Another inside peek

Russell Baker

November 18, 1993|By Russell Baker

MEMORIES of Jack Kennedy are once again filling the air, or at least the media. Mine go back to his father who was busy that year trying to undermine Franklin Roosevelt.

I had been watching young Jack help a slow-witted school mate parse a Latin passage from Livy at the rate of 1,200 words per minute. "Joe," said I to his father -- which was what we called the founder, though his name was Joseph -- "Joe," I said, "that boy Jack is going to be president one of these days."

"If any Kennedy is going to be president it's going to be me," said Joe, having Kenny O'Donnell throw me out of the compound. Joe was like that: Just couldn't stand a reporter who was too dim to know the score.

Well, I was just a kid in those days, so I said to Kenny as he was throwing me out, "How was I to guess Joe was undermining FDR so he could get the job for himself?"

Kenny said maybe I was in the wrong line of work and tossed me over the fence.

After that I didn't see Jack until after World War II when he invited me to the compound and asked if I'd like to write a book about his wartime experience commanding a torpedo boat.

I said no. It was a wonderful story of heroism and would surely be a best seller, I said, but I liked him too much to write it. A book like that, I said, might make people think he was trying to build a heroic image so he could run for president.

I admired him too much to let the public get such a cynical impression of him, I said. He thanked me profusely and had Arthur Schlesinger throw me out anyhow.

Arthur said maybe I was in the wrong line of work as he tossed me over the fence.

Jack was a senator next time we met. I had been rowing in Nantucket Sound and lost both oars after accidentally bumping VTC into his sailboat halfway between Martha's Vineyard and the compound at Hyannis Port. Jack had Pierre Salinger haul me out and revive me with a jolt of Chateau Latour '47.

To show my gratitude I gave Jack some political advice. "Jack," I said, "you've done good work in the Senate, but the Senate is a dead end. It's for gasbaggers, not can-do guys."

Jack smiled in delight. "What you ought to do now," I said, "is quit the Senate, go back to Massachusetts and run for mayor of Boston."

Jack had Pierre lower the dinghy, row me all the way back to the Kennedy compound and throw me over the fence. Not being in great condition, Pierre had some trouble making the heave, so out of gratitude for Jack's not having me thrown off the boat I helped out by climbing to the top of the fence myself and letting Pierre shove me over.

"You may be in the wrong line of work," I told Pierre.

When Jack ran for president he seemed to forget me. I figured, if that's how he's going to be, it's no skin off my nose. But when I heard he was going to debate Richard Nixon on TV humane instinct got the better of me.

"I like the guy," as I said to Jackie. "How can I let him walk unwarned into that meat grinder?"

Why was I talking to Jackie? To get into the compound I had disguised myself as a Baby-Tenda salesman, a Baby-Tenda being sort of a highchair on wheels that couldn't be tipped over to fracture baby's skull, the way old-fashioned highchairs could. Or so went the sales pitch.

After making the sale to Jackie, who naturally didn't want little Caroline's old-fashioned highchair tipping over, I told her the truth: I was there to save Jack from Nixon.

That dear girl, what else could she do? In an instant I was explaining to Jack why it would be a catastrophe if America saw a handsome young guy like him struggling helplessly on television in the coils of Nixon's smooth and deadly debating technique.

Previous experience had shown me that Jack's political wisdom was not very deep, so I patiently explained that since the whole country recognized Nixon while nobody recognized Jack it would be folly to give a mass audience its first glimpse of him in a debate he was sure to lose.

Ted Sorensen offered to throw me out, but Jack said he would do it himself, as it would make him look well exercised on television when he faced Nixon. What a terrific guy!

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

*

The University of Chicago is not about to relinquish its proud title of the most funless university in America, not to Johns Hopkins University or anyone else. That's the message from Bernard Sahlins, a University of Chicago alumnus, and Marshall Sahlins, a Chicago anthropology professor, in a letter to the editor of the New York Times Tuesday.

The two are referring to a Baker column (Other Voices, Nov. 9) discussing the recent ranking of Hopkins as 297th and Chicago as 300th and last in an Inside Edge magazine list of the nation's least-fun schools.

"Mr. Baker goes on about how much more amusing Chicago is than Baltimore," the two write. "This is true, but so devoted are University of Chicago students to the Platonic contemplation of intelligible entities in Hyde Park that they almost never get downtown.

"Mr. Baker talks about the glorious times they had at Hopkins football games, sitting in the sun -- the sun! -- and making bawdy Chaucerian jests. The sun hasn't shone in Chicago since Maynard Hutchins abolished big-time football two generations ago."

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