DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Look at JFK

President Kennedy greets Dr. King
History often hinges on small, at the time seemingly insignificant, moments. Former President John Kennedy's adviser and U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania Harris Wofford believes that a phone call that then-candidate Kennedy made in a few weeks before the 1960 election qualifies as such a pivotal instance.

In 1960, Martin Luther King was in a Georgia prison, facing 6 months of hard labor for supposedly violating a parole law. His wife, Coretta, who was 6 months pregnant at the time, was terrified for her husband and reaching out for help. Wofford, who prior to joining the Kennedy campaign, had been an advisor to King, came up with an idea. Kennedy should call Mrs. King and convey his sympathy and concern.

Wofford knew that many of Kennedy's people would be opposed, so when he finally found himself alone with the candidate, he broached the proposal. Kennedy pondered for about 30 seconds, then smiled. "That's a very good idea. Do you have her number?" Kennedy asked. Wofford gave him Mrs. King's private phone number and Kennedy went to make the call.

As expected, many members of the campaign were furious, believing such a call in the racially divisive times would doom Kennedy, who was engaged in an extremely close contest with Republican candidate and vice president Richard Nixon. "It certainly didn't facilitate my relations with Robert Kennedy (Kennedy's passionate brother who was in charge of the campaign). The anger he showed that night still lingers in my mind," Wofford says.

But the call had a different outcome than feared. Earlier, King's father Martin L."Daddy' King Sr., one of America's most powerful black preachers, had announced that he was supporting Nixon because Kennedy was a Catholic. However, immediately after the call, King Sr. announced that he was throwing his full support behind Kennedy. "If he has the courage to wipe the tears from my daughter-in-law's eyes, then I have the courage to vote for a Catholic," King Sr. said. Based on the King endorsement, the black vote flocked to Kennedy and political historians believe that meant the difference in several states in one of the closest presidential contests in American history.

Wofford's recounting of the insider's tale came at a recent National Archives program John Kennedy 1917-1963. The program featured a showing of a restored 33-minute documentary released in 1979 by filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, which was commissioned to be shown as an introduction to the Kennedy Library museum in Boston. After the showing, Wofford, Kennedy scholar and a director of the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California Timothy Naftall, and Kennedy documentary editor Jay Lash Cassidy, discussed the film and the Kennedy legacy.

Cassidy said the biggest problem in making the film was the time constraint. "We needed to create an emotional life for John F. Kennedy knowing of the short period of time (so the film could serve as an introduction) along with a long list of accomplsihments," he explained.

Cassidy said that after fierce discussion, many events important to the Kennedy story couldn't make the final cut. ""You're not making definitive history so you have to pick your themes," the award-winning editor said.

Wofford praised the production, claiming it "brings Kennedy alive. There's a living sense of him. It's brevity reminds us of how short his life was."

Kennedy held a belief that an individual can make a difference and government can be a force for good in the world, Wofford maintained. "Maybe those ideas need to be replanted today," he said.

Wofford said he was always impressed with Kennedy's "coolness" under pressure, his keen intellect, and his desire to take on difficult problems. "He picked me up one day on a Georgetown street corner and gave me a ride in his convertible," Wofford said. "He said 'in 10 minutes tell me the 6 or so things that I need to do to clean up this Civil Rights mess.'"  Later, when the president found it difficult to end decades of segregation with a stroke of a pen, he would tell his aides "send them (the complaining parties) over to Wofford. He's the one who said that."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
It is one of the great what-ifs in American history - what would have happened if JFK had not been assassinated in 1963 in Dallas and had been elected to a 2nd term?  Well, Wofford, one of the few close Kennedy associates still alive, has his beliefs. "He would have found a way to get us out of Vietnam," Wofford contends. " Kennedy would have pushed through some sort of Civil Rights package, but it might not have been as strong as the one his successor Lyndon Johnson was able to produce as a tribute to the slain leader. John Kennedy was always interested in the world. Our foreign policy would have been much closer to the one of Barack Obama's (now)," Wofford concluded.

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