In the spring of 1962, after he’d served for a little better than a year, President John F. Kennedy came to Berkeley to give a speech … and eighty-eight thousand people came to see and hear him.
Hollywood handsome, a war hero, sophisticated and rich, JFK and his wife Jackie brought style, glamor and a couple of adorable children to the White House. His appeal was universal and magnetic … and he was naturally elegant while at the same time appearing to be a down-to-earth good-natured Irishman with whom you could enjoy a brew or two along with a song
Naturally my friends and I joined the multitude to see the great man. It was Charter Day, Cal’s convocation of its academic glitterati who gather with great ceremony in flowing, medieval-style gowns, wearing mortar boards tilted on their heads with tassels. They make speeches, congratulate each other and give really important people honorary degrees.
They gave Kennedy a one. Waiting for him to speak my friends and I amused ourselves trying to spot secret service agents. Rumor had it that they were so good they could spot a single gun among all 88,000 of us. Our doubts about that claim were confirmed on an awful November day in Dallas less than two years later.
Kennedy took the podium confidently … and you could feel how much he loved doing this. The thunderous applause proved everyone adored him. He wore a black gown … but no mortar board. He had thick, bushy auburn hair and a mouthful of polar-white teeth that were personal trademarks.
He made some comments about the greatness of Cal (more Nobel laureates than any nation, etc.), told a humorous anecdote, spoke of cold war exigencies (we need to be strong but try to cooperate with USSR where possible), praised education (we need more of it … a big Berkeley applause line) and the imperative for manned exploration of space (which proved to be his most impressive accomplishment as a leader and humankind’s greatest accomplishment ever … putting a man on the moon and safely bringing him home).
Kennedy came, Kennedy saw, Kennedy conquered. It was love at first sight; pure, unadulterated veneration. Everybody left the stadium that sunny March afternoon feeling pretty good about things.
Seven months later in October of that year a man running for governor of California came to campus … one Richard Milhous Nixon. Less than three years earlier he’d lost a whisker-close presidential election to JFK and had subsequently jumped into California politics (from whence he came) like a jilted lover rebounding into the arms of the wrong person!
Nixon gave his stump speech to a largely disinterested audience of maybe a few hundred students and reporters in front of Dwinelle Hall. It was probably meant as a “Nixon in the belly of the beast” visit as he was hard at work fighting domestic communists … and Berkeley had plenty. In its way it was kind of like Nixon Goes to China, a visit he made that in 1972 that shocked and changed world history.
His Berkeley speech was a bust. Maybe through lack of publicity … I hadn’t even heard he was coming. But not too many people were interested in seeing “Tricky Dick Nixon.” I accidentally happened upon the end of his speech on my way to class … so I stopped, heard his wrap-up … precious little applause … and watched everybody get up and walk away.
That left Nixon standing alone on the steps of Dwindle Hall. I figured “what the hell!” and walked up to him. I remembered him as Ike’s vice-president; I’d watched him on TV face down a violent, rock-throwing crowd in Peru; debate Khrushchev in Moscow; debate Kennedy in the first televised presidential debate; and choose not to contest an incredibly close and highly irregular presidential election for the good of the country (when asked about that and allegations that his rich dad paid Chicago and its many cemeteries to elect him, JFK famously replied that while his rich dad didn’t mind buying an election, he definitely wasn’t about to spring for a landslide).
Nixon and I had a brief chat. He mouthed a few platitudes about his campaign and I wished him well. I left unimpressed. He seemed short, though his height was almost six feet, and he looked a bit greasy or sweaty.
He was nice enough, but outclassed in almost every conceivable way by Kennedy … looks, money, athleticism, war record, personality, bearing, dress, carriage and sophistication. Kennedy looked and acted like a man comfortable in his own skin while Nixon looked like a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who always felt he had to prove himself.
It’s funny when looking back over the decades, though, at all of the ironies and contrasts one could mine from those two appearances that year. Both were fascinating, consequential men … but for my money, Nixon remains the more fascinating or the two.
Talk about the tenacious comeback kid! He’s got to be in history’s top ten list of guys who couldn’t be denied. He’s got to be the record holder for surprising achievement and self-inflicted catastrophe.
He’d fallen into a political wilderness after I met him. He lost the election that November to Pat Brown. He even famously announced to the press a couple of weeks after he came to Berkeley that they “wouldn’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” … and, voilà, a few years later he set-up shop in the Oval Office!
And when Kennedy’s dream of sending a man to the moon and bringing him back was realized, who talked to that man on the moon? President Nixon. And when seven years later the California National Guard occupied Cal to end student protests that had turned ugly, violent and dangerous, expressing rage at the US participation in a civil war ten-tousand miles across the ocean in a small country we had no business being in, I had to wonder how many of his adoring Berkeley fans appreciated the irony that the turmoil swirling around them was an unfortunate consequence of JFK’s decision to start sending the US military personnel Vietnam in the first place.
Following the disgrace of Watergate and his unprecedented resignation of the presidency, you still couldn’t keep Nixon down! Like a Jack-in-the-box he popped right back up as America’s highly respected elder statesman … a role at which he excelled.
His accomplishments were truly astonishing for a poor Quaker boy from California who rose to, and fell from, the heights.
To this day both Kennedy and Nixon provoke conversations among historians and keep the books presses humming. As the generations who lived through that era diminish, and as the generations who follow write their histories of it, I wager it’ll be the Quaker from the wrong side of the tracks they’ll continue to study … and about whom they’ll endlessly puzzle.
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