1960 was the year of the first televised debate. Richard Nixon, who would win the office in 1968, was the sitting Vice President and the Republican nominee. Nixon had the flu and didn’t shave before the debate. There was a stark contrast physically between the appearance of the two men. Nixon looked tired and under the weather. Kennedy looked young and sharp. Those who heard the debate on radio thought Nixon had won the debate. Those who watched it on TV, thought Kennedy won going away.
Before the debate, Kennedy was briefed on foreign affairs. The Administration was planning to invade Cuba. The plan was for rebels to be trained in the U.S., financed with $13.1 million from the C.I.A., reinserted back into Cuba, and start an uprising. Once they took a section of land, they would ask for recognition from the U.S. and we would provide air cover. The troops were trained, and reinserted back into Cuba. Nixon was fully aware of the plan. Kennedy asked why we allowed a Communist country to exist 90 miles from our shore. Nixon couldn’t respond because he didn’t want to jeopardise the operation.
Kennedy was young, attractive and a dynamic speaker. He was vigorous and captured the spirit of America. JFK was a stark contrast to the grandfather image of the Eisenhower Administration. The election was the closest contest to that time. Both candidates polled 49 percent plus. Kennedy was declared the winner in the wee hours of the morning and became the 35th President of the United States.
On the weekend of April 17, 1961, Kennedy went to his home in Hyannisport, Massachusetts. To the rest of the world, it appeared to be a slow, lazy weekend. In reality, it was anything but. The word was sent out for the attack on Cuba to begin. While the world slept, an invasion force from Guatemala struck Cuba aided by the insurgents already on the island. It was overcast, and the air support would have to fly low and be subject to the Cuban air defenses. At the last-minute, Kennedy refused to send the air support the invading force so desperately needed. The invaders were beaten back by the Cuban troops.
Russia, the main sponsor of Cuba perceived Kennedy’s lack of action as weakness. They decided to install nuclear missiles in Cuba which could strike the U.S. mainland. This time the young President stood strong. He agreed to remove nuclear weapons from Turkey in exchange for Russia not installing weapons in Cuba. Kennedy’s weakness on the Bay of Pigs almost caused us to have a nuclear war with Russia.
When Kennedy took office the economy was in recession. The President proposed a tax cut. This later became known as a “supply side tax cut.” The top marginal tax rate was 90%. Kennedy proposed this to be cut to 65% It created so much new economic activity it financed the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty of the Johnson Administration.
Kennedy had the ability to lead. He challenged NASA to go to the moon before the end of the decade. We did it. He created the Peace Corps. He had vision. He gave the nation a spirit that was missing in the previous Administration.
Even with these successes, Kennedy was slipping in the polls. The trip to Dallas was to shore up support in the south. He was worried about re-election. Even with his VP Johnson being from Texas, the state was leaning Republican for the ’64 election. He was there to build support.
JFK had problems with organized labor. His Administration created a war on organized crime, which controlled big labor at that time.
The bottom line is this: Kennedy was one of the most dynamic Presidents. His time in office was short, but he was very effective. He had strengths and weaknesses, just like all the others. Kennedy was the right man at the right time. Just like Reagan two decades later.