Category Archives: Politics

Kennedy vs Nixon…Politics on the Playground

I’ve always had an obsession with presidential elections. Putting aside any partisanship, I’ve forever been attracted to the pageantry, the excitement and the drama that is usually found during any typical campaign season. My love affair with elections began 55 years ago when John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon faced off in the 1960 race for the Presidency, the first campaign I was old enough to follow. Of course, when I say “follow,” do not think in terms of reading up on issues, studying the candidate’s stands on foreign policy and taxes, or researching the political party’s platform on Civil Rights…although the 1960 Election did play itself out at the grammar school level with as much fervor as there was among adults, the nature of the campaign among kids had a wonderfully innocent if not naïve feel to it.

Prior the entering 2nd grade, I knew little about presidents and even less about elections. I had heard about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and I had a vague awareness that the current President was a guy named Eisenhower, who was older than my grandfather. In the early fall of 1960, the kid across the street mentioned to me that the country was going to vote on a new President, and that it was probably going to be Richard Nixon, who was Eisenhower’s Vice President, and according to the young man’s parents, deserved the job. Our conversation was joined by my friend Scooter, who agreed that Nixon should be our next President, a feeling that shared by several more children who had joined in what was my first political discussion. Like many youngsters, I wanted to feel like part of the group, so I instantly became a young Republican, an affiliation that lasted for about 20 minutes. Arriving back at my house, I asked my mother if our family was supporting Nixon, a question that was answered with the quickest “no” I had ever received from my mom. At that moment, I heard the name John F. Kennedy for the first time, as my mother explained that the Daleys were lifelong Democrats. Since I always had faith in my mom’s judgment, I immediately switched parties, and have not budged since.

Democrats were overwhelmingly outnumbered on Pinehurst Court. Our neighbors on our southern border were registered Republicans, as were the parents of my best friend Dougie, both who hailed from rural Colorado. The only support Kennedy was receiving on my block came from the two families that sent their children to St. Dunstan’s, a Catholic school, which made sense to me once I learned about Kennedy’s religion. Everyone on Pinehurst seemed to be locked into the election with the exception of our northern next door neighbors, the Schribers, whose father was more worried about the possibility of election coverage pre-empting Roller Derby. But happily, Kennedy seemed to be polling better at Meadows School.

00010821The 1960 Election was debated furiously on the Meadows playground. During every recess, arguments over the merits of the two candidates would continue all the way to the bell, only to be picked up again the moment we all got back outside. Kickball teams were no longer comprised of the two 2nd grade classes, but instead were determined by political considerations. Games were now played between the “Kennedys” and the “Nixons.” As stated earlier, issues were not discussed, as the focus was usually on the candidate’s looks (a big plus for Kennedy) and their respective speaking voices (none of us were yet used to Kennedy’s Boston accent).  This went on for a number of weeks, until the middle of October when the Nixon campaign was rocked by one of the most vicious rumors ever thrown at a presidential contender, a game-changer that would do untold damage to Nixon, at least among kids.

It was less than three weeks before the day of the 1960 Election (November 8) that the word was being spread that should Richard Nixon win the Presidency, all children in the U.S. would be required to attend school on Saturdays, in addition to the existing five day schedule. Like many rumors, no one knew its source, but those who were passing it around seemed convinced of its validity. Looking back, you might ask if any of us thought to check this out with an adult, maybe a parent, or especially with a teacher, who would be just as affected by a six day school week as the kids would be. Well, no we didn’t, because that’s not how we operated. Urban legends that were embraced by children did not require input from grownups…we would process them on our own, thank you very much.

Needless to say, Richard Nixon’s support among seven year olds evaporated very quickly. Oh sure, there were a few hold-outs, but those were the nerdy little brainiacs who loved school, and were usually lousy at kickball. Meanwhile, at the other side of the Meadows School playground, my future friend John Arnolfo was dealing with an emotional struggle. A 5th grader, John was from a staunch Republican family, but the Nixon “school on Saturday” story had hit him like a ton of bricks. Swallowing the rumor hook, line and sinker, John made the difficult decision to break from his parents and jump aboard the Kennedy bandwagon. As he explained to me in later years, “Between five days of school, and church on Sundays, Saturday is all we had to look forward to…I’d sooner be damned than to give that up.”

nixon-lodge-litho-1rIn another part of Millbrae, another future friend was facing a dilemma. Jeff Banchero, a 4th grader at Green Hills Elementary was assigned by his teacher the task of delivering a campaign speech to his class on the behalf of John F. Kennedy while a fellow student would do the same for Richard Nixon. Jeff, aware of the Nixon “school on Saturday” rumor, was conflicted over whether he should include it in his presentation. Taking the high road, Jeff decided to omit the Nixon smear from his spiel, a decision he regretted when Nixon defeated Kennedy 15 to 14 in a 4th grade straw poll Jeff’s teacher conducted shortly after the two speeches were completed. I think we can all agree that a brief mention of Nixon’s so-called plans would have swayed at least the one vote Jeff needed to carry the day. Despite his failure to put JFK over the top, Jeff Banchero was bitten by the political bug, and eight years later would enjoy a successful run for Capuchino High School student body president…by all accounts, a clean campaign.

On November 8, 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected our 35th President in one the closest contests in our nation’s history. Although he finished second nationally, Richard Nixon did manage to carry California, San Mateo County and Millbrae by razor thin margins…no votes among the country’s 2nd graders were ever recorded. In 1962, Nixon ran for Governor of California, and once again the “school on Saturday” myth reared its ugly head, and although fewer of us were buying it, Nixon was defeated anyway by Pat Brown. Of course we all know that Nixon wasn’t quite finished…his 1968 and 1972 Presidential victories, as well as Watergate were still in his future. It was in 1972 that I was able to participate in a presidential election for the first time, casting a futile vote for George McGovern. That year, I heard no rumors regarding Nixon pushing for a six day school week, but I was no longer in elementary school anyway, so it would not have affected my vote…in fact by then, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

1960_electoral_mapNotes: My dad once told me that he’d “crawl over broken glass” in order to vote against Richard Nixon. Indeed, he had plenty of chances…starting in 1950 when he ran for the U.S. Senate, through two runs as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s running mate, one attempt at the governorship and three campaigns for President, Nixon’s name appeared seven times on statewide California election ballots (not including primaries). It’s interesting to note that it was only in his loss in the 1962 Governor’s race that he failed to carry California.

The Death of JFK and the Birth of Conspiracy Nation

As most of us know, this November will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and if you weren’t already aware, I’m sure you soon would have been, with the countless numbers of TV specials, newspaper and magazine articles, and new and reprinted books that will shortly be coming our way. A half century later, JFK’s murder not only the most significant event of my lifetime, but also a bonding mechanism that links everyone past their mid-50’s together for what can described as a national shared experience. But President Kennedy’s assassination did more than provide a moment where almost all Baby Boomers can remember where they were the very moment they heard about it…it also kicked off a cottage industry of conspiracy theories, available through several books and television documentaries. Share some time with ten 60 year old Boomers, and you’ll probably come away with five or six explanations of what happened in Dallas on the afternoon of November 22, 1983.

As soon as we heard the news that Kennedy had been shot, the world seemed to come to a complete stop. Coming back from recess, my fifth grade teacher breathlessly informed of what had happened, or at least what was known at that moment. Our principal came over the intercom and confirmed what we had just been told, and minutes later, relayed the news that the President had died. Over the next few hours, our collective energy switched back and forth between grieving and wanting to know the details of the murder. Before the sun set

 on November 22, 1963, we learned the name Lee Harvey Oswald, and were given a rough sketch of that day’s event at Dallas’s Dealey Plaza.

If we weren’t already in a daze, watching Jack Ruby cut down Oswald, live on national television really pushed a lot of us over the edge. Here we were, tuned in to President Kennedy’s funeral procession when the networks cut away to live coverage of Lee Harvey Oswald being transferred from Dallas police headquarters to the county jail, just in time to witness our nation’s first televised murder. Although Oswald’s death deprived us of what might have been the trial of the century, we were already being assured of Oswald’s guilt, and that his conviction was a mere formality. As a means to settle all doubt, on November 29, 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the “Warren Commission,” to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy, which resulted in an 889 page report that concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in shooting the President. Anyone thinking the Warren Commission’s findings would be the final word would be proven wrong soon and often.

The first notable descent from the “Oswald lone shooter” theory came from Mark Lane, whose “Defense Brief for Oswald” appeared in the December 19, 1963 edition of the National Guardian. The first Kennedy conspiracy book, Thomas Buchanan’s “Who Killed Kennedy?” was published in May of 1964. Before long, hundreds of books and even more magazine articles were written, usually taking issue with the conclusions of the Warren Commission. Terms like “second shooter,” “magic bullet,” and “grassy knoll” became familiar terms, as conspiracy theorists pointed fingers at a wide variety of suspects. The mafia, CIA, anti-Castro Cuban exiles, Castro himself, LBJ, the KGB and the FBI were just some of the individuals or groups who have been tied to the murder of JFK. In 1966, a New Orleans D.A., Jim Garrison conducted an investigation that led him to conclude that a right-wing extremist named Clay Shaw headed a successful effort to kill Kennedy, using Lee Harvey Oswald as a patsy. Although Garrison succeeded in bringing Shaw to trial, the latter was found not guilty in 1969. Garrison’s efforts were later the basis for the 1991 film, “JFK.”

Described as “the best photographic evidence” of President Kennedy’s assassination, the Zapruder film has long been the centerpiece for anyone studying the actual moment of JFK’s death. Although the footage, shot by private citizen Abraham Zapruder, provides a clear picture of the actual moment of the fatal bullet’s impact, it too, has its critics, going as far as saying the home movie has been altered in order to conform to the Warren Commission’s findings. Of course, the tampering of evidence and harassment of witnesses has always been constant theme. Jim Marrs, who wrote the book, “Crossfire” (1989) presented a list of 103 people having some connection to the assassination, either as a witness or possible suspect, who died “convenient deaths” within a few years of the crime.

Every aspect of the Kennedy assassination has been a source of controversy and disagreement among experts. The number of shots fired, Oswald’s marksmanship, the murder of policeman J.D. Tippit, and the legitimacy of Kennedy’s autopsy have all been called into question. To this date, it has been estimated that as many as two thousand books about the Kennedy assassination have been published, with 95% of them having a pro-conspiracy, anti-Warren Commission point of view. It’s no wonder that a 2003 Gallup poll reported that 75% of Americans do not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. And new theories continue to find their way into the national discussion, including the most recent one that suggests that one of the bullets hitting Kennedy was fired in error by a Secret Service agent…at least it’s described as an accident.

The popularity of Kennedy assassination conspiracy books sparked the beginning of what some have called “conspiracy nation.” Whether it was FDR having advance knowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or Hitler escaping to South America, it seemed that any published work offering an alternative look at any historical event would find an eager audience. Conspiracy theories eventually would attach themselves to practically everything, even the Moon landing, which some people believe was faked.

Being skeptical can be a good thing, and not buying into everything that we are told by our government is not only healthy, but sometimes necessary. On the other hand, to reject everything we see or read about as lies can only lead to a paranoid existence. If you provide a “9-11 truther” or an Obama “Birther” with overwhelming evidence that disproves their beliefs, they will simply expand their conspiracy theory to include the fabrication of whatever information you offered. But don’t get me wrong…conspiracy theories have provided me and others thousands of hours of fascinating reading, possibly the only silver lining the Kennedy assassination has provided.

Note: Although network television programming was immediately suspended upon the assassination, there was a lack of consistency around the country in terms of what events were canceled and which ones were not. On Saturday, November 23, 1963, the NCAA canceled college football games, while the NHL and NBA went ahead with their contests. The next day, the National Football League played all seven scheduled games, while the American Football League called their games off. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle later admitted that going ahead with his league’s games was a mistake. Out in California, Capuchino High School

went ahead with its Friday afternoon home game against Hillsdale, which was played about three hours after the President’s death. In Marysville, the Beach Boys performed a Friday night concert, as city leaders felt the show would allow kids to get their minds off tragedy for awhile. Brian Wilson later said it was one of their better shows.

Trivia: Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald had a direct influence on TV sports broadcasting. Watching Oswald’s killing on television, CBS Sports producer and director Tony Verna was very impressed with rival NBC’s use of replays during their Ruby-Oswald coverage. Verna decided to use the same cutting edge video technology two weeks later during the CBS telecast of the Army-Navy game. On December 7, 1963, after an Army touchdown, announcer Lindsay Nelson advised his viewing audience, “This is not live, ladies and gentleman…Army did not score again.” What viewers were seeing was the first use of instant replay.

 

U.S. Presidents… Can’t they all just get along?

Presidents Day always gives me a chance to revisit one of my first lifelong obsessions, studying U.S. Presidents. I first became interested in our Chief Executives in the third grade, and soon I was annoying people with my ability to name all of the presidents, in order, in less than 30 seconds (I could do it sooner if I didn’t have to name Grover Cleveland twice). I happy to say that my passion for the subject remains strong to this day, probably because a month does not go by where a new book or documentary is released, containing fresh presidential stories and facts not available to me before.

Lately, I’ve become curious about how our Chief Executives felt about each other. Since becoming president places one into a very exclusive club, you would think that a mutual admiration society would have developed. Although would expect that a certain amount of animosity would exist among those presidents that ran against each other ,careful research proves that there was often more rancor built between individuals who were never rivals for the office. One only needs to start with George Washington to learn of some examples.

Washington and Thomas Jefferson had what might be called a complicated relationship. Although Washington had appointed Jefferson as the country’s first Secretary of State, the two had major differences regarding the size and role of the federal government. During Washington’s second term, Jefferson’s frustration with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s influence over Washington prompted him to join forces with James Madison in founding the Democratic-Republican Party. Washington, who feared the development of political parties would eventually tear the country apart, was appalled at Jefferson’s actions. Jefferson resigned in December of 1793, and never spoke directly to Washington again. Assessing George Washington, Thomas Jefferson felt that the Father of Our Country lived a charmed life, taking credit for every success and letting others take the blame for any misfortunes. Jefferson also felt that Washington left the presidency at the perfect time, feeling that an economic bubble was ready to burst just as Washington’s second term was coming to an end. The break between Jefferson and Washington did collateral damage to Washington’s relationships with future presidents James Madison and James Monroe, as both men were protégés of Jefferson. Open criticism of Washington did not end with his fellow Virginians. During his final address to Congress in 1796, Washington may have noticed that the lone congressman from Tennessee, still angry over the Jay Treaty of 1794, was not applauding at the end of the speech. The congressman was, of course, Andrew Jackson.

Abraham Lincoln is, almost without argument, one of our greatest presidents, and has received praise from every U.S. President that has followed him. But what about the presidents came before him? At the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency, there were five living former U.S. Presidents. In the 1860 election, won by Lincoln, James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and John Tyler all supported John C. Breckinridge, while Millard Fillmore and Martin Van Buren cast their votes for Stephen Douglas. Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan were still around for the 1864 election, and all three voted for Lincoln’s opponent, George McClellan. Not only did Lincoln never receive the vote of an ex-president, but was also a constant target of their criticism throughout the Civil War, particularly from Pierce, who’s Secretary of War and good friend Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederacy.

We are constantly reminded of the current harsh tone in Washington D.C., but I keep coming across quotes by Theodore Roosevelt saying that William McKinley had the backbone of a “chocolate éclair”, Harry Truman calling Richard Nixon a “no good lying bastard” and Woodrow Wilson referring to Teddy Roosevelt as a “self-appointed divinity.” In 1994, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, spoke eloquently at the funeral of a Republican president, Richard Nixon. Compare that to what ex-president Andrew Jackson had to say in 1841, when William Henry Harrison became the first president to die in office…”A kind and overruling providence has interfered to prolong our glorious Union and happy republican system, which General Harrison and his Cabinet were preparing to destroy under the dictation of the profligate demagogue, Henry Clay. Fortunately, Harrison’s death put a halt to such dire possibilities.” Ouch! At least when Theodore Roosevelt died, Woodrow Wilson kept his glee private.

Note: Since President’s Day usually calls to mind our nation’s great presidents, it’s only fair to recall the lyrics to the song, “Mediocre Presidents,” introduced on “The Simpsons.”

All: We are the mediocre presidents.

You won’t find our faces on dollars or on cents!

There’s Taylor, there’s Tyler,

There’s Fillmore and there’s Hayes.

There’s William Henry Harrison,

Harrison: I died in thirty days!

All: We… are… the…

Adequate, forgettable,

Occasionally regrettable

Caretaker presidents of the U-S-A!