A tragic anniversary remembered

The weekend just gone marked a tragic anniversary for those of us of a certain age.

It was on 22 November 1963 that then US President John F Kennedy was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in the prime of his life.

But it is the actions of the current White House occupant Donald Trump that colours my memories of Kennedy this weekend.

There is certainly a sense of déjà vu for me when considering the Trump-versus-Biden battle in the aftermath of the 3 November US poll.

Arguments over the outcome of presidential elections is not new. Most of us can recall the Gore-versus-Bush battle in the wake of the 2000 presidential election that ended up being decided by the US Supreme Court.

I well remember the very close 1960 United States presidential election. The then Australian Prime Minister, Robert (later Sir Robert) Menzies, sent me to the US as an official observer of the presidential election.

Menzies was worried about the outcome, and especially worried about Kennedy.

I knew this because on the night before I left, he had said: “Rufus, I’m worried about the possible outcome and especially about Kennedy.”

He didn’t elaborate, but I suspect he held reservations about JFK’s resolve to fight the then Cold War as fiercely as President Eisenhower – fears that ultimately proved groundless.

In that year, the then Democratic Party Senator John F Kennedy won the presidency by barely defeating the Republican Vice-President Richard Nixon. The count went on well into the day after polling day.

JFK secured 34,227,000 votes to Nixon’s 34,109,000 – a margin of 0.1% across the nation. Yet Kennedy gained 303 votes (62%) in the Electoral College to Nixon’s 219 (36%) and we all know that is where it counts.

During his short tenure in the White House, President Kennedy never forgot the support he had received from Menzies.

He and the then PM became great friends and Menzies was very welcome at the White House.

I well recall a lunch Menzies and I shared with the President in June 1962 at which the PM very much enjoyed himself (main picture).

It was at that lunch that Kennedy spoke frankly to us about his domestic political problems, especially those he faced in southern states of the US as the 1964 election and his re-election bid loomed.

It appeared that Texas was going to be a particularly tough state for him to win.

The then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, himself a Texan, was apparently pressuring Kennedy to visit his state to rally Democrats for the fight ahead, but Kennedy was reluctant.

As the President spoke, I realised that Menzies was somewhat “relaxed” after a hearty lunch and several glasses of Californian wine. So much so that he was fitfully dozing during the latter part of our lunch.

So it was left to me to respond to Kennedy and, without sounding immodest, it was not the first time a sitting US Commander in Chief has taken my advice.

“If I were you I’d be off to Texas like a shot,” I recall telling JFK. “It seems to me that your Democratic Party followers there would benefit from a visit by a big shot like you and, dare I say, your gracious good lady wife Jackie.

“As far as I can work out, if you don’t go to Texas your reputation there will be shot.

“You’ll face continuing sniping. Voters there will give you the bullet and desert you, and you need that like a hole in the head,” I told him in no uncertain terms.

I could tell Kennedy was very impressed with my advice and was going to take it.

I guessed as much when he said to me: “Rufus, I’m very impressed with your advice and I’m  going to take it.”

When Menzies woke we departed the White House. We never returned for another lunch because tragically Kennedy’s life was cut short just under 18 months later.

On the occasion of the anniversary of his death at the weekend I spent some time contemplating his death and I, like many others, am still at a loss to explain it.

Rufus Badinage MBE, now retired, is one of Australia’s leading experts on politics and public administration having worked as a senior bureaucrat for various state and federal governments.