Channelling George Washington: What if John F. Kennedy Had Lived?

tags: George Washington, JFK, Kennedys

Thomas Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in an ongoing series, Channelling George Washington. Mr. Fleming is on the advisory board of HNN.

This is another installment in the series of interviews with George Washington that have enlivened HNN for over two years.

"It's time we had a talk."

"It's been a while since I heard from you, Mr. President."

"I've been trying to avoid discussing American politics with anyone. I feel so sorry for Barack Obama. He's having second term-itis."

"You make it sound like a disease!"

"It is, sort of. It's happened to president after president, starting with me. My second term was a virtual hell on earth. In dozens of newspapers and in Congress, I was denounced, sneered at and derided as a combination traitor, idiot and fraud. One editor drank a public toast to the 'speedy death of President Washington.'"

"What did you do wrong?"

"I kept us out of the war between England and France. Tom Jefferson had persuaded the idiot fifty percent of the country we should get into it on behalf of his beloved French Revolution."

"You say this sort of thing happened to other presidents?"

"In spades. Tom J's second term was such a disaster, he basically quit his job and let Jemmy Madison run the country for the last six months of his stay in the White House. Frank Roosevelt got carried away by his huge reelection majority and tried to pack the Supreme Court. Instead he started another depression in 1937. Harry Truman jumped into the Korean War with both feet and wound up with a poll rating of twenty percent. Dick Nixon almost got impeached and had to resign for playing games with the Watergate election spies and lying to cover up for them. Ronnie Reagan got mixed up with the wacko politics of Central America and soon had his own aides writing books against him. Bill Clinton got impeached and should have been convicted for lying about 'not [having] sexual relations with that woman.' I could go on all night."

"I'm convinced, Mr. President. Someone should write a book about second term-itis!"

"This gets us by way of a not entirely inappropriate detour to a talk I recently had with Jack Kennedy. The fiftieth anniversary of his assassination is coming up fast and books are pouring from the presses. Most of them aren't worth much, in Jack's opinion. He's especially annoyed by an historian named Robert Dallek. He keeps telling everyone that Jack would never have stayed in Vietnam, and gotten us stuck in the so-called quagmire with its demonstrations and disillusions at home."

"What does President Kennedy say he would have done?"

"He would have stayed in the game and won the war. He wouldn't have put up with the half-baked halfway tactics of 'Westy' Westmoreland and Robert MacNamara in 1964 when his reelection was at stake. Jack would have closed Haiphong harbor and bombed the overconfidence out of North Vietnam six years before Dick Nixon finally got up the nerve to do it. Today, South Vietnam would be a prosperous democracy like South Korea, putting the Communist lamebrains in the north to shame."

"What does Mr. Kennedy think of other recent books published about him?"

"They're all flawed because he doesn't fit into either of the standard current labels, liberal or conservative. Most of the time, his instincts were conservative. Could anyone be surprised by this, if they take a good look at his father, Joe? He loathed FDR. He hated his fake liberalism, which, among other things, abandoned black Americans to southern Democratic conservatives. As president, Jack never bought Franklin's spend-and-spend approach to government. The Kennedy administration cut taxes and domestic spending and focused on a strong dollar. His foreign policy was committed to a defense of freedom. He really meant that great inaugural address, in which he declared America would 'pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.'"

"That was his Irish American heritage speaking!"

"A fascinating idea. I don't think enough thought has been given to it. In my day, too, the American Irish were passionate defenders of liberty. A third of my Continental Army was Irish."

"Did you ask JFK about the Bay of Pigs?"

"I didn't have to. He brought it up. That's where he learned to distrust liberals. Adlai Stevenson, who had lost two runs for president on the Democratic ticket, was in his administration. In those early days he saw himself as a wiser older voice, a sort of president in the wings, like William Seward fancied himself with Abe Lincoln. Adlai persuaded Jack to cancel Navy air cover for the Cuban Liberation Army. He said the United States shouldn't be guilty of such an aggressive act. That left Castro free to pound the Cuban invaders from the air with his half dozen antiquated bombers, wrecking their morale. If JFK had let the Navy fighter planes blow those bombers away, today Fidel Castro would be nothing more than an afterthought, rather than a walking talking disease of the public mind who's condemned his own country to a half century of misery and is still infecting South America."

"Is this why President Kennedy relied so heavily on his brother, Robert Kennedy, in the Cuban Missile Crisis?"

"I suspect that was the explanation. That's where Jack proved he was a mature president, who could choose between harsh alternatives and accept a compromise that enabled America and the rest of the world to avoid a destructive war. I did the same thing when I signed an imperfect treaty with England in 1794."

"Would President Kennedy have suffered from second term-itis if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed?"

"I think he's one president who could have avoided that plague. Jack was so young when he got to the White House, he had barely mastered the presidency when that bullet struck him down. I'm convinced that in a second term he would have coped with Vietnam and civil rights for black Americans without surrendering an iota of his popularity. When he talked about freedom and its burdens and rewards, the whole world listened."

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