The next morning Pierre called me at the hotel. “Norm, you’re a genius. I think I severely underestimated you. The stuff on Oswald is being confirmed. It checks out. We think you uncovered an incredibly intricate conspiracy. Maybe even a planned takeover.”
“No more of the naive act, Norm. You proved it. You’re good, and you’re on the team. Fly into Washington today. We’ve got a tough job for you. We’re going to legislate civil rights and we’ll need you to move public opinion and Congress.”
I phoned Marina and wished her good-bye. I knew we’d meet again. She said she hoped it wasn’t in a court of law. Even there, I told her, my feelings for her wouldn’t change.
Marilyn drove from work to take me to the airport. She was wearing a black veil over her face. She complained all the way to the airport.
“It’ll never come out. I tried using Ajax this morning and it just got redder.”
“Funny,” I answered. “That never happened to my grandmother.”
“And this veil, everyone asks me why I’m wearing it. I’ve told fifty people I’m in mourning for Mrs. Connally.”
“She was a fine woman.”
“I’ve never met her. You try telling people why you’re in mourning for someone you never met. Everyone now thinks I’m the Lone Star patriot.”
“Is that why you put the Confederate flag on your bumper?”
“Yeah. And what’s worse is police cars escort me all the time. They think I’m a Connally.”
At the airport I shook Marilyn’s hand when we parted. She refused to kiss my cheek as lovers are apt to do before a separation of undetermined length. How I wished it was Marina’s hand in mine.
But thoughts of love evaporated as I sat in on my first high level government meeting. Here I was with the controllers of America’s destiny about to ply their trade. The President was humorless, even dour as he said, “This Administration is going to present to Congress a National Civil Rights Act. Most of you have read the proposed bill… may I have your reactions?”
“Jack,” said his brother Bobby. “the section on education. You can’t bus Negroes to white schools. You’re from Boston, you know better than that. You’ll lose the next election on that one issue alone.”
“This is beyond electoral politics,” the President answered. “Negro children will benefit from the higher standards of suburban schools, and in the end the country will benefit.”
“Even if you’re right,” added Dean Rusk, “It’ll take years to see the results. Leave that as a local school board issue.”
The President was resolute.
“No school board will tip the applecart. Most Americans want to give the Negro an even break, and we’ll give the school boards an excuse to bus. They’ll be breaking the law if they refuse.”
“All I can say,” added Bobby, “is that every parent whose kid comes home from school with a bloody nose is going to blame us next November.”
“Then we’ll start bussing only elementary school children. They are too young to have picked up prejudice.”
“Jack,” interrupted Bobby, “Think back a bit. What did Dad say about Jews during the War? Would we have gone to school with Jews back then?”
I cringed at the conversation. The President noticed and said, “I’m, sorry, Norm. But our father had his shortcomings. But don’t worry. We overcame them.”
I thought this was terribly considerate of the President and relaxed thereafter. This was the moment I came to understand the greatness of the man.
Pierre Salinger also opposed the bill based on his fear that it was too drastic, providing too much, too quickly. He was convinced neither white nor Negro America could handle the significance of a revolution in race relations.
“Mr. President, I have a report financed by the Army. It is sociological in nature and stresses a new concept called Rising Expectations. If you raise people’s expectations too quickly and they are not quickly satisfied, violence born of frustration results.”
“Who wrote that?” demanded the President.
“A Nobel Prize-winning scientist named Shockley. He helped invent the transistor.”
“And do you feel he understands the Negro?”
“He certainly has a deep admiration for their athletic and musical gifts.”
“I’m certain much remained unwritten in other areas.”
“Just as I thought. Another academic study of no worth foisted on the taxpayers. The Negro, when he sees how much his fellow citizens care, will be pacified and grateful, not violent.”
When riots broke out from Harlem to Watts, from Newark to Detroit, and most places in between throughout his second term, the President occasionally expressed a confused disappointment, but his faith in the goodness of Americans never flagged.
“Norm,” he said as I froze momentarily thinking to myself, ‘what did I do?’. “Bobby is right. There will be resistance. I’m told you understand the importance of appearances. How do we break down this resistance?”
Thinking on my feet I said, “The most important thing is to find a black spokesman acceptable to almost all Americans. He has to appeal for his rights and even the most hardened skeptics have to be moved. We have to place him in a high cabinet post and overnight make him the official leader of the Civil Rights Movement. It is very important that he is a team player. There can be no signs of disagreement on this issue from within the Administration.”
“Norman, you are absolutely right. And you are assigned to interview charismatic Negro leaders and find our man.”
I had achieved my first professional breakthrough with the President. I was his man on a highly historical mission.
“Norm,” he continued. “The man you will choose must have those qualities we so appreciate in a Negro leader. He must be obedient, yet humble. He must be of an acceptable appearance to all and must know his place. I know you will find the man to lead the American Negro out of the wilderness.”
“Jungle,” Rush muttered.
The first man I interviewed was a priest named Martin Luther King. He had gained some national notoriety two years previously when Americans saw him leading a protest for equal opportunity in Montgomery, Alabama. During the first days of the protest the feisty and principled Police Chief of Montgomery, Bull Conner, had hosed down the protesters with high-pressure water blasts and then sicked Doberman pinchers on them. Americans were amazed at King’s aplomb. When asked his reaction to the hosing he said calmly that he needed a shower anyway. When asked if he also needed some dog bites he was more reluctant to answer.
I found him a man radicalized by the bitterness of his struggle. His approach to civil rights was a program, more of an attitude really, called Negro Power, Right On.
“Negro is beautiful,” he told me. “Negroes is better lovers than Whiteys, Negroes is better fighters than Whiteys, and Negroes is smarter than Whiteys. You got that straight, you racist Honky? We is the beautiful people of this country.”
Next I interviewed a less grating individual with the unusual name of Malcom X. He felt that education would save the Negro and had a wonderful slogan prepared to express his belief. It went, Learn, Baby, Learn.
After that I interviewed a rather pompous man, prone to exaggeration and quoting false figures to prove his rather extreme view of history. His name was Stokely Carmichael. Of the remaining interviews I was most impressed with the straight-laced humanity and over-riding sense of obedience of Roy Wilkins. For his organizational and fund-raising abilities he was twice named Negro of the Year by the new “Ebony” magazine. He was later appointed head of the NAACP and founded their magazine, serious competition of “Ebony”, called “Uncle Tom.” The editorial stance of the magazine was progressive yet realistic.
Wilkins in his Pulitzer Prize winning first editorial wrote the now classic lines:
“Our cynical detractors, those nabobs of negativism led by a man of no destiny, Martin Luther King, called those Negroes who see success within the American system, Uncle Toms. So we will wear our yellow star with pride. We glory in our success, we revel in our progress, we are proud Uncle Toms.”
This marvelous tract contrasted in my mind with King’s recent overbearing “I Have a Dream” speech, which I found too demanding. Especially the part that went:
“I have a dream. I see two cars in the home of every Negro in America. I have a dream. I see the day when all young Negroes will do their homework in air conditioned rooms, when no Negro child will go to bed overheated. Lordy, Lordy, it’s over. Real freedom at last.”
In comparison with Wilkins’ theme stated in his magazine’s poignant slogan, We Have
Overcome, King was too eccentric for a Kennedy Administration appointment. And I let the President know when discussing my results at the selection meeting with him and his brother. I was upset that Bobby was there knowing the more I came to like him, the more tasteless my future task on behalf of the Teamsters would become.
“So, Mr. President, I see the choice narrowed to Malcom X and Roy Wilkins.”
“What does the X stand for, Norm?” he asked.
“Well, Mr. President, that’s our problem. Malcom insists that’s his full name. So we have an image problem. Americans judge by a person’s name. For instance, your decision to reject McGeorge Bundy’s appointment was the right one. His name should be George McBundy. But as it stands, people will suspect he has his head on backwards, and that’s not a good reflection on this Administration.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Bobby. “I’m lucky, I guess. Robert is a harmless image.”
“True,” I acknowledged, “But Robert Francis is troublesome. Francis sounds, well, girlish.”
“It was a present,” he replied defensively. “I was too young to oppose it. I would have, you can be sure of that.”
“Then it’s Roy Wilkins,” said the President.
“It seems so, with your approval,” I conferred.
“Then we will introduce him with a splash. I’ve decided to invite him to spend a night at the White House. And not in the servants’ quarters either. He will be the first Negro to sleep in the Presidential residence of the White House. And America will know about it.”
“No, Jack, no. Don’t be crazy.”
“It’s a risk, Bobby, my mind’s made up. Norm, I’d like you to find out what foods he is used to, when he goes to sleep, what activities he enjoys…the works...to make his stay pleasant.”
There was fanfare the evening Wilkins came to stay. But the tension dissipated at dinner. I had chosen a meal of black-eyed peas, fried chicken and chitlins. The President asked Wilkins to join him at the table.
“Yassuh, Misser President, I’s comin’.”
When the first course arrived his eyes practically bulged out of their sockets.
“Oh boy, my favorite. Chitlins.”
“Uh, Norm,” asked the President, “What is this delightful looking concoction?”
“Deep fried goose or hogback. You’ll love it.”
“Isn’t it a bit burnt?”
“Yassuh, Misser President. But please don beat the cook. She didn’t mean no harm by it.”
It was clear that Wilkins had much natural charm, and the President took to him immediately. The next day he was convinced Roy Wilkins would enter the nation’s cabinet despite Jackie’s claim that silverware was missing from the kitchen. But how could he be appointed without appearing to be pandering to Negroes? And what position could he hold?
The President had suffered two appointments’ scandals when Bobby was named Attorney General, and his brother-in-law, a hack actor named Peter Lawford, was appointed head of the idealistic and ultimately disastrous attempt at appeasement of the Third World called the Peace Corps. Could Wilkins turn into another controversy? We would have to find him a position of genuine importance, and he would have to be right for the job.
The President overcame these obstacles brilliantly in February when we gathered for the Vietnam strategy meeting. Kennedy inherited a headache from the French in Southeast Asia. Divided in two at a Geneva Conference, the Communist North was infiltrating the democratic and capitalistic South, and the Communists clearly were aiming for a takeover. This we could not tolerate. Communism had to be contained at any price. All America agreed on that.
Two years previously Kennedy had sent his Vice-President, the sophisticated Texan, Lyndon Johnson, and his trusted aide, Walter Jenkins, to Vietnam to review the situation there and discuss options.
At the debriefing Jenkins said he had a wonderful time. The Vietnamese were lovely young men, virile yet cute. Johnson publicly claimed that President Diem was the Winston Churchill of Southeast Asia, a statement Churchill protested, and Kennedy was mollified until Buddhist monks self-immolated themselves before television cameras, expressing the true repressive nature of the Diem regime.
The President approved a plan for his removal and his replacement by a seemingly more benevolent reformer named Ky. But the situation deteriorated under Ky, and the insurgents from the North exploited the insecurity and had gained effective control of the countryside outside the big cities.
“This has to stop,” said the President. “We will assume that Ky must go too. And maybe Ky’s successor will be another turkey. But someday we’ll find a good leader for them. Till that day, that sham in the South must be preserved. We can’t have the Communists taking over every place on earth suffering internal crisis. There’ll be nobody left to trade with that way.”
“I agree,” said Bob MacNamara. “But I don’t want to commit ground troops to defend the likes of Ky. I suggest we nuke Hanoi and keep nuking till the insurgents return home.”
“Too drastic,” said the President. “Though I do agree with the spirit of your idea, the Soviets are Ho Chi Minh’s chief suppliers, and they might decide a nuke on Saigon is the correct response to your proposal. I know I’d respond that way if I was in their shoes. No, we have to teach this ragtag South Vietnamese army to fight and, and they have to purge the countryside of insurgents conventionally. I intend to send troops as advisors. They will fight, teaching by example. I estimate 16,000 should be enough to contain the North till the Southern army is prepared.”
“But,” interrupted Bobby, “Of those 16,000 more than a third will be black, and a lot of the rest uneducated country boys. The rich kids all have college deferments or have paid shrinks to make them 4F. I’m not certain the blacks in their present mood will be motivated to kill brown people, and I’m not at all sure the country boys will be motivated to fight with black people.”
“I’ve considered all that, and I think I’ve got the solution. I am appointing a Secretary of State for Vietnam and a Secretary of Defense for Vietnam. Bob here will stay Secretary of State for all other nations, and Dean will take care of all army issues unrelated to Vietnam, but Bull Conner will be our Vietnamese Secretary of Defense, and Roy Wilkins our Vietnamese Secretary of State.”
I immediately saw the brilliance of the scheme. The people Reagan would later call the Silent Majority loved Conner and admired the courageous stand he took against Luther King’s band of radicals and Roy Wilkins could now enter the Cabinet, easing the passage of the Civil Rights Bill. I was overcome by the brilliance of the concept and interrupted the meeting. “Mr. President, I’m young and believe in your vision. When the upcoming election campaign is done I will enlist in the army and fight in Vietnam.”
“Norm,” he said, “I’ll worry about you like you were my own brother. Bless you and come back whole. We’ll need you here when your duty is up.”
12 And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
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