Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Memories of Jerry Lewis

Earlier this week, when I learned that Jerry Lewis had died, my first thoughts were not of telethons, Martin and Lewis, or The Nutty Professor. Instead, I thought of a January night a little over two years ago, Eddie Cantor, and “show business.”
On January 9, 2015, I celebrated my birthday at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C. watching a production of Lewis’s one-man show, An Evening with Jerry Lewis. I wasn’t always a Jerry Lewis fan, and there were times in my life when I would have opted for other birthday entertainment. But I had grown to appreciate Lewis over the years for his grit in continuing to perform, discuss, and defend his work on and off the stage.
At the time Lewis visited Washington, D.C., I was immersed in writing The Eddie Cantor Story: A Jewish Life in Performance and Politics.  Martin and Lewis and Eddie Cantor each hosted The Colgate Comedy Hour, an influential early TV program that rotated hosting duties among several comedians. Lewis was the only surviving headliner from The Colgate Comedy Hour and one of the few living links to Cantor.

I have nice memories of my 2015 evening with Lewis. He was 88-years-old at the time of this performance and still touring the country. The Lincoln Theatre was packed with people of all ages. Grandparents brought their children and grandchildren. Couples, like me and my wife, enjoyed “date nights.” The star gave his audience a solid evening of nostalgic entertainment: telling old jokes, sharing anecdotes, and playing video clips from his career. He even included a few Martin and Lewis bits from The Colgate Comedy Hour. Mostly, I liked being in the presence of this show business icon.

Lewis’s death marks the end of an era. He was the last star from the heyday of live television comedy and variety shows.  As I watched Lewis that night in Washington, I was reminded of Cantor and countless other performers who enjoyed stardom during the 1940s and early 1950s. They were professionals who took tremendous pride in their celebrity status and their abilities to pack theaters. As they reprised popular songs and comedy routines, these entertainers demonstrated their love of show business and respect for their audiences. There was nothing wrong with a little nostalgia and kitsch. As long as theatergoers would buy tickets, and viewers would tune in, Lewis and his fellow entertainers would take the stage and give the people their money’s worth. Jerry Lewis was a trouper.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Death Comes for Sacco and Vanzetti

Ninety years ago this August, more than 700 law enforcement officers, from squads throughout the city and state, stood guard in the historic Charlestown neighborhood of Boston.
It was August 22, 1927, and Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were scheduled to die in the electric chair at Charlestown State Prison at midnight. A large crowd of sympathizers held a death vigil outside the police cordon. They might, some feared, resort to violence. (They didn’t.)

In 1921 Sacco and Vanzetti had been convicted of robbery and murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts, a crime committed a year earlier. Their ordeal of imprisonment and futile legal motions for a new trial had played out against a background of rising immigration restriction and domestic terrorism. As the years passed, and arguments for the men’s innocence became stronger, the case morphed from a local police-blotter affair into an international cause célèbre.
This post, adapted from In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti, describes the men’s final hours.
≈ ≈
Monday, August 22, 1927
Defense attorneys reflexively went through legal motions. Barring a miracle, the last grain of sand in the Sacco-Vanzetti hourglass would fall at midnight.
Around the world people took to the streets. There was a bombing in Argentina and “feverish interest” in Germany. Twelve thousand demonstrators gathered in Hyde Park in London. There was a call for general strikes in Australia and in Paraguay. Protestors marched in Mexico and Switzerland. In Paris, police were reported to be mobilizing against “Sacco outbreaks,” as if support for the prisoners was spreading like the plague.
In the United States police were on red alert. Officers in Chicago received instructions “to rush every Sacco-Vanzetti assemblage and to be liberal in the use of tear bombs.” Special guards were assigned to protect monuments and government buildings in Washington, and bridges and subways in New York.
In Boston, at the center of the action, demonstrators maintained their State House protest. A bystander told Mary Donovan, secretary of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee, that he would “be damn glad when they fry those wops tonight and get this thing over.”
≈ ≈
Vanzetti’s sister, Luigia, and Sacco’s wife, Rosina, tried to keep busy.
They called on William Cardinal O’Connell, archbishop of Boston. Luigia appealed to the cardinal for his help, but was said to understand that the prelate’s role was “strictly spiritual.”
Rosina and Luigia also went to the State House to plead with Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller. According to attorney Michael Musmanno, who interpreted for them at this interview and who later reconstructed the scene, Mrs. Sacco appealed to Fuller as a family man: “My husband was always good and faithful to me. He was devoted to his home. Is that the way bandits act? . . . Governor, help my children! Do not kill their father! Please, please, have mercy and have justice. . . . Won’t you see how innocent Nick is?”
For her part, Luigia Vanzetti appealed to the governor as a religious man: “[My brother’s] innocence is assured. Of that there can be no doubt. God has recorded that on the books; the only problem in this long case has been to have those in authority read God’s handwriting. . . . On my knees, oh, Governor! I implore you, do not let America become known as the land of cruelty instead of mercy. I beg of you, I pray you for mercy!”
The governor said he was impressed by the two women, but had no doubts about the prisoners’ guilt.
≈ ≈
Although Governor Fuller was not about to change his mind, he stayed in his office until midnight on August 22, making himself available to just about anybody who wanted to see him.
The visitors streamed in.
Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay met with him, then sent a follow-up letter begging the governor to ask himself: What would Jesus do? Jesus would not, she believed, have walked “the way in which your feet are set! . . . There is need in Massachusetts of a great man tonight. It is not yet too late for you to be that man.”
Congressman Fiorello La Guardia of New York met with Fuller. Ten years earlier the two men had served together in the United States House of Representatives. Now, La Guardia told reporters, “There is about one chance in a thousand” for a successful appeal.
Paul Kellogg, editor of the social policy journal Survey, met with the governor. Together with five other prominent citizens, he asked for a stay of execution until doubts could be resolved. Fuller accused the group of being manipulated by Felix Frankfurter, then a professor at Harvard Law School and author of a blistering and influential analysis of the case.
Nearly a thousand letters and telegrams, most urging clemency, also swamped Fuller’s office that day.
≈ ≈
Inside Charlestown State Prison
Rosina and Luigia arrived for the first of three visits they would make to the prison that day. The women entered the death house “with faltering steps,” the Boston Globe reported, and left an hour later showing “evidences of great sorrow.”
Robert Elliott arrived. The professional electrician worked as a free-lance executioner for several states, including Massachusetts. He did an equipment check on Charlestown’s heavy wooden electric chair with its straps, high back, broad arms, rubber-padded headrest, and legs bolted to the floor:

“I make certain [for each execution that the chair] is hooked up and that no wires are broken. I inspect the adjusting screws, test the strength of the straps, and determine whether the buckles work freely. A strap did break during an execution, and I try to prevent a repetition of this.
“Then I look to see if the mask is where it should be, and ascertain whether its strap and buckle are sound. The mask, usually a black leather band with an opening for the nostrils and mouth, serves a double purpose: that of shielding the face and holding the head in place. . . .
“A pail of brine—nothing more than a solution of common salt and water—is prepared. In this are soaked the sponges of the electrodes to insure a good contact. . . .
“My next step is to test the apparatus. This is accomplished in either of two ways. One is to attach a board of electric lights to the wires leading to the chair. . . . The other is to put the two electrodes in a bucket of water, with perhaps a pinch of salt, and close the circuit. . . .”

Inside the prison, the atmosphere was tense, Elliott observed. Nerves were almost at the breaking point.
Late afternoon
Rosina and Luigia visited again, then attorney William Thompson arrived. Thompson had represented Sacco and Vanzetti in the final years of the case. He had received a message that Vanzetti wanted to see him before he died. Lawyer and client spoke of battles they had fought, and of the future. Vanzetti gave Thompson “his most solemn reassurance, . . . with a sincerity which I could not doubt, . . . that both he and Sacco were absolutely innocent of the South Braintree crime. . . .” Vanzetti said he understood more clearly than ever that he would not have been convicted “had he not been an anarchist, so that he was in a very real sense dying for his cause. He said it was a cause for which he was prepared to die. He said it was the cause of the upward progress of humanity. . . . He asked me to do what I could to clear his name. . . .”

They talked about Christianity. The condemned man “asked me whether I thought it possible that he could forgive” his persecutors. Thompson replied that he did not know, but suggested that Vanzetti try, “for his own peace of mind, and also because an example of such forgiveness would in the end be more powerful . . . than anything else. . . .” Vanzetti said he would think about it.
Before leaving the death house, Thompson said farewell to Sacco, in the adjacent cell. The two men had often disagreed about strategy. Now Sacco told Thompson that “he hoped that our differences . . . had not affected our personal relations, thanked me for what I had done for him, showed no sign of fear, shook hands with me firmly [through the bars], and bade me goodbye. His manner also was one of absolute sincerity.”
Five o’clock
Suppertime at Charlestown. A light supper was brought to the prisoners in the death house. No one was hungry.
Six o’clock
Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the autodidact who had kept up such an extensive correspondence with so many people during seven years behind bars, sat down to write his last known letter. It was a message for lecturer and liberal activist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, namesake of his famous literary grandfather. Vanzetti thanked him for “all that you have done for Nicola, I, and for our families.” He asked Dana for a final favor: “What I wish more than all in this last hour of agony is that our case and our fate may be understood . . . and serve as a tremendous lesson . . . so that our suffering and death will not have been in vain.”
Aldino Felicani arrived at the prison while Vanzetti was writing this letter. By law, someone was required to claim the bodies of electrocuted prisoners before they died. “It was up to me to do that,” said Felicani, the friend who had started the men’s defense committee and had supported them untiringly.
Journalist Gardner Jackson accompanied Felicani to the jail. “The whole city was an armed camp,” Felicani recalled. “My heart was beating fast. The trip . . . was made in silence. . . . We reached the jail. The atmosphere that prevailed was suspense and fear. . . . Inmates appeared to be watching in the shadows. . . . Everyone, at the entrance, in the lobby, in the office, was busy with the details of the execution. I entered the office. The warden, Mr. Hendry, was there. He was drunk. I asked him what the procedure was and he gave me the papers to sign. It was in such a manner that I claimed the bodies of my friends, who were then still alive.”
Seven o’clock
Rosina and Luigia returned for a few final moments of farewell. “Leave-Taking Pathetic,” one headline summed up; “Doomed Men Stretch Arms Through Cell Bars in Efforts to Embrace Wife and Sister.”
Starting at seven “and continuing throughout the evening,” radio station WBET aired live coverage of execution night.
Eight forty-five
Warden Hendry went to the death house. The latest petition for a writ of habeas corpus had been denied. Any faint glimmer of hope for an eleventh-hour reprieve was gone. Hendry stopped at each cell. “I am sorry,” he told each prisoner, “but it is my painful duty to inform you that you have to die tonight. Your lawyers have exhausted their efforts.”
Celestino Madeiros, a convicted murderer scheduled to be executed that night along with Sacco and Vanzetti, was asleep when Hendry went to his cell. Madeiros woke up, listened, and went back to sleep. (Two years earlier, Madeiros had confessed to being in on the South Braintree crime and had exonerated Sacco and Vanzetti, but the motion for a new trial based on the confession had been rejected.) Sacco was writing a letter to his father in Italy when Hendry went to his cell next. He told the warden he wanted to be sure that his father received the letter, and Hendry promised he would personally see that it was mailed. Sacco thanked the warden “for this and other kindnesses” during his imprisonment. Vanzetti, in the last cell, was pacing back and forth. He had been at Charlestown, and known Hendry, the longest. He appeared momentarily shocked when Hendry gave him the news. Then Vanzetti too thanked the warden for his kindnesses, and resumed pacing.
Prison chaplain Father Michael Murphy accompanied Hendry. All three condemned men rejected his entreaties to return to their religious faith before dying.
Nine forty-five
Father Murphy went back to the death house cells with Hendry, but his ministrations were again rejected. The prisoners, he told a reporter, said they preferred to die as they had lived.
Ten o’clock
In the presence of Robert Elliott, prison electricians tested the chair one last time.
The official witnesses headed to the white-walled, brightly lit death chamber: five government doctors, three corrections officials, and a “newsgatherer” selected by lot, William Playfair of the Associated Press. Scores of other reporters waited across the prison yard in a guards’ building.
 “When more than one person is ticketed for death on the same night, the order of their going is determined in advance. The weakest—that is, the one least able to stand up under the ordeal of waiting his turn—is first. The others follow according to their physical and mental condition.” Thus Robert Elliott described the procedure for deciding the order of multiple executions, a procedure that in Charlestown dictated the prisoners’ cell assignments: Celestino Madeiros in Cell One, Nicola Sacco in Cell Two, Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Cell Three.
“The death march began three minutes after twelve,” Elliott recalled. “With a guard on each side, Madeiros entered the death chamber in a semi-stupor. . . . He spoke not a word.” He was strapped down. Elliott “threw on a current of 1400 to 1900 volts. Three times the current was thrown on and off, and at 12:09:35 [a.m.], four examining physicians declared officially that Celestino Madeiros was dead.”
Behind a screen stood “three green slabs awaiting three corpses.” The body of Madeiros was removed from the chair and placed on one of the waiting slabs. He was 25 years old when he died.

One telegraph operator was sitting near the death chamber; another, in the guards’ building where the press was hunkered down. “Within a minute of the time that Madeiros had died, the ticker . . . flashed out the news. Instantly other tickers . . . went into action, and within a matter of minutes the news went racing across the world.”
Nicola was next. To Bartolo, he called out “Goodbye.” Then he walked “slowly but steadily” into the death chamber. Elliott noticed that Sacco was “deathly pale.”
Nick “sat down without protest.” Many years had passed since the day he had sat down in another chair, posing for a portrait in a photographer’s studio, exuding youthful ambition and confidence. Many years, too, since he had mastered his shoemaking craft, since he had fallen in love, since he had carried his son in his arms. “As the guards swung about to adjust the straps [and apply the electrodes], Sacco sat bolt upright in the chair of death. Casting about wildly with his eyes, he cried [out] in Italian, ‘Long live anarchy!’”
“Everything was now ready,” Elliott said, “except the placing of the mask over his face. But the mask could not be found. The guards and I searched frantically for it. I could feel beads of perspiration starting out on my forehead. Meanwhile, Sacco continued to speak. ‘Farewell, my wife and child and all my friends,’ he cried in broken English.”
“Then, seeming to become cognizant of the witnesses as individuals . . . , he went on politely, ‘Good evening, gentlemen.’”
“As Sacco was saying these things,” Elliott recalled, “a guard strode back into the room with the mask. It had been caught in Madeiros’s clothing, and carried from the chamber when his body was taken out for autopsy. Had it not been for Sacco’s talking, the incident might have been noticed. As it was, the only reporter present failed to observe what had happened, and no mention was made of it in the newspapers. I have often since been thankful that the little Italian was so talkative as he sat in the chair awaiting the end.”
Guards slipped the recovered mask over Nick’s face. He called out to his dead mother, “Farewell, mia madre.” An “extra heavy current” was administered, 1800 to 2000 volts. At 12:19:02 a.m., Nicola Sacco was pronounced dead, and his body removed from the chair. He was 36 years old when he died.
The guards went to the cells for the last time. They unlocked the third cell, and “escorted Vanzetti over the twenty short steps to the door of the death chamber.” Elliott noted that the last prisoner was the “most composed. . . . When guards came for him, he shook their hands. . . .” He thanked Warden Hendry “for everything you have done for me.”
Vanzetti took his place in the heavy chair. The survival skills he had developed as a lonely teenager far from home had served him well throughout his life, and now, staring death in the face, he stayed calm. As the guards adjusted straps and electrodes, Vanzetti spoke to the witnesses: “I wish to tell you I am innocent, and never committed any crime, but sometimes some sin. I thank you for everything you have done for me. I am innocent of all crime, not only of this, but all. I am an innocent man.”
Bartolo must have spent his final hours on earth thinking about his conversation with William Thompson, for he pronounced his last words with great precision: “I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me.”
Guards slipped the mask over Vanzetti’s face, and “current was applied,” 1400 to 1800 volts. At 12:26:55 a.m., Bartolomeo Vanzetti was pronounced dead, and his body removed from the chair. He was 39 years old when he died.
≈ ≈
Robert Elliott, another job professionally done, took a taxi back to his hotel.
The special police forces stationed around the prison went off duty.
In Detroit, Sacco-Vanzetti sympathizers in Cadillac Square clashed with police. Anarchist Attilio Bortolotti was clubbed on the head. He went to the offices of the Detroit News later and learned that the executions had taken place as scheduled. “I don’t know how I got home that night,” Bortolotti said.
In New York, protestors in Union Square sobbed uncontrollably when the executions were announced. Valerio Isca and his comrades eventually “went home to Brooklyn on the subway. When we emerged at the Montrose [Avenue] station, we were still crying.”
There were tears, too, in the Italian neighborhood of Federal Hill in Providence. The executions were a “moment of great defeat,” Thomas Longo recalled.
It rained all night in Boston. At home with her family, waiting by the phone for news, defense supporter Cerise Carman Jack felt “emotional [and] sad.” Powers Hapgood, who had traveled to Boston to join the last-minute protests, was devastated. “[N]othing has ever ravaged my soul and feelings” like the executions, he wrote his parents.
Aldino Felicani and Gardner Jackson walked the dark streets of Boston in silence that night. So did Felix Frankfurter and his wife. When a radio loudspeaker blared out the announcement of the deaths, Marion Frankfurter collapsed.
Luigia Vanzetti, at the apartment where she had taken refuge, cried in silence. With her, Rosina Sacco wept without restraint. Her “piercing cries” were said to echo through the neighborhood.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Transgender Voices Breaking the Silence

"The Traits of Both" by Soraida Martinez

by Jackson Wright Shultz
author of Trans/Portraits: Voices from Transgender Communities

I distinctly remember the first time I ever read an entire book without help.

Shortly after my third birthday, I sat on the edge of my parents’ bed as they bustled back and forth through the doorway connecting their bedroom to the bathroom, preparing for the day ahead. I read slowly and methodically, practically shouting the words into the bathroom to make sure my parents could hear the groundbreaking story of the freckled, red-haired boy’s trip to the park.

I had successfully blundered through several pages, but when at last I arrived at a word I didn’t recognize, I wailed for someone to come read it to me. My mom, a reading teacher, ignored my plea for help, but called mechanically from the bathroom, “Sound it out!”

With no small amount of indignation, I formed the sounds of each letter slowly with my tongue. I struggled to make sense of the noises I heard myself producing, but an ever-stubborn child, I kept at it until the disparate phonics morphed into recognizable syllables. When I finally made sense of the text, I bellowed the offending word into the bathroom and continued my recitation with newfound vigor.

Jackson Wright Shultz
I don’t remember which seemingly difficult word became the source of my triumph; I don’t remember where we were going that day (although, I know it must have been an important event because I was wearing a rather formal dress with several scratchy layers of crinoline); and I don’t remember much about the book, save for its orange and green cover. Yet, I do remember the empowerment I felt when I finished the book.

Later, as we drove to whatever event dictated that I wear such an uncomfortable dress, I peered out of the car window, calling out the words on every street sign. After twenty miles of my commentary on mile markers and speed limit signs, my elder sister implored me to stop. (I steadfastly refused.) From those road signs, to the entirety of the children’s section of the local library, I began to read everything I could find. In retrospect, I think I was searching, in vain, for the smallest indication of a character to whom I could relate.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I finally found the character I had been searching for. As I read Leslie Feinberg’s lesbian cult classic, Stone Butch Blues, I turned each page with a combination of unbridled excitement and dread. The novel details the coming of age story of Jess, a young butch lesbian who, after a lifetime of ridicule, begins taking cross-gender hormones to more closely align her physical appearance with her masculine identity. Although Jess is never specifically labeled as transgender, the trajectory she follows resonates with many transgender and nonbinary individuals.

While this was not the first transgender narrative I had encountered, it was the first story in which I found critical pieces of myself reflected. For the first time in my life, my voracious reading had led me to a protagonist with whom I could wholeheartedly identify. Like Jess, I didn’t necessarily identify strictly as a man; however, transitioning seemed like the next logical step in the progression of my own gender identity. I came out as transgender shortly after finishing Stone Butch Blues.

By virtue of navigating my body away from the gender I had been assigned at birth, I fell under the broad umbrella of “transgender” and found myself a part of a vibrant community of individuals who identified and expressed their genders in fathomless ways. The more I talked to other transgender and nonbinary individuals, the more I realized that there are so many important and recurrent gender narratives that have somehow been omitted from the current body of work on transgender issues. I set out to write Trans/Portraits to tell the stories of transgender and nonbinary people in their own words in an attempt to correct this egregious erasure.

In conducting my research for the book, I didn’t know exactly what I would find, but there were certain themes I expected to encounter—medical and workplace discrimination, familial strife, and encounters with prejudice—but there were other discoveries I hadn’t predicted. Of the many dozens of transgender and nonbinary individuals I interviewed, I was surprised to learn that nearly all of them were involved in activist endeavors.

One of the men I interviewed, pseudonym “Greg,” aptly summarized this phenomenon: “I feel that a lot of trans folk become activists, not because they necessarily want to, but because there is a certain amount of need. […] As you deal with prejudice on a daily basis, you start picking and choosing which battles are the most important to you and then you start educating the people around you. Even if they never intended for it to happen, I believe most trans people become accidental activists.”

I was also surprised to find that I was not alone in my childhood literary pursuits. “Wendy” told me, “When I was a kid, I learned to read at a really early age. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. Even though I didn’t consciously realize it, I was desperately searching through literature to find any glimpse of other people who were like me.” Several other interviewees, including “Catherine” and “Erik,” echoed this sentiment.

Learning that there were others out there searching for the faintest glimmers of themselves in the literature crystallized my desire to find and archive stories that broke the narrow mold of how transgender identities are usually conceptualized. My intent was to tell stories, like mine, that were not often expressed in transgender literature.

It was critical to me that this project provide a platform for voices that, even within transgender spaces, are often left out of the conversation. As “Bella” pointed out, transgender history has often been whitewashed, and the stories of trans people have frequently been left out of the conversation. “Our voices have been silenced long enough,” she told me, “It’s about damned time that somebody let us tell our truths.”

Ultimately, writing Trans/Portraits was a labor of love. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to connect with so many remarkable trans and nonbinary individuals and that I was able to provide a platform that allowed each of them to share their incredible stories. Although I began writing this book with mild uncertainty about what I would find, the positivity and diversity I encountered in collecting these stories allowed me to finish this project with hope that others who are still searching for their truths might find themselves amongst these pages.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Brenda Biondo Featured at the San Diego Museum of Art

By UPNE Staff

Brenda Biondo’s book Once Upon a Playgroundone of our inaugural ForeEdge titles!—has recently been featured at the San Diego Museum of Art, along with some of her many amazing works of figural photography:

For more information about the artist and author, click here—and here is more information on the museum show.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

JFK at 100

What would John F. Kennedy have done? As the United States seemingly lurches from one polarizing domestic or foreign crisis to another, it’s curiously tempting to look at the historical example of our 35th president, whose centennial we celebrate on May 29th, 2017. 

Kennedy was first and foremost a pragmatist, a point he underscored when, on being asked about his ambitions in high office, he answered simply: “I hope to be effective.” The Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter once informed “young Jack”, as he called him, that as the nation’s chief executive his job was to “direct funds, goods, and people to concerns that relate to the human welfare.” Kennedy’s desk diary of his time in office often reveals a preoccupation with rather more narrowly defined tasks. He was supremely good at seeing the “big picture” of a particular issue, and often showed a refreshing (and distinctly non-partisan) breadth of thought not always conspicuous in his modern successors. In January 1962, at the height of a potentially cataclysmic showdown with the Soviet Union over access rights to Berlin, Kennedy summoned the city’s military governor General Lucius Clay to discuss the crisis. Years later, Clay recalled that the president had made one or two “eminently sensible” suggestions about the issue at hand, before going on to seek his advice on another matter. 
“Kennedy was seeking to impose price and wage restraints on the US steel industry at that time,” Clay recalled. “He knew that I had been the head of a firm that was a large user of steel, and I remember he asked me whom he could get in touch with in the area, off the record, and talk quietly to” - another example of what the hard-headed general admiringly called the president’s “intuitive skill in finding problem-solving resources that others might have overlooked.”
The irony, perhaps, is that while Kennedy remains a potent symbol of modernity and progressivism, both in terms of his political philosophy and his notably laissez-fair personal morals, he was in some ways a traditional figure who embraced many of the institutions that had served to unite a disparate people for 200 years. To enumerate them would make today’s more sensitive liberal soul wince, so here goes: the Church; the flag; the rule of law; the US military; and perhaps above all the exercise of self-discipline in our fundamental social contract with one another – “the right to enjoy life to the full up to the moment when it detracts from your neighbor’s right to do so”, as he once put it to his British friend, and fellow centrist politician, Hugh Fraser.
Of course, one can take the view that Kennedy’s natural or acquired gift for compromise, particularly when it came to foreign affairs, displayed a far-sighted grasp of statesmanship; or that it was all a cynical piece of political pandering designed to make him attractive to both sides in a debate. In either case, it seems fair to say that Kennedy’s realism effectively checked and balanced his belief that it was important for the United States to constantly assert itself in the struggle to stem the tide of world communism. On the campaign trail, he was a consistently reasonable and benign commander-in-chief who assured his audiences that he would never commit young Americans to battle without the most compelling need to do so. In the War Room, he remained open to the counsel of his military chiefs that bombing the likes of Cuba back to the Stone Age was an eminently viable option.
Kennedy with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan
“Any other course of action will be almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich,” the bluff, cigar-chewing air force chief Curtis LeMay told the president at a White House meeting to discuss the growing Cuban missile crisis on October 19, 1962. “I think that a blockade, and political talk, would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as a pretty weak response to this,” he added. When LeMay when on to inform the president that “You’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time”, Kennedy responded merely: “Well, you’re in there with me.”
It may not be insignificant that John Kennedy spent several of his most impressionable student years in and around London, just as the British political establishment argued over the correct response to take to Nazi Germany’s growing territorial ambitions. He was even present in the visitors’ gallery of the House of Commons to witness the climactic declaration of war on September 3, 1939. It might be a stretch to say that Kennedy’s whole later attitude to dictatorial figures such as Nikita Khrushchev followed on from his experience of the Europe of the 1930s. But there’s no doubt that he took with him into office a fundamental set of principles that he summarized this way in his 1940 undergraduate thesis-tuned-bestseller Why England Slept:

“Democracy may be a great system of government to live under, but its weaknesses are great … We must realize that democracy is a luxury. We may be able to afford it due to our particular position, but we must be continually aware of the lesson we have learned from our study of England and Germany’s armament history from 1937-1939. We have seen that a democracy cannot successfully compete with a dictatorship on even terms. Our foreign policy therefore, should be directed to taking advantage of certain economic and strategic advantages that we now possess, and making sure that we never reach a position of having to compete with a dictator on their home grounds—that is both starting on an even basis—or the dictatorship will win.”

Christopher Sandford is the author of Union Jack: JFK's Special Relationship with Great Britain