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Beacon On the Hill or the Heart and Soul of Darkness?

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'Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy at Madame Tussaud's London'
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by John Kendall Hawkins

I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.

- Henry Kissinger, 40 Committee meeting, June 27, 1970, cited in The Price of Power by Seymour Hersh

When I was a boy, capitalism didn't mean very much to me. I didn't always have three squares or a regular roof over my head, but I never got around to blaming capitalism for my poverty. I didn't know what the word meant as a child, and nobody brought it up. In a foster home when I was nine, I was forced to go to catechism classes in preparation for First Communion, but never had to attend a "cappie" class.

Things started looking up one Christmas, when I received a much beloved Johnny 7 multiple f*ck-with plastic gun. There were woods nearby and I would frolic for hours, pretending to be on horseback, in search of baddies, who often looked like my foster father, a man who watched Lawrence Welk religiously and was quick to take off his belt and chase me for the smallest infractions of tongue. After he caught me, and beat me, he would put me up in the attic bedroom to weep myself to sleep. A drawer next to the bed held a cache of Liberty silver dollars, which went toward my recess funds that year. Looking back, I do now see capitalism in there somewhere; certainly my boy buns were colonized by a brute force.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I'm an old fart, and a sentimentalist to boot (remember how that ends for Bogie in Casablanca?; gotta watch a surplus of the syrup if you want to keep your Ideal Feminine afloat) and I found myself (pats himself to be sure he's still here) listening to an old John F. Kennedy speech. No, not the fuckin' do 'unto your country before it has a chance to do unto you' speech that so many libertarians feed their resentment with. Nor the men on the moon by the end of the decade "because we can" speech. But one far more important to our time now than any of the other speeches folks wrote for him back then (I lived with a Groton family whose Head wrote speeches for JFK). This speech or, as he referred to it, "remarks," was titled "The President and the Press," and runs about 20 minutes long. [embedded below]

His prepared remarks flatter the ear with his genuinely bright and sassy trademark humor. He plays the Press, makes them laugh heartily at times raising the usual tension between the executive and hound dogs of journalism. He didn't even have to bring up drones -- or, back then, carpet bombing -- to threaten citizens with a vendetta if they ogled his loved ones. (Apparently, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki must have had a real crush on Sasha when Barry White smote him with hellfire. Missiles.)

Democratic presidents since Kennedy seem to have self-deprecation down: aside from Barry's knee-slappers, we had LBJ, who allegedly went around the White House exposing himself and saying, "This is why," women swooning, butlers defenestrating themselves into the Rose Garden; Bill Clinton reportedly wore his jazz shades when interns took turns playing "Blind Willy Leaps" on his sexophone (Clinton's nickname was Willy); even Jimmy Carter found it necessary to expose us to his penis butter by confessing to lust in heart in an interview for Playboy magazine -- just before his would-be re-erection. And this is our Lesser of Two Evils system: Evil Repugs or Dem guys.

Anyway, getting back to Jack, no slouch in the sack, according to myriad accounts of midnight trysts in his bungalow on the Potomac; the Press, even back then, had a key responsibility to be extraordinarily 'judicious' in its reporting. He knew how the Press would see that remark and was quick to soften them up with an anecdote about the Commies with whom the Cappies were in the midst of a dubious battle. It's worth considering the anecdote in its entirety, both for its humor and its parable power:

You remember may remember that in 1851, New York Herald Tribune under the sponsorship and publishing of Horace Greeley, employed as its London correspondent, an obscure journalist by the name of Karl Marx, we are told that foreign correspondent Mark Stone broke and with a family ill and undernourished, constantly appealed to Greeley and managing editor Charles Dana for an increase in his munificent salary of $5 per installment, a salary which he and Engels ungratefully labeled as the lousiest petty bourgeois cheating. But when all his financial appeals were refused, Marx looked around for other means of livelihood and fame, eventually terminating his relationship with the Tribune and devoting his talents full time to the cause that would bequeathed to the world the seeds of Leninism, Stalinism, Revolution, and the Cold War. If only this capitalistic New York newspaper had treated him more kindly, if only Marx had remained a foreign correspondent, History might have been different and I hope all publishers will bear this lesson in mind the next time they receive a poverty stricken appeal from a small increase in the expense account from an obscure newspaper man.

Fair enough to say, they don't deliver remarks, written for them, like that any more. But, going the other way, the speech then moves toward the serious business of the day. In many ways, this Kennedy speech 60 years ago, is the counterpoint to Ike's now infamous 1960 speech warning about the rise of "the Military Industrial Complex" that could lead to tyranny. It was delivered shortly after the failed Bay of Pigs attempt at invading Cuba to oust Castro. It turns out that the real message of Kennedy's speech is "national security" and what he suggests that the Press must do to balance their mission to keep the populace "well-informed" versus the need to keep our Cold War enemies at bay by restricting their access (and ours) to information that could weaken our defenses. He cites a recent press piece that discussed satellites in such a way that the information revealed by the press forced the US military to make changes "at the expense of considerable time and money."

National Security. He can see them pondering, nervous, unsure. He says,

The very word secrecy is repugnant in a free and open society, and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and a secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in ensuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment.

This is deep soul stuff for that era of Spy vs. Spy known as the Cold War. Oh, wait. We're still there 75 years after Hiroshima, at war with the Russkies and Terrorism (or, as we used to call it, Communism). National Security.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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