It was Inauguration Day, January 20, 1961 and I was very sad. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was going to become President of the United States, succeeding Dwight David Eisenhower in that position.
My parents had both supported Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 election and were disappointed in its outcome. Nevertheless, like most of those in the country, they accepted its results and hoped that the new president would be good for the country. Kennedy’s election was not the source of my sadness. It was that we were losing Eisenhower.
I never knew either of my grandfathers. But when I watched Ike on our Dumont television, he always impressed me as the kind of person who, if I were able, I would adopt as my foster grandfather. He impressed me as calm, reasoned and a person who had control of every situation using his extensive life experience as his guide. I felt safe with him running the country. That was true despite the fact that many of our public buildings hosted “Air Raid Shelter” signs on their facades and that we conducted regular air raid exercises at school. The cold war with our recently former ally, the Soviet Union, was in full bloom.
The presidential election of 1960 had not been without controversy. Nixon carried 26 states to Kennedy’s 22. But Kennedy won the nationwide popular vote by slightly more than 118,00, rather remarkable considering that at that time there were 17 million more voters registered as Democrats than there were Republicans. Kennedy overwhelmingly won the electoral college garnering 303 votes to Nixon’s 219, a margin of victory not very dissimilar from the margin that Trump had over Clinton in the 2016 election. Ten states were decided by fewer than ten thousand votes each. It was the closest election since 1916 when incumbent President Woodrow Wilson defeated Supreme Court Justice Charles Evan Hughes. Despite a number of state recounts affirming the results, there were those who considered Kennedy’s election “illegitimate.”
A purported concern that Americans held in that election was that Kennedy lacked the experience and was too young to be an effective and capable president. That, at least, was the argument that newspapers and political commentators put forward. But there was another issue that was only mouthed in whispers. Kennedy was a Roman Catholic. And there were plenty of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants who were sure that if he were elected, the United States, the strongest nation on earth, would find itself under the control of the world’s smallest country, the Vatican and Pope John XXIII. Conspiracy theories are nothing new to American politics.
During the short term of Kennedy’s presidency, there is nothing to suggest that any foreign influence played a role in the policies which he put forward or the programs he enacted. Nevertheless, this was an era when Roman Catholics or Jews need not apply for memberships in various social clubs and organizations. The term that was used to explain this obvious prejudice was that they were “restricted.” Indeed, they were.
The cacophonous group who have coalesced under the umbrella as “protestors of an illegitimate Trump presidency” will be out in force tomorrow to express their point of view at the Inauguration ceremonies. That certainly is their constitutionally protected right – as long as they do so in a peaceful manner, an issue which may be in question. One of their main talking points is that Trump’s victory is “illegitimate” and attributable to “foreign influence” in the election – specifically Russia’s. Interestingly, their right to protest which will be protected tomorrow by law enforcement is one which they wouldn’t enjoy were this unfolding in Moscow rather than Washington, D. C.
If the Vatican ran the government during the Kennedy administration, they did a poor job of it. It was a mere ten years after Kennedy’s assassination that the Supreme Court upheld Roe v Wade – a decision that flew in the face of one of the most fundamental doctrines of the Roman Catholic church, the sanctity of life from inception.
If the Russians influenced the 2016 election they also did a poor job of it. Had they wanted to avoid the controversy over their influence, much of which stems from Clinton’s three million larger popular vote than Trump’s, they should have scrounged up a few million more votes for “their candidate.”
If the Russians’ goal was to undermine the confidence that Americans have in our democratic process and in the continuity of governance, they needn’t have bothered. It appears that we have a sufficient supply of our own, including members of Congress, who are attempting to achieve that same result.