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. 

Waiting In the Wings: LBJ, the Vice Presidency, and Odds

By Kaleena Fraga

Quotes abound on the uselessness of the vice presidency. John Adams once called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Hubert Humphrey once said, “There is an old story about the mother who had two sons. One went to sea, and the other became vice president, and neither was heard of again.” 

When Lyndon Johnson became Jack Kennedy’s vice president, after a long campaign in which he believed he would eventually pull ahead, Johnson looked to his odds. He had his staff look up how many presidents had died in office in the last one hundred years–five out of eighteen–and later told a journalist: 

“I looked it up: one out of every four Presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”

(This was not entirely accurate. Five out of eighteen presidents had died in the last one hundred years, but since 1789 seven presidents had died in office).

Johnson had heavily hinted about Kennedy’s various health issues during the campaign (Kennedy suffered from back problems and Addison’s disease, and in the waning days of the campaign Johnson described his future running mate as “little scrawny fellow with rickets.”) As such, although Kennedy was only 43 when he became president, Johnson may have felt his odds of succeeding JFK were greater given the new president’s many health struggles. 

When Johnson became vice president, only three vice presidents in American history had gone on to be president without the death of the incumbent. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Van Buren became president in their own right after serving under George Washington, John Adams, and Andrew Jackson, respectively. A former vice president would not become president again until Richard Nixon did so in 1968; a former vice president would not immediately succeed the president he served again until George H.W. Bush became president following Ronald Reagan’s two terms in 1988. 

Otherwise put, without the death of the incumbent, the odds of the vice president becoming president are not good.

Even with the death of the incumbent, the odds are not good. In all of American history only eight have died in office, half from assassination, half from natural causes. 

That is, unless you’re Daniel Webster. Webster turned down the offer to become vice president from two presidents–William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. When Harrison offered Webster the V.P. slot, he is reported to have replied, “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.”

Both Harrison and Taylor died in office–the first two presidents to do so. What are the odds on that? 

“Ich Bin Ein Berliner”: Kennedy in Berlin, 1963

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1963, John F. Kennedy addressed an exultant crowd of 1.1 million Germans–about 58% of Berlin’s population. During this speech, Kennedy would famously declare:

“Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was ‘Civis Romanus sum. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’ ”

These were words that he’d jotted down himself, moments before taking the stage. They actually weren’t in his prepared text at all.

jfk berlin

The crafting of the speech was an exercise in international politics. Kennedy and his team wanted to make a defiant statement on the Soviet’s doorstep–at this point the wall was only two years old–but without upsetting the Soviets too much. The first draft didn’t go far enough, and both Kennedy and the American commandant in Berlin found it “terrible.” Kennedy’s solution was to rewrite the speech by himself.

The famous line Ich bin ein Berliner later turned into a myth that JFK had actually told one million Germans I am a jelly donut, but this is patently false. The crowd gathered in Berlin completely understood the meaning of Kennedy’s statement–and went wild for it. In any case, although a Berliner is a type of donut in Germany, it’s actually called a Pfannkucken in Berlin.

The line was perhaps not original–it appears that the ex-president Herbert Hoover wrote the same line in a guest book in Berlin in 1954, although it’s doubtful Kennedy knew that–but it made a huge impression on both the gathered Germans and the Soviets, watching closely from the other side of the city. The Germans renamed the square where JFK had delivered the speech John F. Kennedy Platz after Kennedy’s assassination. Nikita Krushchev gave a speech of his own in Berlin two days after JFK, to a crowd of roughly 500,000 Germans. His pronouncement I love the wall did not have the same effect as JFK’s Ich bin ein Berliner. 

The memory of JFK is still strong in Berlin. The museum The Kennedys hosts the second largest collection of Kennedy memorabilia in the world, and plays JFK’s Berlin speech on a loop. It’s worth watching:

Eisenhower, D-Day, and the Two Notes

By Kaleena Fraga

On June 5th, 1944 General Dwight D. Eisenhower sat down and wrote a letter. It was the night before he would attempt the largest seaborne invasion in human history, and Eisenhower’s mind had wandered toward the looming possibility of a battle lost on the beaches of Normandy.

The invasion had been months in the making. As the crucial time approached, the date itself kept changing. Bad weather forced Eisenhower to postpone the invasion, and he knew that he had only a three-day window in June to launch the attack before more inclement weather arrived. Eisenhower’s blood pressure shot up as he subsisted on a diet of coffee, cigarettes, and nerves.

On the day before the invasion, Ike sat down and thought about what would happen if the invasion failed. He wrote:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Eisenhower then tucked the note in his pocket. He apparently had the habit of writing such “in case of failure” notes before invasions, and tearing at least one up afterwards. It was, as Jean Edward Smith noted in his Eisenhower biography Eisenhower in War and Peace, reminiscent of the same note that Lincoln wrote expecting to be defeated in the election of 1864.

“It seems exceedingly probably that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to cooperate with the President-Elect to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward.”

Yet with the first note weighing heavily in Eisenhower’s pocket, he penned another, a speech, which he gave to his troops on the eve of the attack. To his troops he said, “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in  battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!”

kay sommersbyOn the night before the invasion Ike waited with his personal chauffeur (and rumored mistress) Kay Summersby, who noted that the General’s “eyes were bloodshot, and he was so tired that his hands shook when he lit a cigarette.” Still, she wrote, “if Ike had wished, he could have been [with] Churchill…[and] de Gaulle…who were gathered just a few miles away in Portsmouth. But he preferred to wait in solitude.”

The invasion, although a success, cost thousands of lives. When Eisenhower found the note again he showed it to his aide, Captain Harry. C Butcher, who asked to keep it. Eisenhower, reluctant, acquiesced.

In the end, Eisenhower and Lincoln embraced a strategy of warfare perhaps best articulated by another American president, John F. Kennedy:

“Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The John F. Kennedy Edition

By Kaleena Fraga

Today would have been John F. Kennedy’s 101st birthday. There’s plenty to remember about JFK–his primary battles during the election of 1960, which changed how Americans judge presidential candidates, his inaugural address, in which he encouraged Americans to ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, his work on civil rights, and, of course, his tragic assassination in Dallas in 1963.

JFK continues to permeate American political life. It’s second-nature to most Americans to refer to a young, charismatic candidate as “JFK-like” and JFK has even become a political football in the #MeToo era, as his legacy as a womanizer is reexamined by some and defended by others.

But JFK’s influence was felt far beyond the borders of the United States. Today, the breadth of his legacy can be found on a quiet street in the city of Berlin, in a museum that takes up a single floor of an unobtrusive building.

“The Museum THE KENNEDYS offers intimate insights into the story of the Kennedy family, which, as Irish-Catholic immigrants with high aspirations, epitomized and exemplified the »American Dream.« The museum also focuses on John F. Kennedy’s campaign and President Kennedy’s visit to Germany at the height of the Cold War, as well as the myth surrounding John F. Kennedy.”

The museum plays JFK’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech on loop–a speech given two years after the construction of the wall between East and West Berlin–, and features artifacts and anecdotes from JFK’s Berlin visit.

After the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, THE KENNEDYs is the largest JFK museum in the world. It contains more than 1,000 documents, 2,000 photographs, and several hundred assorted artifacts. The museum’s focus is on JFK’s visit to Berlin, but it also devotes space to JFK’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, to the entire Kennedy family, and to a rotating special exhibition space which has featured works on American civil rights, and Obama photographer Pete Souza.

The museum purposely avoids the subject of JFK’s death. “We do not want to put his death into focus, but his life,” said Alexander Golya, a spokesman for the museum.

THE KENNEDYS certainly accomplishes this goal. And it accomplishes the depth of influence that an American president can have, even in cities thousands of miles away. In a nod to this the museum quotes Jackie Kennedy, who wrote in a letter:

“How strange it is. Sometimes I think that the words of my husband that will be remembered most were words he did not even say in his own language.”