Former Kennedy Advisor Says Obama Reminiscent Of Nixon
Michael Novak was active in Democratic politics as a young man and even helped create themes which were picked up in both the John and Robert Kennedy presidential campaign. He was particularly highly regarded by Bobby who called Novak to express his gratitude for Novak’s writing. In discussing his memoirs, Novak told me that he found Kennedy much more straightforward than Nixon and that Obama in that regard reminded him of Nixon, not Kennedy. Those remarks can be found below, along with Novak’s remembrances and observations about the Kennedy era in the Democratic Party, and the degree to which it has degraded.
You can listen to audio of the interview here.
Michael: “If I may turn the subject just a little bit… One reason I wanted to writeWriting from Left to Right is [that] I was approaching 80 years old, and my daughter with whom I’ve written a couple of books, Jana, said to me that I ought to write down some things about people and adventures I’d had that nobody knows about – and when she said ‘nobody’ she meant the kids too. She gave me two bits of advice: “Just write. Don’t rewrite. Don’t pause. Just get it down there.” And she said, “If anything happens to you—“ because I was always afraid of having a stroke or something like Reinhold Niebuhr, like so many of my heroes, and not being able to work, and she said she’d finish it for me but she needed to have the anecdotes and the adventures that only I knew.”
Jerry: “So you wanted to get the stories out for posterity.”
Michael: “You know, as you hit about 75, you find yourself calling all women ‘dear’ and women are long since holding the door for you, not allowing you to hold it for them, and you get nostalgic more. You start remembering with great pleasure certain things that happened, and you feel with acute embarrassment other things that happened… Although, from this distance it’s a little bit easier to laugh at them even though they were very humiliating.”
Jerry: “”Someday even this will give you joy.””
Michael: “Yes, you’ve got it. And so I began setting those down and I met such wonderful people. Bobby Kennedy… I was teaching at Stanford and he called me – he was coming to campaign [in] 1968 for the presidency and he decided late –we met in California (he wanted me to be the first man he met in California) and when we met he said, “Look, the reason I wanted to see you right away is your article, the Secular Saint, is what persuaded me to run.” He said, “I really loved that piece. I can see you’re really in touch with young folks… got word of that from several different directions.” And he said, “I’m going to need the young in this race. If I don’t win California, Mayor Daley can’t support me. If I win California, he promised he will.””
Jerry: “And California was a young state.”
Michael: “Yeah. And the youth culture was faster coming there than anywhere else. I went up to Oregon to work for him first and of course, he lost Oregon, which I think was the first time he might have lost an election. So my record was intact: [the] candidates that I actually worked for lost. I was sort of a poison presence I think.”
Jerry: “I doubt that. Maybe you just took on higher risk causes.”
Michael: “Well, anyway, I got a prize from the republicans as their favorite democrat on the condition that I never endorse a republican candidate. That seemed like an easy condition to make, there was not much chance of that. But it was a great adventure, and he even called and invited me to go down on the family plane with him to Los Angeles for the appearance at the convention, which is where he ended up being shot. I’ve often though I might have been with him then, but we had just had a new baby and it just didn’t seem right. I’d been away from home enough. So I stayed home and we watched the awful thing on television.”
Jerry: “You know, there’s sort of a sacred cult among progressives around the shrine of John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. But I have their speeches on my iPod and I listen to them, and I find myself agreeing with almost everything, and I am a conservative republican. Help me understand how the left could be so enamored with these young men when they both seem to have been solid cold warriors; they were practicing Catholics; they didn’t seem to represent that kind of almost gnostic intellectual leftism that has sort of come to the top of the Democratic Party. I’m not sure I understand the love affair since there seem to be real significant ideological differences between the Kennedys – let’s leave Ted out for a moment, but between the older brothers – and the goals and philosophy of ideological progressives.”
Michael: “Well, there was so much color and glamour around Camelot that it became detachable from the really rough kind of politics the Kennedys played and which the left at that time didn’t like. The left was going for Adlai Stevenson or Gene McCarthy – not for Jack or Bobby. But Teddy Kennedy was a different animal. Teddy really went left, strongly left. Since he was marked out as the hero he carried a lot of people with him, but I think he helped in a quite damaging way – good guy that he often was and sensible guy that he often was – nonetheless, he helped left-ify the party (if there is such a word) and lost touch with the real traditions of his brothers which were sort of center-left party under them and in some ways even a bit center-right. Cutting tax rates, for example.”
Jerry: “Right. Kennedy’s speech to the Economic Club of New York is basically to me, vintage supply-side theory that he’s putting forth.”
Michael: “It was, and it made a big impact on Ronald Reagan and had a lot to do with the immense prosperity of this country beginning in the ‘80s, the great burst of fire that came forth and brought us all kinds of new inventions: the cellphones, personal computers, the fiber-optics, genetic medicine. It just changed the whole industrial base of America.”
Jerry: “A friend of mine, a historian Paul Kengor, did an analysis of appearances of biblical quotations in presidential speeches and he found that Kennedy had a higher proportion of quotations from Scripture than any other modern president. And that doesn’t surprise me, as someone who listens to Kennedy speeches. There’s actually a lot of quotes that are often not attributed as quotes to Scripture but they are quotes from Scripture. So this is a family — I know that Jack had his temptations as we all have different sorts of temptations – but they seem to be pretty serious about their faith in many ways.”
Michael: “Well, they also represented a certain classiness, a certain sense of nobility [and] of the classics, the kind that high level that Harvard represents and that was the lingua franca of that class. A familiarity with Scripture at least on par with Washington and Jefferson was a requirement of good breeding and good thinking and solid values.”
Jerry: “So, you’re saying they were solidly educated and so all sorts of literary references, including the Scripture, would have come naturally to mind.”
Michael: “Yeah, but also the writers that they gravitated to, like Ted Sorensen, I’m sure appealed to them exactly because when you read a Ted Sorensen speech or even short text that he wrote it had a dignity to it, it had a lift to it, [and] it sprang from the best that had been written including the King James Bible [and] those redolent phrases of that translation. So, the two Kennedys particularly represented an aspirational sense to lift the level of American common discourse, and I loved that in them… both of them.”
Jerry: “Well, I wonder if that–again, you have a beginning of sort of the intellectual, the thinker, coming into power with the Kennedy administration at a time when to be well-educated was to be well-educated in the classics and in the Bible. Now to be well-educated does not imply that. There’s a story about a New York Times reporter, Frank Bruni, getting confused when George W. Bush said, “I have to remove the plank from my own eye to see the splinter in another’s eye.” And he was absolutely confused by this strange analogy. Well, he’s a well-educated man, he works for the New York Times, but now to be a graduate of Harvard, Princeton, or Yale certainly does not imply, say, a knowledge of Shakespeare, a knowledge of Plutarch, and certainly not a knowledge of the King James Bible.”
Michael: “That’s well said.”
Michael: “I worked for George McGovern in one campaign because I was quite anti-Nixon, unfairly so as I see in retrospect, but I was very anti-Nixon.”
Jerry: “Why were you anti-Nixon? Because your tribe was or was there something about him in particular that rubbed you the wrong way?”
Michael: “No, there was a certain crassness in his manner, and a certain something that I didn’t trust. I admired his knowledge in foreign affairs and his strength in foreign affairs. I admired later his good sense in the opening to China (against a lot of criticism on the right and some on the left). But I just found vis-à-vis Kennedy, Kennedy seemed to me so much more straightforward and direct, and Nixon seemed to me so much more – I hate to use this word because it was a cliché at the time – but shifty, politically-oriented. It’s the same kind of thing I get from President Obama. You just feel [with] everything they do, they’re reading the polls first and trying to score political points.”
Jerry: “That’s interesting. I don’t hear that observation much. I usually hear of Obama as an ideologically-committed, conviction politics type of president.”
Michael: “Here’s a shrewd thing he’s done just in the last few days, purely political: he’s appointing Max Baucus from Montana, retiring senator, to Ambassador to China. What’s the impact of that? Well, he gives the governor of Montana a chance to name another democrat with some more seniority before the election, becomes more popular.”
Jerry: “Oh, I see. A kind of political ruthlessness.”
Michael: “Yeah. In this case, it’s just clever. I think it’s a good thing to do. But I just have this suspicion he’s always thinking that way and you know, if you scratch around it turns out he is an awful lot.”
Jerry: “He comes off to me as someone who has stronger ideological commitments on the left than Nixon had on the right. Do you agree with that?
Michael: “Yeah, I do.”
Jerry: “And may be cleverer. What did Groucho Marx say about Hollywood? “Sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made in this town.” And that may be every bit as true of Washington as it is of Hollywood.”
Michael: “Yeah, I’ve heard that a lot, of course. But what I wanted to get to is I ended up working with McGovern on a next round after ’68. He wasn’t the man I supported but I was really determined to make sure we – the democrats – got back into the presidency and I learned to admire that man to no end, just as a human being. I forget how many missions he flew as a Bombardier, those big things with the Liberator if I remember right. Not many guys lived through that many missions. I mean, your probability of survival went down steadily the more missions you took, because the anti-aircraft fire was incredibly strong and often accurate, and you were going in a bit lower just to get better hits yourself. So I admired that man a lot, though I really came to dislike the campaign. The campaign was led by more and more leftist youth, [and] feminists. We’d go to Joliet, Illinois, a place where one of my great aunts had gone to be a Franciscan nun was at a convent in Joliet, Illinois. [She] was held to have died in a kind of sanctity; thousands of people, I was told, had come to her funeral and were touching their little pieces of cloth to her either when the body was exposed or when the coffin was closed. That’s the only memory I have of Joliet, but I went there. Election campaigns always went there. There was an auto factory… I can’t remember which model. And we went with Mr. Shriver, [McGovern’s] vice presidential candidate. [I] was writing speeches for him. And the workers were all turning away from him; one or two, when he passed, spat at his feet, and I thought, “Hey, this is crazy. This is not the way a democratic candidate…” in Joliet, Illinois, Capone’s town we should have—“
Jerry: “You should have had the auto workers on your side.”
Michael: “We should be able to come out with 104% vote if we need it.”
Jerry: “What do those auto workers sense, in your opinion?”
Michael: “Well, I caught up to our advance team – you know, you send a team to set up these visits and then they guide you through it – well, heck, this girl was good, I’m sure she was good at what she was doing, but she was wearing a see-through blouse with a whole big red “abortion” button on it, and an extremely short skirt and boots. Now, none of these guys wanted their daughters to grow up like that. They didn’t want her to dress like that. They’re conservative, and there was just no point in inflaming the atmosphere that way. It was just a new political culture oblivious to the other cultures of people in America [and] the variety of cultures of people in America. So, I thought we were beginning to lose a culture war.”
Jerry: “So there’s an intellectual class which has utter contempt for sort of ordinary American culture.”
Michael: “Well, the kind of contempt that just allows them to be ignorant and they don’t care to learn. And they do feel superior: they’ve had a better education, they speak better, they have nicer smiles, the whole bit… They’re not as rough-hewn, they’re more articulate, and articulate becomes a test of how smart you are, not of how clever you are.”
Article originally published on Forbes.com.
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