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Friday 1 July 2011

A contrast between what's possible, and what is

Colleagues and scholars from coast to coast, across Bass Strait and all the ships at sea.

Dateline: Australia, Federal Politics 2011.

This post will not soil its content with direct examples from what passes for the current political discourse in Australia.  

Rather it will illustrate by contrast what is possible when the discourse is not dominated by politicians driven by vacuous focus group directives and slogans, media personalities who think the news is about them, news outlets who continually substitute opinion for fact, grumpy old millionaires whingeing, and commercial organisations and industry associations whose self interest overwhelms the national interest.

The contrast is stark.

Whenever I travelled to the United States, I would always seek out elderly Americans, usually in their 80s, and ask them about American history.  

Being of a good age, they were able to relate their direct experience to major events of the Twentieth Century, namely the Great Depression and World War Two.

I would ask them in particular about their past presidents and who they thought had been their best.

Whether I was talking to a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent (and in the US, citizens are very happy to declare their political affiliation) two names were mentioned repeatedly:

Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

Roosevelt served from 1933 to 1945 (he died while in office) and saw the US through the Great Depression and World War Two.  

Kennedy served from 1961 to 1963, which was only a short time (he was assassinated while in office) but in that time he saw the US through the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (the closest we have officially come to a nuclear war), undertook important initiatives on civil rights and gave an enormous impetus to the US space program.

Roosevelt was an understandable choice, as he had been elected four times, and was a successful wartime leader so it was only natural that citizens would look fondly towards him, as Britons do Winston Churchill and Australians do John Curtin.  Additionally, prior to the war, he had the burden of the Depression to contend with and the elderly citizens regarded his efforts in this respect very highly.

Kennedy, however, is a different story.  He was elected only once and didn't even serve a full term, yet the citizens I spoke with recalled him with a great affection and deep respect.

At first I thought this was because he was assassinated and that event alone coloured their view of him.  But it wasn't.  When I started to research his presidency and began watching at length his speeches, interviews and press conferences, it was clear what the citizens saw in him and why they felt they way they did.

And it wasn't that Kennedy was given an easy time by the press or the Republican Party either, as these questions from one of his press conferences testify, though his answers illustrate how he would easily deal with them and with good humour.

Journalist: "Mr. President, I am sure you are aware, Sir, of the tremendous mail response that your news conferences on television and radio has produced.  There are many Americans who believe that in our manner of questioning or seeking to gain your attention that we are subjecting you to some amount of abuse or a lack of respect."

President Kennedy: "Well, you are subjecting me to some abuse but not to any lack of respect, I don't think."

Journalist: "Mr. President, in the 1960 campaign you used to say that it was time for America to get moving again.  The reason I ask you the question, Mr. President, is that the Republican National Committee recently adopted a resolution saying you were pretty much of a failure."

President Kennedy: "I am sure it was passed unanimously."

The following interview illustrates in abundance what the elderly US citizens were talking about.  It is everything our current political discourse is not.

At the end of the second year of Kennedy's presidency, the CBS network broadcast an hour-long interview called "A Conversation with the President" that was conducted in the Oval Office (unfortunately only 25 minutes of it is available on YouTube).

The journalists who conducted the interview were: Bill Lawrence of ABC News, George Herman of CBS News, and Sander Vanocur of NBC News. 

Many issues were covered in the interview, including how the President makes a decision, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and civil rights.

Most striking is the quality of Kennedy's answers.  He's not wondering how this response or that response will be interpreted by this group or that group; the answers are simply given with a respect for the questioner and, most importantly, the viewer.  Kennedy was forty-five years old at the time.

Equally, the journalists' manner is highly respectful.  There are no attempted "gotcha" moments or rude interruptions or thinking the interview is about them and showing us how clever they are.

Significantly, Kennedy is asked one question about the press and his relationship with them, and he replied:

"I think it's invaluable, even though it may cause you some (pause) it's never pleasant to be reading things frequently that are not agreeable news, but I would say that it's an invaluable arm of the Presidency as a check really on what's going on in administration, and more things come to my attention that cause me the concern or give me information, so (pause)"
"I would think that Mr. Krushchev [The Soviet Union's Premier], operating a totalitarian system which has many advantages as far as being able to move in secret and all the rest, there's a terrific disadvantage not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily, to an Administration."
"Even though we never like it and even though we wish they didn't write it and even though we disapprove, there still is (pause) there isn't any doubt that we couldn't do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press."
"Now, on the other hand, the press has the responsibility not to distort things for political purposes, not to just take some news in order to prove a political point."
"It seems to me their obligation is to be as tough as they can on an Administration, but do it in such a way which is directed towards getting as close to the truth as they can get, and not merely because of some political motivation."
The other interesting thing to notice in the interview is that Kennedy was sitting in a heavily padded rocking chair due a severe back injury he received during World War Two (the PT Boat he was skipper of, PT 109, was sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer and he and his crew had to swim for five hours to return to the safety of shore).

You will notice he shifts constantly in the chair, moving from side to side, trying to alleviate his pain.  Anyone who has had a back problem will recognise these signs.  It is reported that he could not stand for more than 20 minutes, or sit for more than 5 without feeling pain.

You can see this historic interview at this YouTube link here:

On March 13, 1964 on the Jack Paar Show, Robert Kennedy made his first public appearance since the assassination of his brother.

The emotional response from the audience to Robert Kennedy's entrance, in which they gave him a standing ovation, and the rapturous applause to his response to the following question, is indicative of the esteem in which they held his brother:

Jack Paar: "What do you think, Sir, was your brother's greatest contribution?"

Robert Kennedy: "Well, I think really he made Americans feel young again.  I think that he gave all of us more confidence in the country, more confidence in the struggles that we are involved in internally and externally will be successful, more confidence in our efforts with those who are opposed to us."
"Also, he gave great confidence to people who lived in other countries, great confidence in the United States and its leadership that we were dedicated to certain principles and ideals and that we would live up to them and, if necessary, fight for them."
"I think it changed over a period of years our own feelings, as well as the feelings of other people around the world."
You can see this historic interview on this YouTube link here:

The response from the audience in 1964, was the same as the response I witnessed in the elderly citizens all those years later.

It's the embodiment of what Hugh Mackay spoke about this week on ABC Radio, that what voters always want to hear from their political leaders is "Let's hear your dreams for a better Australia." 

Having watched the interviews with both President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, is it any wonder the day after the assassination on 22 November 1963, that Bill Mauldin of the Chicago Sun-Times, drew the following:

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