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JFK in the Senate

By (October 5, 2013) One Comment

JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidencyjfk in the senate

By John T. Shaw

Palgrave Macmillan, 2013


The title of John Shaw’s little soap-bubble of a book, JFK in the Senate (thin enough to tempt even the sleepiest of readers, and suitable for stacking in the gift shop of the JFK Library right between the PT-109 key chains and the plastic shamrocks), was the set-up for several unprintable jokes when it was heard on Capitol Hill half a century ago, but Shaw means it in straight-faced earnest, even though his own subtitle, “Pathway to the Presidency,” should have told him there’s no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.

Fresh from his terms in the US House of Representatives, John Kennedy ran for the Senate in 1952 against Massachusetts incumbent Senator Henry Cabot Lodge mainly by standing before working-class audiences at Elks Club halls throughout the state, hair tousled, brow furrowed, and hitting the same point over and over: “It is a gross betrayal of a Senator’s own constituents, when he has his head so high in the clouds that he has neither the will nor the time to look after the problems that cry for solution in his own back yard.” Lodge had been distracted from his re-election campaign in Massachusetts by his involvement in President Eisenhower’s re-election campaign; he was vulnerable to being painted as out of touch, and so Kennedy painted him, portraying himself – in moves carefully planned in his father’s New York office and his family’s Florida compound – as a grassroots Bay State stalwart. It worked, and JFK entered the Senate.

Which at the time was full of gigantic, leather-hided monsters, sodbusters and Dixiecrats, back-room crocodiles who had been ruling the Senate off the books and out of the limelight for over a decade, men like Richard Russell of Georgia, Robert Kerr of Oklahoma, Earle Clements of Kentucky, Republican standard-bearer Robert Taft, Styles Bridges of New Hampshire, and of course the biggest crocodile on the mud bank, Lyndon Johnson, the greatest and most terrible Senatorial power in a century. Into this den of old lions came a young, handsome, piping-voiced Daniel from Massachusetts, someone Johnson promptly took to calling (without always troubling to make sure reporters were out of earshot) “Johnny Boy.”

Shaw chronicles all this with the devout single-pointedness of a hymnist and the moral double-jointedness of a gymnast. He innocently declares that “Most historians and political scientists who have written about Kennedy refer to his Senate years as an interlude,” but not only is this not true (it’s not ‘most’ – all of them call it an interlude) it can’t be true if his saint’s life is going to have the bankable simplicity the American public demands of books it intends to give as Christmas presents to grandfathers it privately can’t stand.

It’s a rocky road to canonization, however, mainly because the junior senator from Massachusetts, his attacks on his predecessor’s indifference still ringing in his constituents’ ears, lost no time in displaying a stratospherically greater indifference than Henry Cabot Lodge ever dreamt possible. It’s a pattern so loudly persistent that it echoes even in the structure of Shaw’s book, out of whose eleven chapters only four are devoted to JFK’s seven years in the Senate. Our author fills out his billing with chapter-long digressions about Kennedy’s time in the House of Representatives, his authorship of Why England Slept and Profiles in Courage, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957 (again, the adorable innocence: Shaw confides in us that “journalist and Kennedy family friend Arthur Krock lobbied hard for Kennedy’s book to the [Pulitzer] Advisory Board. Kennedy’s father may also have weighed in with calls to members of the board”), his penning of articles for such publications as America (“a respected magazine,” Shaw says of a glorified Catholic church-bulletin even the Jesuits find embarrassing), and, in a downright stultifying chapter, his chairmanship of the so-called “Kennedy Committee,” a preposterous vanity exercise to officially name the five greatest senators in U.S. history (derided by one veteran newspaperman as “a god-damn Beautiful Baby contest”).

Such padding is necessary for Shaw’s purposes because JFK’s actual record in the Senate teeters drunkenly between scandalous ambition and hateful hypocrisy. The candidate who had excoriated Lodge for thinking globally instead of locally immediately began making speeches about Algeria, Tunisia, Poland, Indochina – and of course the non-existent “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union. The main occasion when Senator Kennedy talked about Massachusetts was when he betrayed its merchants and workers by reversing decades of Bay State opposition to the proposed St. Lawrence Seaway whose construction would decimate Boston’s commercial shipping. Shaw first paraphrases Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen as saying his boss could now be “portrayed as a senator who was determined to look out for the nation’s good, rather than be limited by purely regional considerations,” and then lays it on himself in virtually identical terms, writing that Kennedy’s vote “positioned him as a senator with a national perspective, willing to break from purely parochial considerations.” Of the thousands of parochial considerations who would lose their jobs over the next decade as a result of this perfidy, neither the senator nor his hagiographer has a word to say.

Shaw spends time on such things because it’s impossible for him to spend time on the things he’d like. On the major moral issues facing the Senate during JFK’s term there – lightning-rod issues like civil rights or the malevolent rise of Senator Joe McCarthy – Kennedy was figuratively absent (literally too: his attendance record remains one of the worst in the history of the institution; a big part of this was due to his chronic health problems – but a big part of it also wasn’t). He might have had strong personal views on the issues, but, as Shaw notes but does not condemn, his strong personal views were mastered at every turn by an even stronger drive:

Kennedy’s decision to act cautiously on civil rights legislation and on the condemnation of Joseph McCarthy revealed a calculating aspect of his political personality that frustrated some but persuaded others that he was a senator carefully cultivating his other ambitions.

Not ‘ambitions,’ plural – after narrowly missing out on the invitation to be Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in the 1956 presidential election, JFK withdrew to the Palm Springs compound (not to his Senate office, where only boring old work awaited him – his trusty secretary Evelyn Lincoln could handle stuff like that) and took a long, hard look at the political landscape, and when John Kennedy took a long, hard look at something, that something tended to yield secrets it kept from other men. He saw an ill, aging president, bumbling party standard-bearers, and noble but ineffectual aspirants, and what little patience he’d ever had for the kind of parliamentary power-gaming that animated Lyndon Johnson evaporated. He knew with pure, quartz Kennedy certainty that he could have it all:

Just weeks after the presidential votes were cast, Kennedy spent the Thanksgiving holiday at his family’s Palm Beach home and made the decision to run for the presidency in 1960. He reflected on his narrow loss of the vice presidential nomination in Chicago and was convinced that with four years of diligent work and careful planning he could capture his party’s presidential nomination in 1960. “If I work hard for four years, I ought to be able to pick up all the marbles,” he told his aide Dave Powers.

Those four years of diligent work at becoming president were also technically four years of being a senator, and even Shaw can’t avoid giving his readers the clear sense that Kennedy during that time couldn’t have cared less about his actual duties to his Boston constituents. “Interlude” is far too musical a term for the raw, opportunistic absenteeism that JFK pursued with laser-like concentration from 1956 until he achieved the White House. It was outright dereliction, of a type Massachusetts would see again in its senators and governors over the years.

“The junior senator from Massachusetts,” Shaw writes, “showed his colleagues, constituents, and the foreign policy community in the United States and around the world that he was a man of substance.” Shaw says his subject learned hugely important lessons while dawdling and skylarking in the Senate, although he at the same time quotes from ten different contemporary sources who say he remained studiously aloof from both the intricacies of Senate procedure and the men who had mastered them.

“He never said a word of importance in the Senate and he never did a thing,” Johnson said of him at the time, with witheringly typical flatness. But Johnson was wrong. JFK did one thing in the Senate – only one thing, but to him it was everything: he used it to become President of the United States. In that office he would realize a type and tenor of greatness that had little to do with anything he could have learned among lawmakers. His patient, patrician dedication to that ambition unfolded in an ultraviolet spectrum invisible to someone like Johnson (who paid dearly for it when he was forced to go hat in hand to “Johnny Boy” for the Vice Presidency). Too bad it was also invisible to Shaw, or we might have had a book out of it, instead of this incredibly belated campaign pamphlet.