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Setting the Record Straight for President's Day

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Message Jayne Stahl
Last week, Florida congressman, Connie Mack, wrote a letter to former Massachusetts Rep. Joseph Kennedy, in which he assailed a television commercial featuring the nephew of the former president onboard an oil tanker in Boston. Kennedy founded the program Citizen's Energy, nearly twenty years ago, to provide home heating oil to the poor, and elderly. In the T.V. commercial, Mr. Kennedy says that "millions of gallons" of vastly discounted heating oil are en route to impoverished residents of his state thanks to "our good friends in Venezuela."

Well, it appears that our good friend in Florida, Republican Rep. Mack, is a devout, and vigorous opponent of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez who he calls a "sworn enemy of the United States." Moreover, a quick visit to the congressman's Web site shows just how strongly Mack believes that Venezuela is engaged in rapid military expansionism, and poses a clear and present danger to our national security. Indeed, his Chavez banter has a "been there, done that" feel about it, and is reminiscent of the diatribes launched against the U.S.S.R. at the height of the cold war. And, Mack even goes so far as to call the ad "part of a propaganda message from Hugo Chavez." But, "once we've followed the Mack Doctrine and refused oil from every country that fails to meet our disciplined moral standards," Kennedy tells him, "I'm sure you'll enjoy your walks to Washington because there certainly won't be fuel to fly you there." (AP)

One must consider that the need for home heating oil isn't nearly as great in a state like Florida as it is in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maine, New York, and Vermont, some of the states which benefited greatly, last winter, when Chavez' owned Citgo delivered 5 million gallons of heating oil at a discount of 40% to low income families in the city of Philadelphia alone (Time). One wonders if we would witness this Mack attack if he were to represent Maine, or New Hampshire, instead of Florida. Indeed, where was the viscera of Connie Mack in February, 2006 when thousands of east coast families benefited from the Chavez oil giveway? And, as Mr. Kennedy notes, why isn't he taking pock shots at Saudi Arabia. Pennsylvania Rep. Chaka Fattah didn't have a problem with the Venezuelan president's offer to help nearly 30,000 of his constituents who might otherwise have to endure a cold winter. Funny, isn't it, how ideology often takes a backseat to economic necessity, as well as the desire to win elections.

But, by far, the most egregious accusation Mack makes, in chastising Kennedy, is that his actions insult the legacy of his uncle, President Kennedy who, Mack says, was aware of the dangers posed by communism. His attack on the former president's nephew is not merely a low blow, and one designed to appeal to emotion rather than reason; it is, in essence, an inspired stroke of ignorance which shows how little the Republican congressman understands, and/or remembers John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

To set the record straight: just a few days before he was assassinated, some forty-three years ago, President Kennedy was planning to discuss normalizing relations with Cuba, as well as lifting the trade embargo, according to a "declassified tape" and White House documents. As National Security Archives researcher Peter Kornbluh asserted, back in 2003, "the whole history of US-Cuban relations might have been a lot different if Kennedy had not been assassinated," and Hugo Chavez' good friend, Fidel Castro, viewed Kennedy's murder as a "setback" to restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries . (Guardian) Indeed, there was one president who tried to utilize the state department before resorting to the military to win adversaries over to his point of view; at least, this was his plan before he was murdered, a plan that has been defeated by the right wing "Cuban Lobby" ever since. We have watched, in the four decades since the Kennedy assassination, the era of statesmanship disfigured, and diplomacy transformed more into a formality than a legitimate effort.

Nothing undermines what may be perceived as JFK's legacy more than this one-dimensional, reductivist view of his response to the threat of an ideological opponent, communism. Contrary to Mack's innuendo, the former president was far-sighted, not myopic, and saw national interests as variegated, and multidimensional, a concept lost on those who confuse free market economics with democratic principles. Importantly, the former president understood that the Cuban trade embargo, and hostilities toward Havana, undermined American economic interests as much as it did Cuba's. Kennedy understood that making friends with those who wish to do us harm would, in the long run, serve us better than trying to wipe them off the face of the earth. Traditionally, hate breeds better converts than amity. Our current leadership suffers from the kind of fragmentation that fosters ongoing hostility, and misunderstanding.

While the CIA, at the time, was doing what it does best, thinking of ways to eliminate Fidel Castro, aides who worked closely with JFK came to believe that "Havana could be weaned away from Moscow," (Guardian) using diplomacy, and talk, not bombs. Contrary to Mack's assertion that Joseph Kennedy's commercial was a betrayal of his uncle's concerns about communism, the former president was more of a foreign policy pragmatist than an ideologue, and one who would rather work to transform foes into friends. While we will never know how President Kennedy would respond to Hugo Chavez, one thing we do know: he was one who looked for common ground, and not one who looked to provoke global battles to promote the interests of behemoth U.S. corporations, military contractors, and the upper one percentile of the population.

We don't need to be experts on Venezuela, or its president, to recognize that comments made about a television commercial that supports vastly reducing the cost of home heating for those, in this country, who can least afford it were designed to deflect attention away from the greatest contribution the Repubicans have made, over the past twenty years, which has been to "disappear" the middle class.

Likewise, we don't need to consider Hugo Chavez' domestic agenda, over the past two decades, and his efforts to reduce poverty, unemployment, build roads, provide health care, and housing for the homeless, as well as obstruct privatization of those programs that adv ance the needs of the affluent, such as the oil sector and national social security, in an effort to address the social, and economic inequity in his country while we, in the U.S., have socialized ignorance instead of socialized medicine.

And, we don't even need to think about the fact that if George W. Bush's approval ratings were even close to Mr. Chavez', the Republicans would be assured a landslide in 2008. Given that as many jobs have been lost in the automotive sector, over the past few months, as our current president wants to send over to fight in a fruitless, and futile battle in Iraq, all we need to ask ourselves is this: if we had a president now who focused on a domestic agenda rather than foreign policy, who wanted to sit down and talk with those whose worldviews were different, and might even threaten us; if we had a president who put the profits of Exxon-Mobil and Chevron second to providing heat for the indigent, housing for the homeless, and college for the disadvantaged, would we be facing world war, and nuclear annihilation as we are now? I think not.

The good congressman from Florida owes Joseph Kennedy a public apology. His uncle, and our former president, John F. Kennedy, would be very proud of him.
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Widely published, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter; member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA. Jayne Lyn Stahl is a Huffington Post blogger.
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