Saturday, August 26, 2006

JFK to GR:Challenges for the Future

When the convention gathered at the LA Memorial Sports Arena, the struggle was shaping up to be between Kennedy and the older powers of the party, and his nomination was not certain. But after a dramatic week, he won on the first ballot.

Kennedy's official acceptance speech came a day later, on the evening of July 15. He addressed 80,000 delegates and spectators outdoors at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and millions more in the national TV audience. After the expected political remarks, Kennedy talked about the future. If he had been addressing Gene Roddenberry’s future, he couldn’t have been more direct.

"I stand tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier,” Kennedy said, softening and slowing his delivery, and then gradually building to a pulsing series of dramatic statements. “From the lands that stretch 3000 miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West….Their motto was not 'Every man for himself,' but 'All for the common cause.'"
"…we stand today on the edge of a new frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, a frontier of unknown opportunities and paths, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats…"

"The new frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges…Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus."

"…I believe the times demand invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be new pioneers on that new frontier."
Kennedy’s Republican opponent was Vice-President Richard Nixon, nominated without real opposition several weeks later, Both candidates were World War II veterans and comparatively young, with young children. In addition to the usual rallies and speeches, they engaged in a series of three televised debates, the first in history. Nixon was a serious debater, but Kennedy was calm, incisive, forceful and witty, with a dazzling smile. Both spoke knowledgably on a range of subjects, but Nixon was a know quantity—it was Kennedy’s assured erudition, his command of detail that made an impression, and defused the charges of inexperience.

GR must have viewed the televised debates—and noted their huge audiences and wide discussion of them-- with something close to joy. Earlier in the year he had proposed a series idea to the British media impresario, Lew Grade, called Controversy. It was about public issues, and in a followup letter in August, GR used the example of the televised success of a “debate” between Nixon and Soviet Premier Khrushchev, an informal discussion that had occurred on Khrushchev’s visit to America. (In that same letter, he proposed a series based on H.G. Wells’ Outline of History.)

In October, Kennedy was drawing enthusiastic crowds, inspiring a kind of friendly frenzy among the young that used to be reserved for a few pop stars, like Elvis and the young Sinatra. Then there seemed to be a lull, and Nixon was catching up. Historian and Kennedy partisan Arthur Schlesinger wondered whether it was because the electorate was “having sudden doubts whether it really wanted so intense a leader, so disturbing a challenge to the certitudes of their existence; it was as if the American people commenced to think that the adventure of Kennedy might be too much…”

It was a pattern repeated on election night. At first Kennedy surged ahead, and then very close to victory, his vote count stalled, while Nixon's grew. Eventually it all came down to California, in the final time zone to close the polls and start the counting. The presidency was not decided until the following morning, and Kennedy was the President-Elect.

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