On this morning, November 22, in 1963, President John F. Kennedy was riding to the airport in Fort Worth, Texas. He was asking both Governor John Connally and Congressman Jim Wright, along with him in the car, to explain why Dallas was so ferociously right-wing and the city he was leaving so reliably Democratic.
It was the kind of inquiry Kennedy had engaged in since entering politics in early 1946.
His curiosity that morning had a purpose, of course. Kennedy was trying to figure out how to carry Texas, a state he knew he’d need, along with Georgia, in 1964. The rest of the south, he feared, was lost that June night he’d called on national television for a federal law banning discrimination in hotels, restaurants and other places of “public accommodation.”
Houston Chronicle via AP
President John F. Kennedy shakes hands with supporters during his visit to Fort Worth, Texas, Nov. 22, 1963.
But let me recommend that we find another day besides today, November 22, to remember John F. Kennedy, a president so heroic that the American people chose him in a recent poll to be up there on Mount Rushmore with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.
How about we honor this beloved president, just as we do other great figures of history, on the day of his birth, in this case May 29?
After all, what we hope to honor is not his departure but his arrival, that and what he managed to accomplish in his short presidency.
In that regard, I can think of other dates we could mark to honor the 35th president, all of whom pay honor to what he did and what he was doing when he was taken from us.
How about March 1, the day he by executive order, created the Peace Corps, which sent young men and women like me around the world to help developing countries make their way?
Or May 25 when he set as a national goal the landing of Americans on the moon before 1970?
Or June 10, when he gave the "peace" speech at American University which sent such a positive message that Nikita Khrushchev had it broadcast throughout the Soviet Union?
Or June 11, the following day in 1963, when he gave his historic televised address to the country calling for civil rights, specifically the end of racial discrimination in the country's restaurants, hotels and other places of public accommodation?
Or June 23, when he gave the "Ich bin Ein Berliner" speech in West Berlin, the greatest speech of the Cold War?
Or October 7, when he signed the nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union?
Or October 28, when he ended the Cuban Missile Crisis and thereby avoided a nuclear war?
Or November 8, the day he was elected, the first Roman Catholic president?
None of these achievements would have been his had he not devoted himself to the unforgiving career of an American politician. It was a life he’d come to love and to nurture.
It began when he entered the race for US Congress in the old 11th district of Massachusetts. That was James Michael Curley’s seat, would later be my boss Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill’s. He was warned early it was a “personal” district where you had to know people and be comfortable with them one-on-one. Making the rounds, he got stern warnings about his chances. Forget about being a candidate, one local suggested. He’d be smarter to take a job as his front-running rival’s top aide.
“He is the first man to bet me that I can’t win,” he jotted in his diary. “Says I’ll get murdered,”
Jack would spend the next seventeen years proving that local fellow wrong. He learned the importance of starting a campaign early, the power of personal contact, the value of loyalty up and down. He took lessons in television performance, speed-reading, and, of course, public speaking. He studied polls, knew the issues, became an expert in world affairs. Along the way, he learned how to become in his words, “a total politician,” one who could move other politicians to take his lead, either through charm, intimidation or a mix of the two.
For seven years, from his debut running for the vice presidential nomination in 1956 to the end in Dallas, John F. Kennedy was a shooting star in American politics. He did it by mastering the craft of the modern politician. Right up through that ride to the Fort Worth airport, he was asking questions, quizzing colleagues, learning what he needed to know.
Why was Dallas so rabidly right wing and Fort Worth so “yellow dog” Democrat?
Jim Wright blamed it on the Dallas Morning News which just that morning had run a full-page ad calling Kennedy a traitor. John Connolly saw the reason in the contrasting economic structures of the two Texas cities. Fort Worth back then was all livestock corrals and factories. People tended to vote the way people working alongside them did. Dallas was all finance and insurance. Its people worked in white shirts and took their political lead from those working on the floor above them, the managers they wanted to someday be themselves. Interesting stuff, don’t you think, to a president trying to figure things out?
And that’s what Jack Kennedy was doing the morning of November 22, 1963, doing his job as an American politician. He was on the road, doing the work of an American politician. He had goals, as I said, and needed to be president to reach them.
So let’s remember what he tried to do and how he’d come in doing it, not the horror that stopped him.
As his Navy buddy Paul Fay once wrote, "We must never let his tragic death shadow the triumphant victory of his life."
Chris Matthews is the host of Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC, and author of "Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero."
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