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More notes on the "6th Annual Making of America Issue" of TIME Magazine, which features a "new take on JFK."

The special issue asserts that we have much to "learn from JFK." In addition to understanding "how to lead in a dangerous world," and "what candidates should say about faith," we can also come to understand, through a careful study of the 35th president, exactly "why civil rights can't be compromised."

I am critical of TIME and this project in terms of editorial judgment, methodology and objectivity. You may read those introductory comments and a skeptical appraisal of TIME's hagiographic depiction of Kennedy as a foreign policy visionary in my previous post here.

Part II (from the TIME headline): A Slow Road to Civil Rights:

"As President, Kennedy initially moved cautiously on segregation. But by the spring of 1963, he knew that more was needed."

Read the article (by Robert Dallek) in its entirety here.

Dallek's thesis:

"[The] Kennedys—John and [Bobby]—have been given too little credit for progress on resolving America's oldest and greatest social divide. Even if J.F.K.'s passion for the cause came late, it made it possible for his successor, Lyndon Johnson, a white Texan, to become the architect of desegregation."

Dallek, a noted public intellectual and celebrated biographer of JFK and LBJ, seems in a good position to offer special insight and perspective on this topic.

However, Dallek's account omits events absolutely essential to a full understanding of the story (events, unfortunately, that conflict with his thesis). His negligence is so egregious, in fact, that the narrative comes very near to historical malpractice.

Dallek rightly prefaces his reappraisal with the admission that "historians have tended to believe that little more than political cynicism ever animated John Kennedy's response to civil rights."

Dallek further acknowledges:

Kennedy was reluctant to support civil rights legislation before his election (Civil Rights Act of 1957) and afterwards.

Kennedy ignored civil rights in his famously idealistic stirring Inaugural Address.

Kennedy broke a campaign promise to civil rights leaders to sign an Executive Order to desegregate federally financed housing.

Kennedy pleased segregationists with his judicial appointments, most of whom were likely to maintain the racial status quo in the South.

In 1962, Kennedy offered only tepid support for a crucial demonstration in Albany, Georgia, and he tarried too long before intervening to protect James Meredith at Ole Miss. Then 1963 began with the President's flat refusal to ask Congress for a comprehensive civil rights bill.

Dallek rightly characterizes Kennedy as less than a "moral crusader" on the issue of civil rights, more interested in counting Southern votes than righting racial injustices. Dallek characterizes him, "more of a civil rights opportunist than a passionate convert to the cause."

But all that changed, according to Dallek, as a result of the "crisis in Birmingham, [which] changed his mind about the imperative of civil rights, and thus was born Kennedy's real legacy on this front." According to Dallek, the barbarity of the white power structure in Birmingham unleashed on the black demonstrators (attack dogs, fire hoses, cattle prods, etc.) precipitated a Kennedy epiphany. The South will never reform itself, Kennedy decided. "The only solution Kennedy saw," reports Dallek, "was a major federal civil rights statute that outlawed segregation in...public accommodations."

Kennedy then rushed to make a national speech addressing the crisis on 11 June 1963 in which he called civil rights a "moral issue" and proposed a bill, the essence of which would, indeed, become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Kennedy's heart, Dallek asserts, now "trumped any self-serving political calculations."

Dallek's glorious conclusion:

"Although Kennedy's assassination five months later deprived him of the chance to sign the civil rights bill into law, he had finally done the right thing. That its passage in 1964 came under Johnson's Administration should not exclude Kennedy from the credit for a landmark measure that decisively improved American society forever. Although J.F.K. had been slow to rise to the challenge, he did ultimately meet it. That gives him a place in the pantheon of American Presidents who, in his own words, were profiles in courage."

Wow! That is high praise worthy of Ted Sorenson.

What does this article neglect to mention?

1. Kennedy's "political calculations" were not wholly absent from these deliberations. Convinced that Barry Goldwater would gain the Republican nomination in 1964, the Kennedy brain trust was already writing off the Deep South. A civil rights bill was not political suicide for a campaign looking to win moderates in the heartland and cognizant that the formerly "Solid South" was increasingly hostile.

2. Kennedy's epiphany was less than complete. By the summer of 1963, Kennedy was convinced that nothing greater than a watered-down version of his bill had any chance in Congress. Moreover, the President used all his powers of persuasion (unsuccessfully) to convince civil rights leaders that a March on Washington in support of the legislation that summer was a horrible idea.

3. By the fall of 1963, the bill was dead. The March on Washington had been a monumental success (contrary to the President's pessimistic predictions)--but Kennedy had failed to bring Congress to a legislative consensus--not even the "watered-down" variety. With the election coming in 1964, a civil rights bill looked extremely unlikely for a long time to come.

The truth is that full honors rightly belong to Lyndon Johnson for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year. True, Johnson employed the ultra-emotional moment of national mourning to leverage Congress into finishing the work of the "martyred President," but credit LBJ, the former majority leader, for his legislative genius and commitment to securing these monumental steps toward equality.

Why did Dallek allow himself to be a party to this egregious mischaracterization of events? Good question. The events omitted in the TIME encomium are covered in Dallek's 2003 much-acclaimed Kennedy biography, An Unfinished Life.

A bad edit? I can only hope.

My worst fear is that Robert Dallek would be willing to pervert his sacred responsibilities as an historian to get along with the in-crowd.

As for TIME, my contempt grows stronger with each article. Next: "The Catholic Conundrum: Kennedy's 1960 campaign as a master class in how a candidate of any faith should address questions about religious belief."

Read my earlier critique (Part I) here.
I received the "6th Annual Making of America Issue" of TIME this week, which features a strikingly handsome portrait of John F. Kennedy.

An aside: please note the absence of any computer generated tears a la the Ronald Reagan cover from a while back.

The Cover Text reads:

What We Can Learn from JFK:

How to lead in a dangerous world;

What candidates should say about faith;

Why civil rights can't be compromised.

Quick Thoughts:

1. Before reading one word of the coverage, I was disturbed that TIME has now published six special issues celebrating essential Americans in this series, and they have not yet featured George Washington. All five of the previous choices have been respectable (Ben Franklin, 2nd year, and Abe Lincoln, 4th year, were stellar), but Jefferson before GW--and now JFK? Come on. Does anybody over there have any respect for American history?

An aside: The team at Newsweek seems to have a much better handle on the essence of our national story.

While I agree with TIME managing editor Richard Stengel's assertion that the study of history is a two-way conversation between the past and the present, I am always suspicious of persons who manipulate history as a cudgel to achieve current political goals. Without having read all of this issue, the exercise seems more concerned with exposing the faults of figures, policies and philosophies currently out of favor with TIME rather than offering a critical retelling of the Kennedy years.

2. I like JFK. I always rank him as an extremely talented president. However, he was only in office for 1,000 days. Yes. I understand his afterlife is more important than his life span. However, the list of untapped monumental figures who cast a shadow over the American political landscape is long and much more distinguished than JFK. FDR? Andrew Jackson? Ronald Reagan?

3. Even more disturbing, looking at the table of contents, the editors seem to be checking their healthy historical skepticism at the door.

First TIME Article: A Warrior for Peace:
"His Presidency included some of the tensest moments of the cold war, but he was convinced that our true power came from democratic ideals, not military might" (story here).

According to TIME, the 1960 Campaign forced Kennedy to play the role of a hawk on the Cold War, although he and his family had long since come to understand that war was unnecessary and "stupid." But facing Richard Nixon in 1960, who TIME calls "one of the dirtiest fighters in the American political arena," JFK decided to fight fire with fire. "Kennedy had no interest in becoming another Adlai Stevenson," TIME reports, "the high-minded liberal who was easily defeated in back-to-back elections by [a] war hero. JFK was determined not to be turned into...a punching bag for two-fisted GOP rhetoric."

So, according to TIME, Kennedy lied. Inventing a "missile gap" and disingenuously "championing the cause of the Cuban 'freedom fighters,'" Kennedy secured election, which TIME implicitly condones (a justifiable means to a necessary end). Once in office, the "Warrior for Peace" assiduously battled his hardliner generals to bring sanity to relations with our noble but misunderstood Soviet adversaries.

Embattled, the President leaned on his only two friends in the administration: his brother Robert and his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, who, like him, sought "non-military solutions" to the "most dangerous moment in human history," the Cuban Missile Crisis. While the Washington hardliners pushed for a nuclear showdown, Kennedy courageously resisted the intense pressure from his military advisors. TIME blithely accepts the speculation that only Kennedy's steady hand averted a catastrophe which would have reduced "a vast swath of the urban U.S. within missile radioactive rubble."

Of course, all of this is very much in dispute, and it also begs the question: would the humane Soviets leaders, who only wanted to do the right thing, really have brought down nuclear cataclysm on American cities and innocent civilians?

What of Vietnam? Again, JFK was caught in a vise between his insane military leaders and politics. With every intention of withdrawing from South East Asia after his reelection in 1964, the President let us get a little bit pregnant in Vietnam--but always fully understanding, according to TIME, that the war was unwinnable, and unalterably determined to get us out.

Later, according to TIME, "Lyndon Johnson was able to [disingenuously] portray his own deeper Vietnam intervention as a logical progression of JFK's policies." But TIME and Robert "McNamara know the truth: Kennedy would have withdrawn."

As proof of Kennedy's overall sincerity, TIME reports that his Soviet adversary, Nikita Khrushchev "broke down and sobbed [upon hearing] the news from Dallas in November 1963." TIME relays that Khrushchev saw JFK as "a real statesman" and together, Khrushchev believed, "the two men could have brought peace to the world."

Again, TIME feeds all their reportage through the assumption that Khrushchev was our friend and only Kennedy et al were wise enough to understand this now apparent fact of history. It is the same logic that credits Mikhail Gorbachev with ending the Cold War while Ronald Reagan looked on red-faced in his befuddlement and early-onset Alzheimer’s.

In a single declaratory sentence: This is bad history. SHAME on TIME.

The other pieces:

"A Slow Road to Civil Rights: As President, Kennedy initially moved cautiously on segregation. But by the spring of 1963, he knew that more was needed."

This also looks like a ridiculously facile and convenient reading of history--but it will have to wait until I have another moment to engage. As will the story on Kennedy's Catholicism, which also strikes me as overblown and too finely engineered to speak authoritatively to present politics. Until next time.
Unbelievable. The U.S. Senate has voted down the Cornyn amendment to bar terrorists and gang members from immigration amnesty. Story here.