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Nixon vs. Kennedy Debate Remembered

Thomas F. Roeser 14 October 2010 2 Comments

The Kirk-Giannoulias Debate: Part I.

The Nixon-JFK Comparison.

I looked at a replay of the Kirk-Giannoulias debate on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last night and was struck by the fact that the match-up shows the weaknesses and imperfectability of the human condition when squeezed by the vise of politics as nothing else has.
Nixon. A Success but Still Filled With Grievance.
Comparing it with the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon imbroglio which I have seen (in addition to its initial performance live) four times is fascinating. I am a great believer that experiences, good and bad, show up on people’s characters and faces beginning when they hit active middle age. In 1960 Nixon was 47, 5 feet 11 inches tall. 170 pounds, with wavy hair, brown eyes shaded by black, heavy eyebrows, a prominent ski nose, somewhat sagging jowls and a slightly protruding jaw—a face that narrowly missed being good looking. His health was generally adjudged as excellent but with a tendency to hypertension.

He had had a hard childhood, had once fallen out of a baby buggy, gashing his scalp on its wheel causing him to almost bleed to death during the hurried 25-mile trip to the hospital. A few years later he again almost died from a bout with pneumonia.

He had a remote father but dutiful mother except for one thing. She was overwhelmed by her anxiety for his older brother Arthur who was afflicted with tuberculosis, at that time an almost always fatal malady. Arthur died; then another older brother, Harold, came down with TB. Nixon’s mother was frantic and left the family for two years, taking Arthur to the warm, dry climate of Arizona while Richard remained home with his laconic and chilly father. Striving to make his parents proud of him and subliminally disliking Arthur whose illness took his mother Hannah away, Nixon resolved to make his parents notice him and become proud of him. He did so each summer by going to Arizona to live with his mother and Harold, working as a carnival barker for the “Wheel of Fortune” casino in Prescott. Harold ultimately died which re-enabled Richard to convince his mother that he was lovable. How to do it? He was a bust at high school football at Whittier where he was only a second-string tackle.
He determined to excel in his studies, which he did: also winning the school oratorical contest which enabled him to represent the West Coast in a national oratorical contest in a debate. “He had this ability to kind of slide around an argument instead of meeting it head-on,” said his debate coach much later. “He could take any side of a debate.” He was known as a Gloomy Gus, given to recounting how fate had dealt him a lousy hand. Feeling sorry for himself seemed to energize him, however. At Whittier College he graduated second of 85. He had belonged to drama and glee clubs and founded a club for fellow students of modest backgrounds called The Square Shooters to rival the elite kids who were known as The Franklins.
He got a scholarship to Duke University law school, helped pay his expenses by doing legal research for 35 cents an hour under a program sponsored by the New Deal’s National Youth Administration. He was elected president of his graduating class, graduating third of 25 students in the class of 1937. In the 2nd World War he enlisted in the Navy, rising from lieutenant j.g. to Lieutenant Commander, serving in non-combat duties at the Naval Reserve base in Ottumwa, Iowa, then as officer in charge of the South Pacific Combat Air Transport at Bougainville.

There he learned the art of playing successful poker and took his colleagues regularly, earning a bundle and sending it home. He learned early to ingratiate himself into the good favor of his superiors but inwardly he was filled with resentment for anyone who had iteasy while his life was filled with struggle.
The rest of his youthful life is well known, how he managed to “answer an ad” (really a contrivance for Nixon had been in touch with the businessmen who sponsored the ad as a publicity gimmick) for a Republican to defeat Rep. Jerry Vorhis (D-Calif.) in 1946 which turned out to be a moderate Republican victory year…how he landed on the Un-American Activities Committee of the House, skillfully interrogating Whitaker Chambers, then aghast when he learned that Chambers with his unsavory record of homosexual liaisons including a suspected relationship with Alger Hiss might have been lying about Hiss’s Red ties which would surely bring Nixon down….how Nixon despaired and turned against Chambers only to be stunned when Chambers produced the evidence, the microfilms which he had hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin on a farm. Buoyed with exultation, getting elected on the basis of the Hiss matter to the U. S. Senate in 1950….cutting a deal with Ike by double-crossing Warren so as to win the vice presidency at the age of 39.

Then the near repudiation of being the supposed errand boy for a group of California businessmen who had deposited a “Nixon fund” for him unveiled by the media as a slush fund, notwithstanding that Edison Dick of Addressograph-Multigraph in Chicago had done the same for Gov. Adlai Stevenson to help him with travel arrangements so he could get noticed by Democratic grandees. Followed by the weepy, lachrymose Nixon TV performance citing his “little dog Checkers” which outraged the mainstream media by outwitting their plans to do him in…the media hating him for supposedly crucifying “an innocent man”and key member of the elite establishment, Alger Hiss..

He showed up for the debate with JFK in Chicago as a crafty politician, adept at lies along with denials that he had lied, who had lied often to gain love to support some grandiose fantasies but most of all to prop up his ever-flagging sense of identity, grudging those born to wealth who had made advances on their connections, aristocratic blood-lines, elite schools and family wealth…filled with a blood grievance at the wealthy Brahmins like John Kennedy who had it so easy due to his inherited massive wealth.
JFK: Others Did His Thinking for Him—All His Life.
The Sen. John F. Kennedy Nixon met at CBS-TV in Chicago for the first of the Great Debates was 43, stood 6-feet ½ inch tall and weighed 170 pounds,strikingly handsome, with auburn hair, soft blue eyes and straight white teeth. His right leg was ¾ of an inch shorter than the left for which he wore corrective shoes to compensate. Unbeknownst to many, his health was poor. He suffered from Addison’s disease, an adrenal deficiency which was thought to limit his life span. With cortisone and corticosteroid tablets, its effects were controlled somewhat—but cortisone had the effect of ballooning his face on occasion which led to the false conclusion that he was putting on weight.

He suffered from chronic backache stemming from a football injury resulting in a pain he endured most of his life aggravated by the injury he received to his back in World War II. In 1954 he underwent spinal fusion surgery after which he developed a nearly fatal infection (he received the Catholic sacrament of Extreme Unction). He survived but his back pained him for the rest of his life, leading him to take pain deadening shots. When as president he was warned by his brother Robert that the shots could take his life, Bobby questioning what drugs they contained, he said plainly: “I don’t care if it’s horse piss. I can’t function without it. “

He grew up in comfort in Brookline, Massachusetts but in early youth his father become a mega-multimillionaire and so he summered in Hyannis Port, Cape Code and relaxed at the family’s winter home in Palm Beach. His early life was sickly and he was afflicted with a torrent of ailments—scarlet fever, whooping cough, measles, chicken pox, bronchitis, tonsillitis, appendicitis, jaundice and a bad back.
His attention to studies was lackluster as were his grades at Canterbury (Catholic) school in New Milford, Connecticut; Choate prep where he was more interested in pranks than study (there he was called by his classmates “rat face” because of his spindly appearance). He graduated 64th of 112. His father sent him to the London School of Economics where he contracted jaundice. He transferred to Princeton where he took ill again with jaundice, forcing him to withdraw.

He transferred to Harvard where he majored in political science with a minor in international relations. He was an indifferent student until his father made him his personal secretary as ambassador to Great Britain. He assisted survivors of the torpedoed liner Athenia in Glascow and wrote a senior thesis which was highly praised, The Inevitable Results of the Slowness of the British Democracy to Change from a Disarmament Policy—but it was largely ghosted by the embassy staff. Joseph Kennedy wanted it published as a book and hired The New York Times’ Washington bureau chief Arthur Krock to re-write it where it became a kind of sensation known as Why England Slept.

The book was hailed as an example of highly sophisticated thinking from a supposedly very promising young man. JFK wasn’t embarrassed at all with his unearned popularity as Old Joe later remarked: “My kids are the most ungrateful little bastards in the world because everything has been done for them.” But John did turn the $40,000 in royalties to a fund to rebuild the town of Plymouth, England which had been heavily bombed in the war. On the basis of the Krock ghosted book Kennedy graduated cum laude after which he did a brief stint at Stanford studying business.
The remainder of his pre-presidential life is well known…how he tried to enlist in the army in World War II but was rejected because of his bad back….how he was accepted for the Navy because his father pulled some strings…how he was commissioned lieutenant j.g. and get a commission as skipper of PT 109 with his father’s help once again…how while on patrol on Blackett Strait off the Solomon Islands his boat was rammed and split in two by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri on August 2, 1943, the crew tossed into the water aflame with burning petrol….

…how Kennedy swam four hours to safety towing an injured crewman by the life jacket strap gripped in his teeth…how they were discovered on Olasana Island by two natives…how Kennedy scratched a message for help on a cocoanut shell with a knife…how the natives delivered the shell to Allied personnel and the crew was rescued August 8, Kennedy receiving the Purple Heart and Marine Corps Medal with citation signed by Admiral W.F. (Bull) Halsey….how JFK’s father hired public relations counsel to publicize it, resulting in a story “Survival” written by novelist John Hersey for The New Yorker and a full-scale book PT 109: John F. Kennedy in World War II by crack writer Robert Donovan, a close friend of the Kennedy family.

More: how Kennedy was discharged from the Navy a publicized hero due to his father’s support…running for and being elected to the U.S. House as a certifiable war hero representing Cambridge, Mass. In 1946 with his family raising the campaign largesse…serving as a conservative Democrat attacking Truman for losing China…bucking the national Republican tide in 1952 to defeat Republican Henry Cabot Lodge for the Senate….

…ducking the vote to censure Joe McCarthy (a friend of the senior Kennedy) because he was in the hospital recovering from spinal surgery….enlisting his aide Ted Sorensen who wrote under Kennedy’s name Profiles in Courage….basking in the glow of a Pulitzer Prize arranged by his father…narrowly losing the vice presidential nomination in 1956….and benefiting from the family’s mustering of resources enabling him to win the Democratic presidential nomination almost effortlessly—over Hubert Humphrey—as result of the key West Virginia primary…

…all to the point where he faced Vice President Nixon in the crucial debate in Chicago at the CBS studio.


Tom Roeser, Chairman of the Editorial Board of the Chicago Daily Observer, follows up with an analysis of the Kirk-Ginaoullias debate.


  • Pat Hickey said:

    Splendid “Parallels Lives” once again from Chicago’ Plutarch -Tom Roeser!

  • Becky said:

    Wow, interesting info. I just finished reading a new autobiography about JFK, from the standpoint of his secret service agents, titled, “The Kennedy Detail” by Gerald Blaine. I love learning about JFK from all sorts of perspectives.

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