JFK

#1341 Dinner with Jefferson

#1341 Dinner with Jefferson

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

— Thomas Jefferson, 1800

This week, we ask President Jefferson about his famous dinner parties and their extensive menus. It was important to Jefferson to not appear too regal, and the dinner parties were kept somewhat casual. In 1802, a Federalist senator from New Hampshire was meeting Jefferson at a dinner when “a tall high boned man” entered the room wearing “an old brown coat, red waistcoat, old corduroy small clothes, much soiled—woolen hose—& slippers without heels.” He added, “I thought this man was a servant; but was surprised by the announcement it was the President.”

A Crescent Moon With Eyewitnesses to American History

Last Tuesday, I got to spend the entire day with Dr. Harrison Schmitt, the last man ever to step down onto the Moon, and the second to last man ever to leave the surface of the Moon. He was speaking at the JFK symposium at Bismarck State, and I volunteered to shepherd him to his appearances in Bismarck.

Schmitt lives in Albuquerque. He's now 78 years old. Of the twelve men (all men) who have walked on the Moon, he's the only true scientist. He was put on the last mission (December 7-19, 1972) because NASA had pledged that it would send scientists to the Moon once it worked out the safety and logistical kinks, and suddenly it was determined by an imaginative-starved Congress that Apollo 17 would be the last mission of the series. So it was now or never. Schmitt turned out to be a perfect choice for the last mission. Because of his geological training (Harvard Ph.D., 1964), he discovered what other scientists have called "the single most significant lunar sample" ever collected.

For me, spending time with an Apollo lunar astronaut is as big a deal as spending a day with Paul McCartney or Michael Jordan or Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi. This was the first time in the history of the world when humans left their home planet, and found a way to live safely (for a short time) on another object in the solar system. Dr. Schmitt says the Apollo moment (1966-1972) represents an evolutionary leap for mankind; for the first time we found a niche for ourselves outside the protective biosphere of the good earth. For those who might argue that the Moon landings were not such a big deal, think again. The fact that Moon flights did not become routine, that we have never been back to the Moon since 1972, and we have no plans to go back, that we now don't even have a rocket that could get us there, tells you what a big deal it was. President Kennedy said it just right in September 1962 at Rice University in Houston: "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."

The Saturn V rocket, designed by the German genius Wernher von Braun, spent the overwhelming majority of its 7.5 million pounds of thrust (the gigantic first stage contained 203,400 gallons of kerosene, and 318,000 gallons of liquid oxygen) just getting the spaceship the first 42 miles into the sky. Such is the appalling tug of gravity, and such is the amount of force required to lift an object the size of school bus beyond "the surly bonds of earth." The rest, on a lunar journey of 240,000 miles one way, was comparatively easy.

As Norman Mailer put it in his superb study of Apollo 11, Of a Fire on the Moon, igniting a Saturn V rocket is essentially setting off a controlled explosion and hoping for the best. In the evening hours of December 6, 1972, Dr. Schmitt let himself be strapped on the top of that controlled explosion on a rocket 366 feet tall (half again as high as the North Dakota state capitol), and then somebody pushed the "launch" button and the Saturn V shook, rattled, and rolled until three men and tons of equipment were hurled all the way to the Moon. Would you take that chance?

I would in a nanosecond, even knowing the odds. And if someone offered me the chance to fly to Mars, and land on the surface not of our near-neighbor Moon, but on another planet 140 million miles away, I'd sign on immediately, even if there were absolutely no way to return to the Earth. I'd rather die on Mars than in a hospital bed, invaded by tubes, no matter at what age.

I believe we made it to the Moon in the 1960s because of the death of President Kennedy. That's a horrible irony, but I think it is true. Like his stalled Civil Rights bill, his stalled national education funding bill, his stalled Medicare bill, all of which he could not have passed in his first, and probably not even in his second term, Kennedy's signature Apollo Moon program achieved success in large part because his successor Lyndon Johnson insisted that the United States fulfill the New Frontier agenda to honor his martyred predecessor. LBJ, one of the greatest legislative strategists in American history, used Kennedy's death and his own colossal powers of persuasion to accomplish what had eluded his much more glamorous and popular predecessor.

I feel like the luckiest man alive. On the same night last week I got to have dinner with Clint Hill, the secret service agent who jumped forward onto the limousine on the day John F. Kennedy was killed, and who probably saved Mrs. Kennedy's life, and then go to the airport to pick up Harrison Schmitt.

A good friend of mine asked the other day if the Kennedy 50th anniversary hoopla is not just a kind of swan song for the Baby Boomers, who are "once again engaging in national nostalgia for their lost youth." I was startled by the question, and I had one of those inrushes of queasiness that come when someone gets through your complacent defenses and asks a question that really rattles your soul. But I think he was wrong

Clint Hill and Harrison Schmitt. Talk about eyewitnesses to history. November 22, 1963, was arguably one of the four or five most pivotal moments of the twentieth century, and the Apollo Moon program was quite possibly the greatest single moment in the history of technology. Triumph and tragedy. In some respects Schmitt and Hill (space and assassination), summarize the entire Kennedy era. John Glenn and John Connally, Walter Schirra and Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Daniel Ellsberg, Alan Shepard and Allen Dulles. It was an unforgettable decade.

Kennedy captured the spirit of the age in his famous inaugural address, widely considered one of the greatest in American history. After explaining the many challenges he was about to face, the youngest elected president of American history said, "I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation." Precisely. Would you change places with the folks of Jefferson's era, or Shakespeare's, or even Woodrow Wilson's? Not I. And if I were a woman, or an African-American, or a gay man or woman, absolutely positively not.

After dinner with Dr. Schmitt the other night I drove over to BSC to hear Clint Hill tell the appalling story of the last two days of John F. Kennedy's life. As I drove west towards BSC I looked out the side window of my car. There was a perfect silvery crescent in the southwestern sky. It was the new Moon and it was astonishingly beautiful. I slowed down to a crawl to gaze out into the night.

I ached with a sense of loss and pride, sorrow, nostalgia, an acute sense of human possibility and of lost possibility, and I nearly burst into tears. "We went there," I said to myself.

"Thanks to John F. Kennedy, we went there."


"Schmitt Next to Big Boulder." From NASA on the Commons via Flickr.

So What Happens When the Military Industrial Complex Gets Mad?

After months, even years, of planning the big John F. Kennedy 50th anniversary symposium is fast upon us. It starts Tuesday evening at BSC National Energy Center of Excellence with a keynote address by North Dakota native Clint Hill, the secret service agent who crawled up on the presidential limousine when Jacqueline Kennedy climbed up and out of the back seat on 12:30 p.m. on November 22, 1963.

In the handful of truly searing moments in my lifetime, that's the searingest. School was dismissed (second grade, Lincoln Elementary). I went to Cub Scouts, where I made my mother a Christmas corsage, which she still wears. I think about that day every time I drive by that duplex on Third Avenue in Dickinson. Every time for fifty years.

Think of Clint Hill's burden.

For many months I have been reading Kennedy books—biographies, analyses of his presidency, explorations of particular themes (Berlin 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam), books about key people around him (particularly his brother Robert), and of course books about the assassination. My tired little brain is full to bursting with Kennedy Kennedy Kennedy. He's far from my favorite president, but he is growing on me with all of this reading. I love what I get to do (read for a living), but at some point the brain just goes tilt like an old pinball machine. I've purchased 30-40 books to get ready and read most of them. For the past few days I have been hand-drawing a JFK presidential crisis flow chart on a big sheet of white paper on my kitchen counter. I know this can be done better electronically, but I'm too dense to learn the program in time. The Cuban Missile Crisis (14-28 October 1962) is without question the most significant crisis of Kennedy's presidency (towering on my silly chart), and arguably the most critical moment in the world since the splitting of the atom in 1938.

In my opinion, two men saved the world in October 1962: John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. If two others had been in charge at that time, it seems likely that we would have tripped over the nuclear precipice, and somewhere between 30 and 300 million people would have been killed. JFK's deepest concern was that once the nuclear exchange began it would be almost impossible to stop it because each outrage is so appalling—we take out Moscow, they take out Washington, D.C., so we take out Leningrad, after which they… The generals on both sides were salivating to launch nuclear missiles and drop warheads from airplanes. Kennedy's generals, principally Admiral George Anderson of the Navy and Curtis LeMay of the Air Force browbeat the young president throughout the crisis—teasing and testing the Constitutional line that insists that the American military be under civilian authority. Even afterwards, when JFK called in the Joint Chiefs to thank them for their hard work during the crisis, Anderson said America's response (a naval quarantine that forced the Soviets to back down and agree to remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba) was worse than Munich (where the Brits gave Hitler the green light to gobble Czechoslovakia and prime minister Neville Chamberlain called it "peace in our time"). And LeMay called the peaceful resolution of the crisis "the greatest defeat in our history." Flatterers!

So here's the youngest elected president in American history, a former senator with no previous administrative experience, a frightened young man with an admittedly thin (if heroic) military record, being systematically hectored and belittled by the most confident and overbearing career military men in the United States, who assure him that he is endangering the country as well as the Free World, not to mention betraying his Constitutional responsibility. Khrushchev was getting it in equal or greater measure from the other side, in a nation with much weaker constitutional restraints. But when the critical moment came, both men (Kennedy 45, Khrushchev 68) declined to push the nuclear button. They were both under unbearable pressure to ratchet the crisis up to the apocalypse, these two flawed men, both of whom were prone to wild Cold War rhetoric, both of whom felt the need to prove their masculinity in a range of often reckless ways. It would have been so much easier just to surrender to the military. It took courage, indeed something more than courage, to choose the path of peace in that crucible—in which one false step might bring western civilization to collapse.

Think about it. We get to talk about such matters this week in Bismarck, with some of the greatest experts in the world. Our focus is not lone gunman and magic bullet, though we'll do a little of that, too. Our focus is one of the most interesting periods of American history, the gravest years of the Cold War, when humans were deciding, in crisis after crisis, whether to normalize nuclear weapons in what Kennedy called the "long twilight struggle" between two world empires and two fundamentally incompatible political and economic systems.

Here's one reason I find that so fascinating. If we agree that Kennedy and Khrushchev saved the world in October 1962 by standing up, each of them independently, to the military industrial complex, it might be interesting to see what came of each of these beleaguered leaders in the aftermath of the crisis. Less than two years later, Khrushchev was deposed by the Soviet establishment, led by his deputy Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet presidium accepted Khrushchev's "voluntary retirement" on October 14, 1964, after a year of behind the scenes skullduggery. He lived out the rest of his life in bare-bones obscurity.

We know what happened to John F. Kennedy—don't we? He was assassinated in Texas thirteen months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in a mysterious episode that was captured on 8mm film by a Dallas merchant. Although the tidy narrative that the assassination of JFK was the work of an unstable drifter was circulating worldwide by the end of that terrible Friday, well before a serious investigation could get started, the American people have never really cottoned to it, in spite of the massive weight of the Warren Commission's 26-volume report (September 24, 1964). The fact that the lone gunman was struck down two days later, by a shady night club owner with known mob connections and a strangely cozy relationship with Dallas cops, while surrounded by 70 law enforcement officers in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters, does not exactly deter the conspiracy theorists.

Honestly, I have no settled opinion about who killed Kennedy. My mind is like a yoyo. When I read David Talbot's superb Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, I lean towards the Grassy Knoll and Oswald's insistence that he was a "patsy." When I read Vincent Bugliosi's Parkland (originally Four Days in November), I see Jack Ruby as a traumatized super-patriot who killed Oswald to spare Jacqueline Kennedy from having to come back to Dallas to testify in the murder trial. When I read William Manchester's magisterial Death of a President, lone gunman, but when I read Larry Sabato's new The Kennedy Half-Century, I want to know why the CIA and FBI both indisputably covered up what they knew about Oswald and the assassination.

This much is certain. Kennedy believed that a coup d'état was possible in the United States. I do too. And both Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy never bought the lone gunman narrative, even though each of them endorsed it for a range of reasons.


Your Chance to Meet the Second to Last Man to Walk on the Moon

In just over two weeks we get the chance to meet Harrison Schmitt, the second to last man to walk on the moon. He's coming to the great JFK public humanities symposium at BSC (November 5-7) to talk about John F. Kennedy and the space program. At 3:45 on Wednesday, November 6, Schmitt will speak about the extraordinary chain of events that followed Kennedy's May 25, 1961, call to action, before a joint session of Congress, "that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

If you want to meet someone who stood on the surface of the moon, this is your best chance, because the Apollo astronauts, like the Beatles, are blinking out, and it is clear that the United States is not going back to the moon in the lifetime of anyone who is reading these words. That, I believe, is both a matter of national shame and a monument to President Kennedy, who argued, at Rice University on September 12, 1962 that, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."

If JFK had not said spoken these words, and—perhaps more importantly—if he had not been cut down by an assassin's bullet on November 22, 1963, we probably would not have landed men on the moon as soon as we did, and perhaps not at all, particularly after the Apollo 1 fire on January 27,1967, in which three astronauts were killed while conducting a liftoff simulation at the Florida launch pad, at the very beginning of the lunar phase of the U.S. space program. NASA overcame that terrible setback, in part to honor the legacy of the fallen President. Leadership matters. If Thomas Jefferson had not been captivated, all of his life, by the idea of exploring the deep interior of the North American continent, Lewis and Clark would never have ventured up the Missouri River in search of a "passage to India" between 1804-06. In that case, the remarkable Sacagawea (ca. 1787-1812) would have lived out her life in complete historical obscurity. We need Presidents who are dreamers and visionaries, not mere caretakers.

Schmitt, the only true scientist to walk on the moon, holds a B.S. in geology from Cal Tech (1957) and a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard (1963). Just before midnight (EST) on December 13, 1972, at the end of the Apollo XVII's third and final moonwalk, Schmitt lumbered up the ladder into the Lunar Module. A few minutes later the mission commander Gene Cernan made the climb, one small step for a man, and the end of an era for mankind. Cernan's last words on the lunar surface were prosaic. "As I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come--but we believe not too long into the future--I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow." That was almost 41 years ago.

In the history of the world, only twelve individuals (all men) have walked on the moon: Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Apollo XI, July 21, 1969); Pete Conrad and Alan Bean (Apollo XII, 1969); Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell (Apollo XIV, 1971); David Scott and James Irwin (Apollo XV, 1971); John Young and Charles Duke (Apollo XVI, 1972); and Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt (Apollo XVII, December 11-14, 1972). Four of those men are already dead: James Irwin (1991); Alan Shepard (1998); Pete Conrad (1999); and the first human ever to set foot on another world, Neal Armstrong, on August 25, 2012.

Cernan and Schmitt had three separate moonwalks in December 1972 for a total of 22 hours, three minutes, and 57 seconds. Altogether they collected 243.7 pounds of moon rocks in several geologically distinct formations. They were one of three moon crews (Apollo XV, XVI, XVII) to employ a Lunar Rover (a moon convertible that looked like an Erector Set project), which at one point took them a full 4.7 miles from their lunar base camp. When Cernan accidentally broke one of the rover's fenders with his hammer, the pair of astronauts repaired it with—you guessed it—duct tape. Cernan later wrote, "I was going to have to get that damned fender fixed, and there wasn't a repair shop within 250,000 miles."

Schmitt was a somewhat controversial figure in lunar exploration. Because he was a civilian, not one of the military breed of astronaut for whom Tom Wolfe popularized the phrase "the Right Stuff," he was at first regarded as an aloof and "all business" interloper by some NASA space veterans. But once he plopped down onto the surface of the moon, on December 11, 1972, he surprised everyone. His lunar geological work was first rate, but he also took time to enjoy the rapture of the experience. He took a few spectacular falls in his clumsy space suit. After one such tumble the ground crew called him "twinkeltoes," and after another spinning fall the Cap-Com on earth, Bob Parker, informed him that the Houston Ballet was enquiring about his availability for a sublunary performance. Schmitt sang two songs on the moon: "Oh, bury me not, on the lone prairie; where the coyotes howl and the wind blows free," and—later, "I was strolling on the Moon one day, in the merry merry month of December, er May."

Years later, asked to describe what he felt in bounding around on the lunar surface, with the perfect blue sphere of Earth reduced to the size of a marble in the black, black sky, Schmitt said, "It's like trying to describe what you feel when you're standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon or remembering your first love or the birth of your child. You have to be there to really know what it's like."

Schmitt served one term as a United States Senator from New Mexico (1976-82), where he was assigned, naturally enough, to the Science, Technology, and Space Subcommittee. His political challenger in 1982, NM Attorney General Jeff Bingaman, campaigned with the clever but unfair slogan, "What on Earth has he done for you lately?" Bingaman won, and Schmitt became a consultant and college professor.

For many years Schmitt has been one of America's leading advocates of returning to the Moon; and using that achievement as the foundation for a manned journey to Mars. He has a book on the subject called Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space (2006). Schmitt is also an outspoken Global Climate Change skeptic. He has publicly argued that special interest groups and government are using the idea of Global Warming as a means of exerting greater control over the lives and incomes of the American people.

As a lifelong space junkie, I cannot wait to shake the hand of Jack Schmitt on the fourth floor of BSC's National Energy Center of Excellence, and listen to his insights. Meanwhile, if you want to get into the mood, go see the movie Gravity with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. The plot is sentimental and the dialogue lame, but it is nevertheless, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever made.


Eugene A. Cernan & Harrison Schmitt aboard the Apollo 17. From NASA on the Commons via flickr.

Recreating Robert Kennedy's Fifty Mile Hike Fifty Years After

A few of my fascinations coalesced last weekend and left me with foot blisters. In a few weeks (November 5-7), the Dakota Institute and Bismarck State College will co-host a public humanities symposium on John F. Kennedy. November 22 marks the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. To get ready I've been reading as many books as I can about the life and achievement of JFK.

A couple of months ago, I cannot remember quite how, I learned that in the course of his reading President Kennedy discovered a 1908 executive order by Theodore Roosevelt instructing officers of the U.S. Marine Corps to undertake a fifty-mile hike. TR was worried that our military officers were becoming soft and (to use his term) "effeminate," so he challenged them to hike fifty miles within twenty hours in no more than three days. To quell the public outcry (that he was a tyrant and a bully), the somewhat portly Rough Rider proceeded to ride his horse more than 100 miles in a single day. Kennedy was concerned about the fitness of the American people in the wake of several lackluster Olympics and of course Sputnik, so he wrote to his Marine Corps commandant David Shoup urging him to make his officers undertake the Roosevelt hike.

Before that could happen, JFK's younger brother, Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Attorney General of the United States, decided on whim one Friday afternoon to walk fifty miles the following morning, Saturday, February 9, 1963. RFK was 37 years old. Their route would take them along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal from Georgetown to Harper's Ferry. The towpath along the canal was covered in places with ice and slush. Kennedy had done no training for the hike and he made no effort to obtain appropriate footwear. He walked the entire distance in his street shoes, and yet he completed the hike in just seventeen hours and fifty minutes. Life magazine followed him along with chase vehicles and a helicopter. When the last of his three companions gave up the hike at mile 36, RFK said, with his characteristic rueful wit, "You're lucky your brother is not the President of the United States!"

So it is now the fiftieth anniversary of the fifty-mile hike of one of my heroes Robert F. Kennedy. I belong to a little men's group that dines together from time to time and occasionally undertakes a mild adventure. Although the other three are among the busiest professionals I know, and infinitely more powerful and important in their communities, we all agreed, more or less at the last moment, to undertake at least part of the hike on Friday the 13th (hmmm) and Saturday the 14th of September. Our route would take us from Dan's Super Value in south Mandan out to Fort Rice on the Rough Rider Trail. We'd camp overnight there, and then stroll back to Mandan. That's 27.5 miles out, 27.5 miles back, or—to adopt a heartbreaking metaphor--two walking marathons on successive days. We positioned cars at staging points along the way so that we wouldn't have to carry much and we could deliver injured bodies to walk-in clinics or carcasses to next of kin.

We set off at 7:30 a.m. Friday looking like four guys who took advantage of the RFK hike to buy new gear. One of our group—I'll call him Larry—bought his first sleeping bag in thirty years. With his antique walking stick and his green felt hat, he looked like a middle-aged member of a Bavarian hiking club. The others—I'll call them Niles and Vern—had daypacks full of power bars and moleskin, and as always they breathed good will and determination. I was sporting a brand new orange Camelbak, a giant Leatherman tool I stole from a Lewis & Clark companion last month, and a Cloverdale Tangy Summer Sausage, even though my friend and adviser Melanie Carvell (the famous triathlete), has the absurd notion that those who wish to be fit should not be eating anything that delicious and self-indulgent on the trail. We all agreed to despise her advice, though she is the fittest and most physically accomplished person we have ever met, and though we feared that she would swoop down on us at mile nine to confiscate the contraband salami.

Things went pretty well for the first mile.

Here are some scattered comments I picked up on the trail, mostly from the Bavarian. "Fort Rice is a really long way from Mandan, wasn't Fort Lincoln more historically important?" "Guys, the Rough Rider trail was established for ATVs. Isn't that the right way to do it?" "Forget Carvell, hand over that @#@XX# summer sausage." "I just remembered my root canal was scheduled for this morning, I'm sooo sorry, gentlemen." "Ask not what you can do for those rotten Kennedys, ask what you can do for yourself." "Hey you—suggester of this hike--does that Leatherman have a gutting device, by any chance?"

Not without some strain to our hips, calves, feet, and the human spirit, we waltzed into the campground at Fort Rice around six p.m. We had staged our camp car there at dawn, at a perfect campsite, assuming that we would be the only campers that night. But while we earned our way to Fort Rice in a manner to win the respect of Thoreau, a couple of loutish fifth wheelers with North Dakota plates simply appropriated our site, and actually dragged a picnic table to their common area with a chain and a pickup. The Bavarian and I were approximately 26 miles behind Vern and Niles in reaching camp. When they asked the desperadoes why they stole our site, we were told, "you have to get here early if you want to hold your place." We overcame our urge to engage in a rumble with the rapscallions, and humbly set up camp as far from their RV generators and television sets as we could.

On Saturday there was a rain-induced diaspora. Two of our group went back to town straight away. Niles and I hiked the first 8.5 miles, but when we could hear slushy sounds in our shoes in the downpour, we drove home. At this point, we were no longer a group, but just four weary and disappointed individuals. I took a very long bath. But my conscience was eating at me. I was not alone.

Here's the amazing end of the story. Without any mutual consultation three of us actually finished up the hike in our scattered neighborhoods. Vern did a full 22.5, and Niles and I each did 14 to get to fifty, all within President Roosevelt's timeline. The fourth member of our group had a genuine work crisis that prevented him from completing the hike at this time, but he did say two things as we all parted company: first, that he fully intends to walk at least 27.5 miles in the course of the remainder of his life; and that Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was right when he said that he who loves law or tangy summer sausage should never watch the making of either.

Autumn in North Dakota is often the most temperate time of the year. You can still hike fifty miles over two or three days. In doing so you would be serving your health and discipline in a lovely way, and paying respect to the man who may have been the greatest Attorney General in American history.