how it can be used redemptively.

Lewis was not the greatest fiction writer by any stretch and yet his children’s books and his space trilogy imaginatively integrate Christian themes into memorable stories. And who cannot forget delightful characters like Reepicheep or the nobility of Aslan. One of the best book discussions I’ve participated in wrestled with Till We Have Faces. The themes the havoc that can be wrought by disordered love is a cautionary tale to any parent or lover than one can love overmuch.

Lewis was also a fine scholar, writing a classic work on Paradise Lost, and a number of scholarly works. I am currently working through his Studies in Words, which gives one a great appreciation for the uses and abuses and changes in language over time. Lewis winsomely demonstrated how one could be both a fine scholar and a devout Christian at the same time.

So much more could be (and has been) said about Lewis! Perhaps it is simply appropriate today (and Lewis would like this!) to raise a glass, or fill a pipe, and give thanks to God for the life and work of this saint!

The Seven Percent Shift

I’m in Chicago at meetings the next few days so posts may be sporadic. On the flight up here today, I was reading more of Jason Merkoski’s Burning the Page and came across an interesting statistic.  He stated that there was a 7 percent shift from year to year in e-reader usage among the US adult population when the blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey  was published. Now I am a bit skeptical of this statistic which seems to confuse correlation with causation.

But books have been responsible for contributing to significant social change. One thinks of Uncle Tom’s Cabin of which President Lincoln allegedly said to Harriet Beecher Stowe upon meeting her in 1862,  ‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!’ I think of John F Kennedy’s Profiles of Courage and its influence on the generation of the 60s that thought it could change the world. Perhaps it is not so preposterous to think of Fifty Shades driving a change in the way we read…

What I wonder about though is what kinds of books do we read on e-readers? Stowe and Kennedy were not writing profound philosophy or great literary works but they were exploring elevated themes. I’ve not read Fifty Shades, but I gather it deals with an entirely different form of “elevation’! I can say I’ve read some fun things like Agatha Christie as well as serious works like Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow  on my Kindle.  But I’m probably not your typical reader.

I’m interested in what kinds of books people are reading on e-readers. Are they mostly used for popular works? If we read serious works on them, do we read them the same way?  For example, I notice e-readers are much less friendly to footnotes–well formatted ones hyperlink to them but many simply confine them to endnotes not easily accessed.

What kinds of books do you like to read on your e-reader, and what types don’t you read on e-readers?