New Kids in Town: Kennedy, Nixon & the 116th Congress

By Kaleena Fraga

The 116th Congress, set to convene on January 3rd, 2019, is one of the most diverse in American history. One hundred and twenty-three members are women–the largest class of female legislators ever. Some are already social media darlings–Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has revolutionized communication strategies by using Instagram live to share her journey; Republican Dan Crenshaw became a household name after being mocked on SNL, then invited to the show to offer a rebuke. 

Certainly, as political tides shift and the gaze of the nation turns towards 2020 and beyond, there are names in the freshman class of the 116th Congress to keep an eye on. If the 116th Congress is anything like the 80th, freshmen members could one day  ascend to the highest echelons of American political power. 

Who were the notable freshmen of the 80th Congress? Among them were two future presidents–Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Up to their election, Nixon and Kennedy had led different but parallel lives. Both came to Congress as veterans of the Navy, as men who had lost older brothers, and who had grown up with domineering fathers. Nixon had grown up in a poor family; Kennedy in one of the nation’s wealthiest. Kennedy, at 29, was the same age as AOC. Nixon, at 33, was only a few years older. 

Nixon played an active and public role in the Alger Hiss trial, which would solidify his credentials as a staunch anti-communist. As a freshman, he also traveled to Europe with congressional colleagues to assess the damage in WWII, an assessment which eventually led to the Marshall Plan. Kennedy’s congressional career was much less publicized–he engaged in political battles of the time, but didn’t make a name for himself like Nixon did. 

Nixon and Kennedy, who would famously debate each other in first televised presidential debate during the election of 1960, would first debate each other in 1947, over the Taft-Hartley Act. The debate took place in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. The two freshman shared a meal after the debate, and rode the train together back to Washington D.C.–oblivious of their looming, shared future. 

Both men aimed for higher office. In 1950, Nixon went to the Senate. In 1952, Kennedy followed him there. From there, they followed divergent and yet corresponding paths. Nixon would be picked as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice presidential candidate in the election of 1952; Kennedy, struggling with health issues, had one of the worst attendance records in Congress, and lost his own bid to become Adlai Stevenson’s running mate. 

The rest, as they say, is history. Kennedy would best Nixon in 1960, in one of the closest presidential elections in American history. Kennedy won 49.7% of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.5%. Only 100,000 votes out of 68 million cast separated the two men. Nixon heard allegations of fraud, but declined to challenge the results of the election–although he nursed a grudge against the Kennedy machine for the rest of his political career. 

Kennedy and Nixon sought the highest office in the land only 13 years after their first national election. In a few weeks, the 116th Congress will convene. For all we know, the next Kennedy, the next Nixon, could be in their midst. 

America Needs a John Quincy Adams

By Kaleena Fraga

John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president and the son of the nation’s second, had a reputation as a prickly, aloof man. He was a one-term president and by no means a popular one–yet he came to be seen as a man of iron principle and honesty, even in the face of political pressure from his own party. Politicians of his ilk are largely missing from the political landscape today.

I: Switching Parties

Adams, the son of one of America’s most prominent Federalists, entered the Senate in 1803 as a Federalist himself. Yet he remained distant from his colleagues. In an era of hyper-partisanship in which Federalists accused the Republicans of colluding with France, and the Republicans accused the Federalists of colluding with England (sound familiar?) Adams stubbornly trod his own path. He supported both President Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and the administration’s hardline on England, which his fellow Federalists opposed. His father, former president John Adams wrote:

“You are supported by no Party. You have too honest a heart, too independent a Mind and too brilliant Talents to be sincerely and confidentially trusted by any Man who is under the Dominion of Party Maxims or Party Feelings.”

His stubborn refusal to fall in line with the Federalists, and his support of Jefferson, cost Adams his seat in the Senate, his place in the party, and many friends back in Boston. To Adams, it was a matter of principle, and a matter of what he thought was right and wrong according to the U.S. Constitution.

This sort of political courage is rare in Washington today. To be fair to today’s politicians, the landscape has changed. There is pressure from lobbyists, constituents on social media, and from within the party itself to toe the party line. Political purity tests are the cause celebre of today, and politicians that stray too far from the party line face possible challenges from the left or right of their own parties. It’s doubtful that Adams–with his iron will and stubborn personality–would be swayed. But it’s also likely that he’d never make it to Congress (or the presidency) in the first place.

II: As President 

John Quincy Adams’s presidency spanned a divisive time in American. After the relative political tranquility of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe’s presidencies–“the Era of Good Feelings”–, in which the Republicans enjoyed almost unanimous support, Adams entered office as the country’s political unity began to fray. The nature of campaigning had also begun to change–in the day of George Washington, a man had to practically be dragged to the presidency by his fellow citizens. In John Quincy Adams’ day, it was becoming permissible for a man or his friends to campaign actively.

The electoral system in America of the 1820s had begun to evolve as more states joined the union, and although there wasn’t a uniform way of voting, regular people had more of a sway than ever before. Adams’ political rival, Andrew Jackson, supported this democratic uprising. The fact that Adams entered office in 1824 under the auspice of a “corrupt bargain”–Jackson won the most electoral votes, but not a majority, so the election was sent to the House of Representatives where Adams was alleged to have struck a deal with Henry Clay–only increased the divide between the two parties.

John Dickerson’s piece for the Atlantic The Hardest Job in the World postulates that the presidency has become a beast unmanageable for one man, and that the current system of campaigning rewards skills that aren’t necessary applicable or important to the presidency once he/she is in the office. Campaigning rewards skills like charisma and debate; the office requires management and governance. Adams would probably agree with Dickerson–part of his cohort’s campaign against Jackson was that the fiery formal general couldn’t spell and lacked the necessary political experience to be president. Adams likely couldn’t be elected today, and perhaps was the last person to be elected based on political merits, rather than his power of campaigning. James Traub, an Adams biographer, notes of Jackson’s victory over Adams in 1828: “Of course, the whole episode was founded on the archaic assumption that Americans would not elect a man who couldn’t spell or hold his temper.”

III: Post Presidency

Adams served a single term as president–becoming only the second man to be voted out after four years, after his father, John Adams. But Adams refused to be cast into political obscurity. As part of his upbringing in Massachusetts, his parents had always encouraged him to find ways to be useful. “Usefulness” is also a reason James Comey invoked to justify writing his book after he was fired by Donald Trump.

When the opportunity rose for Adams to join the House of Representatives, he took it. Although many of his friends and family feared it would be degrading for an ex-president to join a lower chamber, Adams refuted this logic, saying it wouldn’t be at all degrading to serve “as a selectman of his town, if elected thereto by the people.” He joined the House in 1830 and would serve until his death in 1848–Adams literally collapsed on the House floor and died in the Speaker’s office.

As a member of the House, Adams took on slavery as his cause. Although he never labelled himself an abolitionist–at the time, abolitionists were hated by both the North and South as dangerous rabble rousers–Adams became a thorn in the side of the “slavocracy.” He insisted on introducing petitions to the House which raised questions about slavery–and continued to do so even after the passage of the gag rule, which forbid any such thing on the House floor. A rival Congressman once tried to bait Adams, reading back a line that he’d spoken to a group of black citizens: “The day of your redemption is bound to come. It may come in peace or it may come in blood; but whether in peace or blood let it come.” The Congressman read the line twice. He reminded his colleagues what this meant–emancipation and maybe civil war. Adams replied:

“I say now let it come. Though it cost the blood of millions of white men let it come. Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

Although the political climate was not at all amenable to this sort of thought–indeed, at the time such a statement was shocking, and Adams received his fair share of death threats–Adams never cowered from a controversial political issue that he thought was right, or wrong. He challenged the slavocracy as a Congressman and as a lawyer, when he defended the men and women of the Amistad and won their freedom. 

In today’s increasingly partisan climate, where politicians are falling over themselves to move further to the left or right in order to move up the ladder, a politician like Adams, who sticks to his principles even under immense political pressure, would be a welcome change.