Special Report

Reagan’s Salute To JFK

A tribute to a fallen predecessor.

By 11.21.13

Reagan Presidential Library
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June 24, 1985. The home of Senator Edward M. Kennedy in McLean, Virginia. The event? An endowment fundraiser of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Present was the Kennedy “A-Team.” The host, of course, was Senator Kennedy. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was front and center with her two children, Caroline and John. Ethel — Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy — was there, her oldest child, daughter Kathleen, on stage with her. The audience? The men and women of the Kennedy New Frontier, the larger circle of family and friends. And, of course, wealthy endowment donors.

At the center?

President Ronald Reagan and First Nancy Reagan.

There was a reason for Reagan’s presence, a particularly touching reason at that.

In the world of presidents, since Franklin Roosevelt conceived the idea of the “presidential library” in 1939 and donated his presidential papers to the federal government along with part of his Hyde Park estate, the institution has evolved to become a presidential must. While presidents may disagree and even have once had sharp-elbowed rivalries (think Ford and Carter), eventually areas of agreement center around their libraries. Even now in the middle of the Obamacare meltdown, there is a battle brewing between the University of Chicago and the University of Hawaii to become home to the Obama Presidential Library. Chicago has dispatched its team to the recently opened George W. Bush library for a look-see and some advice, while Hawaii has sent its delegates to all thirteen presidential libraries to get the lay of the library land.

In 1985, the JFK Library had a continuing obvious problem. Every other library save FDR’s had a living former president to not only begin the process but to follow it through to completion. By 1955, with Harry Truman well-along on his library Congress passed the first Presidential Libraries Act which established the pattern of privately funded endowments joined with federally run libraries. The unspoken assumption was that at the center of the private endowment would be the former president himself. Using his network of supporters and friends to raise the necessary millions to, in effect, provide an eternal home for his presidency.

Among the many ripples of that day in Dallas in November of 1963, one was that the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library had lost its star endowment fundraiser. In fact, the library struggled, the site originally chosen by JFK himself getting swamped with objections from area residents concerned about traffic and tourists eager to see the now-martyred president’s library. Finally, a new site selected, the library opened in 1979, sixteen years after JFK’s death. At one point early on, to raise funds, the Kennedy family arranged for various JFK memorabilia to tour the country with the funds raised from exhibits going towards the library. When it opened its endowment was still at issue.

Thus it was that a 28-year old Caroline Kennedy, with her 25-year-old brother John, walked into the Oval Office in 1985 to ask President Reagan if he would substitute for their father and appear at an endowment fundraiser for the JFK Library. Reagan — the chairman of Democrats for Nixon in 1960 — agreed. In fact, his sense of history and personal graciousness had already led to two previous get-togethers with the Kennedy family.

Reagan had learned that Robert F. Kennedy had been voted the Congressional Gold Medal in 1978, ten years after RFK’s death. But with animosities rising between Ted Kennedy and President Jimmy Carter (Kennedy would eventually challenge Carter for the Democrats’ nomination in 1980), there had never been the usual presidential award ceremony at the White House. Long forgotten by most, for a brief moment in the 1960s Reagan and Bobby Kennedy were seen as potential presidential rivals. A televised debate was arranged between the then-Governor of California and Senator from New York, each in separate studios. The debate received all kinds of attention, with Reagan being credited with a victory and RFK allegedly grousing to an aide not to put him on the stage with Reagan again. RFK wound up running shortly thereafter, and was himself assassinated. Reagan never forgot. Newly installed as president himself and learning of Carter’s rudeness to RFK’s widow, the President promptly invited Ethel, all her children, and Ted Kennedy to the White House where Reagan made the award himself at a formal Rose Garden ceremony. In November of 1981 Reagan had hosted JFK’s 91-year old mother Rose for her first visit to the White House since her son’s assassination.

As Reagan’s speechwriter for the Library fundraiser at Ted Kennedy’s home, JFK fan Peggy Noonan would later write, that Reagan’s agreement to Caroline and John’s request was a gesture that was “typically generous of Reagan to show up at the competition’s blood drive.”

Here’s the video of the event.

Reagan’s JFK speech is worth recalling as the 50th anniversary of the assassination in Dallas arrives tomorrow. Among other things, he said this (bold print for emphasis):

One sensed that he loved mankind as it was, in spite of itself, and that he had little patience with those who would perfect what was really not meant to be perfect.

As a leader, as a president, he seemed to have a good hard, unillusioned understanding of man and his political choices. He had written a book as a very young man about why the world slept as Hitler marched on; and he understood the tension between good and evil in the history of man — understood, indeed, that much of the history of man can be seen in the constant working out of that tension. He knew that the United States had adversaries, real adversaries, and they weren’t about to be put off by soft reason and good intentions. He tried always to be strong with them, and shrewd. He wanted our defense system to be unsurpassed; he cared that his country would be safe.

He was a patriot who summoned patriotism from the heart of a sated country. It is a matter of pride to me that so many men and women who were inspired by his bracing vision and moved by his call to “ask not ...” serve now in the White House doing the business of government.

Which is not to say I supported John Kennedy when he ran for president, because I didn’t. I was for the other fellow. But you know, it's true: when the battle's over and the ground is cooled, well, it's then that you see the opposing general’s valor.

He would have understood. He was fiercely, happily partisan, and his political fights were tough — no quarter asked and none given. But he gave as good as he got, and you could see that he loved the battle.

Without saying it, Reagan was describing John F. Kennedy as a conservative. A man who, along with his entire generation, had seen evil close up, in JFK’s case almost losing his life to the forces of Japanese warlords while his older brother Joe did lose his, dying as his plane exploded on a mission to bomb Hitler’s Germany. A man who would never think of life or politics as a search for utopia.

Reagan also, as noted above, took special note of JFK’s effect not only on the baby boom generation but specifically on his own staff, saying that:

It is a matter of pride to me that so many men and women who were inspired by his bracing vision and moved by his call to ‘ask not ...’ serve now in the White House doing the business of government.

I was fortunate beyond measure to be one of those “so many men and women who were inspired” by JFK’s “bracing vision” who were working in Reagan’s White House, a portrait of my childhood hero JFK as painted by artist Jamie Wyeth hanging on the wall of my office.

For those not alive in the day, it is perhaps hard to understand the impact John Kennedy had on the baby boom generation. The inspiring words and vibrant personality holding so many young boomers rapt, then coming to a brutal end in sheer shock and horror. Television was still new, most of the country that had a TV set watching the four days swirling around the assassination in black and white. There were only three networks, and it was the birth of Walter Cronkite as America’s “Uncle Walter” — the father figure to whom it fell to announce with obvious emotion that JFK had, in fact, died. 

As with Abraham Lincoln almost a hundred years earlier, the late president was instantly a legend — his emotional hold on the American people so irrevocably sealed that much later revelations of womanizing, shady Mafia contacts, bizarre attempts to get Fidel Castro, and more bounced and still bounce harmlessly off the JFK legacy. He is to this day revered as one of America’s great presidents.

The impact on his death for the young baby boomer generation — kids like me — was searing, memorable, and irrevocable. All at once whole swaths of young Americans resolved to plunge into public service as some sort of tribute to the fallen young president’s call to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

I was one of them.

The child of conservative parents, already a JFK fan, I was, in retrospect, typical of the era. As the books on JFK began to trickle out and then flood the country, I bought them all, reading them from cover to cover. Most prized were the books from White House aides Theodore Sorensen (Kennedy), Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (A Thousand Days), and others from ex-political aides Kenneth O’Donnell, Dave Powers, and Lawrence O’Brien. There were the books from his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, and his old Navy pal (and Undersecretary of the Navy) Paul “Red” Fay. This initial wave was paced and followed by the inevitable coffee table photo books — large, unwieldy, and filled with photographs both black and white and color seemingly documenting every stage of JFK’s life, from his Brookline, Massachusetts birth to that day in Dallas.

Next came the books by the late President’s journalistic pals and admirers. The “authorized” William Manchester story of Dallas, The Death of a President, was written with complete access granted by Jackie Kennedy. Until, that is, she got wind of the actual contents of Manchester’s manuscript. Perhaps understandably refusing to read it herself, along with JFK’s brother Bobby who also refused, the Kennedy’s had designated trusted friends or aides to read it for them. Back came reports of the tensions between the Kennedys and LBJ, the revelation that Jackie was a smoker and more. The LBJ business was particularly disturbing. At that exact moment — 1966 — the popularity of President Johnson, elected in a landslide only two years earlier, was starting to sink. Robert Kennedy, now a Senator from New York, was on the rise. In fact, the tidal wave of emotion from the assassination had begun to make of Bobby something America would see more of in the future — a media cult figure. Any RFK appearance was accompanied by screaming crowds treating him as if he were one of the Beatles. It was highly unusual, and politically speaking it fueled stories of RFK running for president in 1968, when LBJ would presumably be seeking his second term. Stories the Kennedys were not ready to publicize in fear of presidential retribution against Bobby. So there was a spectacularly public lawsuit with the now-stunned author Manchester, once a Kennedy favorite who had written the admiring Portrait of a President when Kennedy was alive and had poured his author’s soul into the assassination book. Eventually the lawsuit was settled, the book emerging onto bestseller lists in 1967.

Not to be forgotten was Time’s Hugh Sidey, who checked in with John F. Kennedy, President, the book a loving portrait that ended:

He used to gaze beyond the waves from his boat, and would stare from a plane window toward infinity. Now he was there.

Over the following decades Sidey would keep churning out JFK books, authoring solo or with others Remembering JFK, JFK for a New Generation, Prelude to Leadership: The European Diary of JFK, Summer 1945, Remembering Jack, The Kennedy Mystique, The Memories: JFK 1961-1961.

All of the books were supplemented with long playing records. They were everywhere in record stores, and I bought them, listening for hours to the inevitable inaugural speech along with selections from famous speeches (“Ich bin ein Berliner!”) and the witty lines from press conferences that invariably had reporters howling hysterically. JFK’s favorite foil was the journalist May Craig, who, challenging him as to what he had done for women, got the reply that he was “sure it wasn’t enough,” and, as seen here when asked about civil rights legislation banning discrimination on a hypothetical “Mrs. Murphy’s boarding house,” JFK grinned slyly and said it depended on “whether Mrs. Murphy had a substantial impact on interstate commerce.”

Ironically, it was the media’s obsession with getting JFK’s old rival Richard Nixon that wound up shattering the cone of silence on the less pleasant goings-on in Camelot. With a no-holds-barred media now on a post-Watergate rampage, the actions of the CIA were called into question. Out of the blue this in turn surfaced the relationship of JFK with Judith Campbell Exner, and the assault on Camelot was on.

And yet… JFK still held a tight grip on the affections of the American people. And does so with many to this day, poll after poll over the years rating him as one of America’s great presidents.

The irony of that magic night at Ted Kennedy’s home is that Reagan himself is the president most often seen by the American people in the same iconic fashion as Kennedy.

There are the obvious differences between the two, and some similarities. One a Democrat, the other a Republican. One the youngest man elected, the second one of the oldest. Both were glamorous, the first was frequently said to have movie star looks and had his share of Hollywood pals. The second was a movie star and not only had lots of Hollywood pals, one of them, Frank Sinatra, was a close friend to both who performed at each man’s inaugural concert.

Yet it is with policy that JFK has generated so much interest as a conservative, and in retrospect it is no accident that all those young baby boomers like myself who had immersed themselves in all things Jack Kennedy inevitably moved from JFK to Reagan — and felt they hadn’t moved at all. Reagan himself, not to mention his friend and tax-cutting ally Jack Kemp repeatedly cited JFK’s tax cut as a key to the Kennedy-era prosperity. While JFK clearly fumbled at the Bay of Pigs, an event that some historians believe launched both the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, he certainly had his footing by the fall of 1962 and played hardball with the Soviets, getting the Cuban missiles removed.

In an interesting way, just as a young Ronald Reagan idolized Franklin Roosevelt only to be politically alienated by liberalism, so too are there baby boomers aplenty who came of age idolizing JFK only to become appalled at the post-Kennedy severe-left turn of Democrats.

Last month The American Spectator featured an article by author Ira Stoll, based on Stoll’s new book JFK, Conservative. “It’s time to re-evaluate” the Kennedy legacy, wrote Stoll — and he is correct.

No one was more aware of Reagan’s appeal to what were called in the day “Kennedy Democrats” than Reagan himself. In 1966 Reagan had won election to the California governorship in a million-vote landslide — with many of those votes coming from Californians who six years earlier had voted for JFK. Two years later in the 1968 Democratic presidential primary in California, those same Kennedy-Reagan Democrats pulled the lever to give Robert Kennedy his last victory on the night he would meet his own assassin.

Stoll digs out the political character of JFK that in retrospect so clearly drew young baby boomers like myself and eventually those voting Kennedy Democrats in California in 1966 — and by the millions across America in 1980 and 1984. “I’d be very happy to tell them I’m not a liberal at all,” Stoll quotes the new Senator John F. Kennedy as saying in 1953. With presidential policies that pushed “tax cuts…domestic spending restraint…[a] military buildup…pro-growth economic policy…free trade….a strong dollar and his foreign policy driven by the idea that America had a God-given mission to defend freedom,” Kennedy was nothing if not an earlier version of Reagan.

Stoll talks about JFK’s repeated references to “Christian morality” and the “right of the individual against the state” as well as his “attack on the ‘cynical philosophy of many of our intellectuals.’” As every school child out there in the Kennedy-era who, geek-like as was I, memorized the inaugural address, there were the multiple references to God — as in “Almighty God,” “God’s work,” and one more that was particularly important. That one reference more making JFK sound positively Reaganesque when the newly sworn President Kennedy says:

And yet the same revolutionary belief for which our forebears fought is still at issue around the globe, the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

All of this drew millions of young boomers to JFK in life (though not at the voting booth — we were, after all, kids) and to his memory ever after.

Ronald Reagan, of all people, was well aware of all of this. As mentioned, Reagan had been the head of Democrats for Nixon in 1960, skeptically viewing JFK as Marx with a great haircut. While Reagan was already well out there making his criticisms of government when Eisenhower was president, Reagan found out that the Kennedy’s didn’t take the same criticisms lightly. Years later son Michael Reagan would reveal that Robert Kennedy as attorney general had pressured General Electric to get Reagan’s GE Theater off the air to bring a halt to Reagan’s quite visible TV platform.

Yet as always, time moved on.

By the time Ronald Reagan was president himself, the “Kennedy Democrat” had effectively become what is now known as the “Reagan Democrat.” Reagan knew it, and had long since become friendly with the Kennedys. (Which is not to say that the Kennedys themselves agree that Reagan was a latter day JFK any more than they see JFK as an early Reagan.)

When the Reagan Library opened in 1991, JFK Jr. was in attendance. Indeed, on the night in 1998, with Reagan stricken by Alzheimer’s and unable to attend, the dedication of the Ronald Reagan Building — the last piece in the reconstruction of historic Pennsylvania Avenue that had been begun by JFK 37 years earlier — there amidst all the celebrating Reaganites with Nancy Reagan was…Ted Kennedy.

Fifty years after that terrible day in Dallas, America has long since moved on. The Berlin Wall that went up in JFK’s day came down shortly after Ronald Reagan stood in Berlin and, in Kennedyesque language, demanded of the Soviets that they “tear down this wall.” The economy that had thrived with JFK’s tax cuts thrived even more with Reagan’s.

Was JFK a conservative? After spending all those formative years immersed in the world of JFK, I certainly think Ira Stoll has it right — although his book is certain to set today’s liberals aflame.

But whether one agrees or not, it’s hard on this fiftieth anniversary of November 22 not to be wistful at Reagan’s closing words in his salute to JFK that soft June night in 1985. Remembering how great a role both men played in changing so many lives, my own among them, one re-reads words Reagan applied to JFK that now could easily apply to Reagan himself. Said Reagan: 

And when he died, when that comet disappeared over the continent, a whole nation grieved and would not forget. A tailor in New York put up a sign on the door — “Closed because of a death in the family.” That sadness was not confined to us. “They cried the rain down that night,” said a journalist in Europe. They put his picture up in huts in Brazil and tents in the Congo, in offices in Dublin and Warsaw. That was some of what he did for his country, for when they honored him they were honoring someone essentially, quintessentially, completely American. When they honored John Kennedy, they honored the nation whose virtues, genius — and contradictions — he so fully reflected.

Many men are great, but few capture the imagination and the spirit of the times. The ones who do are unforgettable. Four administrations have passed since John Kennedy’s death, five presidents have occupied the Oval Office, and I feel sure that each of them thought of John Kennedy now and then, and his thousand days in the White House.

And sometimes I want to say to those who are still in school, and who sometimes think that history is a dry thing that lives in a book: Nothing is ever lost in that great house; some music plays on.

I have been told that late at night when the clouds are still and the moon is high, you can just about hear the sound of certain memories brushing by. You can almost hear, if you listen close, the whir of a wheelchair rolling by and the sound of a voice calling out, “And another thing Eleanor!” Turn down a hall and you can hear the brisk strut of a fellow saying, “Bully! Absolutely ripping!” Walk softly now and you’re drawn to the soft notes of a piano and a brilliant gathering in the East Room, where a crowd surrounds a bright young president who is full of hope and laughter.

I don’t know if this is true…but it’s a story I’ve been told. And it’s not a bad one, because it reminds us that history is a living thing that never dies. A life given in service to one’s country is a living that never dies.

History is not only made by people, it is people. And so, history is, as young John Kennedy demonstrated, as heroic as you want it to be — as heroic as you are.

And so it is.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.