Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Life of JFK8: The Best Week of His Life

Fifty years ago last June, John F. Kennedy gave the “best speech of his life,” which led to a nuclear test ban treaty. The next night, as Alabama police were attacking protesters with water cannons and dogs, he was on TV from the Oval Office affirming the rights of African-Americans.

Two days later I was in the Cabinet Room of the White House across a table from him leading editors of seven women’s magazines with 34 million readers to ask questions about preserving peace, the only exclusive interview he had given in his presidency, JFK said, other than one with Khrushchev’s son-in-law, editor of Isvestia.

Even after the 1962 Missile Crisis, the US and Soviets were poisoning the air with nuclear testing. Kennedy was negotiating a test-ban treaty, but the Senate seemed unlikely to approve it.

As editor of Redbook, a magazine for young women, I knew readers were concerned that nuclear tests were contaminating their children’s milk and might lead to apocalyptic war. I had been running articles on the subject. Other women’s magazines were publishing little or nothing.

I had asked Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, if the President would give a joint interview to editors of women’s magazines about nuclear war and peace. Salinger did not hesitate. “Yes,” he said. “We’re starved for ways to get people to listen.”

As popular as Kennedy was, lining him up was the easy part. My colleagues, always leery of depressing topics, had to be inveigled. The bait was pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, who was opposing nuclear tests, and a Republican, James Wadsworth, Eisenhower’s Ambassador to the United Nations, who had written for me on the subject. I invited the editors of six magazines to listen to them over cocktails.

Afterward, I proposed we ask Kennedy for an interview and publish our own versions of it simultaneously.

To my amazement, they agreed, but I could not foresee that that would put me in the position of, in effect, strong-arming the President.

At our first meeting, the editors--of McCalls, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day, Family Circle, Cosmopolitan and Parents--worried that material on survival of the human race might be too “dull” for their readers. We agreed to submit questions in advance, so we could use our time with the President to talk in human terms.

When the answers came back, I had a revolt on my hands. Kennedy’s staff had drafted 15 pages of position-paper jargon. What, my colleagues demanded, was I going to do about it?

As they sat glowering, I called the White House. Salinger was away, leaving his assistant, Andrew Hatcher, to cope with me. “We’re worried,” I told him, “by the tone of the written material. Does the President realize we want to ask questions on a more personal level? Otherwise it doesn’t make sense for us to come down.”

Hatcher, understandably taken aback, could only answer, “But any interview with the President is worthwhile.”

“Of course. But we wouldn’t want to waste his time. Can you make sure there’s no misunderstanding?“

Several days later, Salinger called. “We hear you. Come on down.” (When we were making the arrangements, one editor had asked if he could attend and then decide if the material was usable. “Tell him,” said Salinger, who had been a free—lance writer, “the President doesn’t work on speculation."

On June 14, 1963, we were in the Cabinet Room. Kennedy came in and shook hands. We settled into leather chairs around the table. Sitting opposite, I thanked him for seeing us and added, “Between the material you gave us and your speeches, we understand your basic positions. We’d like to ask questions that reflect the concerns of our readers so you can talk to them personally.”

Kennedy smiled, patting the papers in front of him. “I looked over this material. It is somewhat canned. I’ll try to make my answers as personal as possible.”

For the next hour, he did just that, talking about radiation dangers, fallout shelters, the effects on children of air raid drills, easing the arms race, and the value of individuals joining the political debate.

“There is great pressure against peaceful efforts,” he said. “There are an awful lot of powerful groups and interests and people, all very strong patriots, who believe in policies that I think could end up in disaster.” Women working for peace, he added, “are very valuable because they help balance off that pressure. Otherwise we would be very isolated in our efforts toward arms control.”

Most of his answers were, as usual, analytical and rational. But some emotion showed through. “Too many people want to blow up the world,” he said at one point.

"In Cuba, a lot of people thought we should take more drastic action. I think we did the right thing, more drastic action would have increased the possibility of nuclear exchange. The real question now is to meet conflicts year after year without having to escalate."

At one point the talk turned to the brutal and violent instincts of human beings that, in his words, “have been implanted in us growing out of the dust.”

In controlling those destructive impulses, John Fitzgerald Kennedy said sadly, “we have done reasonably well--but only reasonably well.“

The meeting ended soon afterward. The President asked how we would like the transcript. “Raw,” I said and he smiled. We posed for pictures, Kennedy showed us around the Rose Garden, and we left.

The following week we received a 31-page transcript. Then in July, Kennedy and Khrushchev signed a treaty banning nuclear tests. Salinger suggested I come down alone for another interview, and in August, I did.In the Oval Office, I was startled by Kennedy’s appearance. In June he was tanned, smooth-skinned, seemingly glowing with health. Now he still had the tan, but his face was pinched, his eyes sunken with deep lines radiating on the skin around them. The rumors of massive amounts of cortisone for Addison’s disease and dependency on amphetamines and painkillers swarmed through my mind.

In half an hour, we went through the new treaty and the campaign to have the Senate ratify it. Kennedy had given a TV speech, asking for support, because “there is no lobby for our children or our grandchildren” to avoid a nuclear exchange that could mean 300 million deaths. Was he satisfied with the response?

“There are 190 million Americans,” he said wryly, “and we got several thousand letters. Actually I think we got more mail about the new White House puppies.”

From the two sessions, each of the magazines published its own account in November. Letters of support poured into the White House. Salinger called to say the President was very pleased. Several weeks later Kennedy went to Dallas.

What would our world be like if he hadn’t?

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