A new radio documentary titled We Knew JFK: Unheard Stories from the Kennedy Archives airs on public radio stations across the country, timed to the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. The documentary showcases anecdotes from people who worked with JFK and knew him personally. Bob speaks to Robert MacNeil, of MacNeil/Lehrer fame, the host and co-writer of the documentary, about JFK's nuanced relationship with journalists.
We Knew JFK: Unheard Stories from the Kennedy Archives can be heard in its entirety online, along with other voices from the archive, at WeKnewJFK.org. The program was produced and distributed in association with PRX (Public Radio Exchange), and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
BOB GARFIELD: Amid the avalanche of JFK retrospectives is an extraordinary radio documentary titled, We Knew JFK: Unheard Stories From The Kennedy Archives. Producers unearthed a trove of interviews, which for the past half-century have mainly moldered in the vaults of the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. They consist of recollections from Kennedy contemporaries, advisors, friends, rivals, and journalists and yield many an insight and many a surprise. We've used the opportunity occasioned by the documentarians’ work to ourselves peruse the Archive for a better understanding of the young president's relationship with the press.
Our guide is the host and cowriter of the radio special, Robert MacNeil of MacNeil-Lehrer fame, who 50 years ago was himself riding in the Dallas presidential motorcade as a correspondent for NBC News when the President was shot. Robin, welcome to On the Media.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to begin with the famous Kennedy charisma, which seemed to trump inexperience and religious bigotry and even policy in the race for the 1960 Democratic nomination over the obvious frontrunner, Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey was a party leader and a liberal firebrand, but [LAUGHS] not exactly anybody's idea of a sex symbol. And the thing is, he knew it. He was a bit bemused and a bit resentful.
ROBERT MacNEIL: I loved Hubert Humphrey. In fact, I covered him a lot more than I covered JFK. All the efforts to describe Kennedy’s charisma today probably fall flat because the man himself isn’t there. But the man's assurance was so colossal and so all-encompassing that the effect on me must have been like kings were able to do to their subjects. And I could sympathize with Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, confronted with all that social and sartorial assurance, not even considering all the other Kennedy assets – his own good looks, his wealth, his wit, his sense of irony, everything.
BOB GARFIELD: Humphrey, it turns out, just thought it was unfair. Let's listen.
HUBERT HUMPHREY: The thing that I always used to be amazed at was the unbelievably good publicity. It was just fantastic. He would always get good copy. So I used to say, how in the world does a man do this? I mean, I would be interpreted as being brash or talkative. And he was always interpreted as being intelligent –
- and delightful with people, and so on. And I – you know, needless to say, that it was bothersome [ ? ].
ROBERT MacNEIL: Of course, Humphrey was accused of being talkative because he went on and on and on and on. Kennedy had a much better sense of how much to say and when to shut up than Humphrey did.
BOB GARFIELD: Robin, the turning point in the general election that year and, some would say, the future of presidential politics is often the least remembered to be the televised debate between JFK and then Vice President Richard Nixon. Now, some mythology has evolved over the decades about the event, but you discovered the testimony of Don Hewitt –
ROBERT MacNEIL: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: - who is most remembered for creating and running 60 Minutes on CBS but who, back in 1960, was the producer of the Nixon-Kennedy Debate.
ROBERT MacNEIL: He gives a very sharp and well-observed comment on the different approaches of the two men and then how they looked.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, here’s Don Hewitt on the power, for better or worse, of the TV image.
DON HEWITT: I said to both of them, would you like some makeup? And Kennedy, who didn’t need any, said no, thank you, no. Nixon, who needed makeup, also said no, you know, ‘cause he didn’t want history to record that that night he was made up and Kennedy wasn’t. So they took him back in a room and they made him up with something called “shave stick,” and badly. He looked – awful. And when he came out I looked at them both on camera. Kennedy looked great. Nixon looked terrible. That’s all anybody remembers about that night. That night was a great night for Jack Kennedy and the worst night that ever happened in American politics. That’s the night the politicians looked at us and said, that’s the only way to campaign. And television looked at them and said, there, a bottomless pit of advertising dollars.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Yeah, and you could certainly carry that a lot farther today.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, Hewitt was expressing what is the popular narrative of the JFK-Nixon Debate, but the contemporaneous polling did not show any sort of Kennedy drubbing of Nixon, and yet, what Hewitt said is conventional wisdom. What was your take?
ROBERT MacNEIL: The other conventional wisdom was that people who only heard it on the radio thought that Nixon had won on points. Barry Goldwater, who expected to run against Kennedy in ’64, he first heard it on the radio, thought Nixon had won. And then he went to an event where they showed it on the screen, and Goldwater was convinced immediately that Nixon had had it, that evening.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about some more nitty-gritty press handling. A couple of the journalistic luminaries in your documentary give us a glimpse of Kennedy's off-the-record demeanor with the press, sometimes as a flatterer, sometimes as a bully. CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite gives us a window into Senator Kennedy's arrogance and presumptuousness in manipulating the process of a pair of one-on-one interviews that he was giving the candidates.
ROBERT MacNEIL: The situation was that Walter Cronkite of CBS had done an interview with Kennedy, and Kennedy didn't like the interview. And he said, we’ll do it again. He just assumed. And Cronkite protested. Kennedy insisted. And Cronkite continued to protest, and eventually Kennedy gave in and said, play it as it is.
WALTER CRONKITE: And I started out and I got almost to the door and I turned and I said, let me tell you, Senator, we’re going to do this, but I think this is the lousiest bit of sportsmanship I have ever seen in my life, and turned and walked out the door. Before I got to the door he said, wait a minute, wait a minute, go ahead and use it. The one thing with a Kennedy, you can’t accuse them of bad sportsmanship. That hit him. I didn’t know how powerful that little speech of mine would be. I hadn’t intended it to work. I was just mad, angry.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Bob, I know another story where Kennedy insisted on redoing something, and this time Jackie refused. It was during Charles Collingwood’s Tour of the White House with Jackie, for CBS. At one point in the tour, a door opens and the President steps in, as though informally and by accident, and they have a little crosstalk. And then he leaves. And when the taping ended, Kennedy said, I want to see the tape, and they went out to the CBS truck and he saw the tape again. And he said, I don’t like it, I want to do that part again. And Jackie said, no, I’ve got a riding date in Virginia.
And the President said, we’re going to do it again. And Jackie said, no, I’m going riding in Virginia, and she went. And the CBS producer had to sit in for the retake.
BOB GARFIELD: She didn’t object on ethical grounds. She objected on equestrian grounds. [LAUGHS]
ROBERT MacNEIL: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the same scion of entitlement, who was dictating coverage to TV producers one second, could be flattering reporters the next. Tom Wicker, the longtime New York Times columnist who, at the time was a young reporter covering the White House for the Times, he had written a piece [LAUGHS] that was critical of the President's oratorical skills.
TOM WICKER: I stated a thesis in there that he was a pretty good speaker extemporaneously but that he read speeches very badly. I was shown into his office. It was late in the day, as I recall it. And the first thing he said to me after we shook hands, he said, you know, he says, you’re right, he says, I can’t read a speech worth a sh__. This was practically the first words he had said to me. And I later recounted this story to my wife, and she was shocked to her teeth. She said, you mean the President of the United States said that? [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Ingratiation by self-deprecation?
ROBERT MacNEIL: Kennedy had a great talent and a huge vicious vocabulary when he was annoyed. One time in August of ‘63 at Hyannis, I was playing tennis with Pierre Salinger on the grounds of the family compound there, and the phone kept ringing, interrupting the game, and Salinger had to go and, and talk to it and then come back and resume the game. And finally, we just gave it up. The President was absolutely furious at the New York Times, which he’d been reading that Sunday, for the reporting on Vietnam.
BOB GARFIELD: And when the President was angry, charisma or no charisma, he was not above retaliation or at least the threat of retaliation.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Yeah, yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom Wicker experienced that himself.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Yeah.
TOM WICKER: The Times wrote a critical editorial, and the tone of the criticism was not that the President was wrong in his proposals, but that he hadn’t gone far enough. They were saying, you should move farther and you should do this and you should do that. And it was quite a critical editorial. So I went in on some routine mission to talk to Ted Sorensen that morning. He was reading the Times editorial when I came into the office, and he said to me, if this is the attitude that the New York Times is going to take, then our relationships with you – meaning me, personally – can get very sour. And I took this to be a threat, [LAUGHS] if the Times – you know, if the Times was going to be critical editorially, then the staff, and so forth, were not gonna be very generous in giving news to me. And I took that rather seriously, because at that time I knew that some of the reporters had been penalized in this way.
ROBERT MacNEIL: It’s interesting hearing Wicker’s voice there, because he opens our documentary. You just hear him calling the Dictation Desk at the New York Times from Dallas, and he says, “Dallas, November 22nd.” And he begins in that flat voice, very professionally, dictating the lead story in the Times for the next day. It’s, it’s so moving.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, Robin, your story about playing tennis with the President’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, reminds me that on this show over the years we’ve often looked askance at the excessive chumminess between the press and official Washington. But one of the things revealed in the tapes is the remarkable degree of intimacy that Kennedy had with the very people charged with covering his administration. CBS's Don Hewitt, whom we heard earlier, tells a story [LAUGHS] about his then wife that is positively jaw dropping.
DON HEWITT: And she went to the White House to have dinner with the President and Kenny O’Donnell and Pierre and Dave Powers, you know, the, the guys, and they all had too much to drink, and they were needling. She said, I have no idea why I did this. She said, I had about as much needling as I could and I stood up at the table, I looked at the President of the United States and I said, you can take your White House and shove it. And he said, will you just sit down and, and finish your dinner. No, I’m going home. And she grabbed her coat and she left. She woke up the next morning hung over, and she said to herself, oh my God, what did I do last night? How many people have a close personal relationship with the President of the United States and blow it. So she said about 5 o’clock she got up enough nerve to call Evelyn Lincoln. And Evelyn said, you know, where are you? She said, what do you mean, where am I? She said, he thinks you’re mad at him.
She said, thank God! She said, come over here. She went over. It was about 5 o’clock. She was very clever. She had a great line. She went there [LAUGHS] and she said to him, I’m willing to be forgiven.
[LAUGHTER] [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Now, elsewhere in this story, Hewitt declares that his then wife was having an affair [LAUGHS] with President Kennedy.
ROBERT MacNEIL: [LAUGHS] I didn't know that. That’s amazing.
BOB GARFIELD: So you were the host of this show and you were a cowriter and, and also a witness to the very history that it wishes to flesh out. As you listen to these anecdotes, do you find yourself in retro-thrall of the President? Or do you find yourself, as a journalist, kind of cringing?
ROBERT MacNEIL: I think, on the whole, the anecdotes reinforce the grounds I had for admiring Kennedy. I came to Washington in the spring of ’63, and my ears had been stuffed with all the stale rhetoric of the Cold War up to then, and it was enormously refreshing to hear a man redefining that rhetoric, to hear him schooling Americans not to assume that war was inevitable and peace impossible or the Cold War was permanent. It was liberating to my spirit to hear that.
By the end of his presidency, I think a lot of people abroad felt that way too, that, that they had as a leader of the leading country of the West a man who justified faith in rationalism, and when so many people had feared American trigger-happiness, they were reassured by that. I think that is one of the reasons why Kennedy’s death not only pierced the membrane of individual self-protectiveness of people in this country, of all ages, but all around the world.
BOB GARFIELD: Robin, thank you so much.
ROBERT MacNEIL: It was a real pleasure, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Robert MacNeil is the narrator and cowriter of, We Knew JFK: Unheard Stories From the Kennedy Archives. It’s airing on many public radio stations around the country and can also be heard online, along with other voices from the Archive, at weknewJFK.org. The program was produced and distributed in association with PRX, the Public Radio Exchange and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: I am today announcing my candidacy for the presidency of the United States. The presidency is the most powerful office in the free world. Through its leadership can come a more vital life for all of our people.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Laura Mayer. We had more help from Zac Spencer and Megan Teehan. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Dunne and Ken Feldman. Katya Rogers is our Senior Producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I’m Bob Garfield.