Two United States presidents have meant as much to Canadians as to Americans. It may be that both were more popular in Canada than in their homeland. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first, John F. Kennedy the second and most vividly remembered of the two, though his achievements were minuscule beside FDR’s.
Canada’s prolonged love affairs with these two men may have been rooted in the fact that Down East Canadians knew them both before they became the most powerful leaders in the world—Roosevelt through his ties with Campobello, N.B., Kennedy as the complete Bostonian, harking back to the days when “the Boston States” meant more to Maritimers than Montreal, Toronto or points west.
When Kennedy grew up in Massachusetts, one in five families there had roots in the Atlantic provinces. Kennedy’s maternal ancestors, the Fitzgeralds, landed from Ireland in New Brunswick before moving on to Boston. To this day, Saint John calls itself the most Irish city in Canada, a smaller version of the Massachusetts capital.
Jack Kennedy himself came to Fredericton at the invitation of the
Charles Lynch retired a decade ago as chief of Southam News and is now an Ottawa-based freelance columnist, author and broadcaster.
chancellor of the University of New Brunswick, Lord Beaverbrook. It was 1957, and Kennedy was introduced by Beaverbrook as “the next president of the United States.” Kennedy responded with what came to be known as the “good fences make good neighbors” speech.
So Canada wept, too, when Kennedy was shot. It may be that had he lived and become engulfed in failure, as all subsequent presidents except Ronald Reagan have been, the reaction to him would have turned sour long since, and there would be no honoring his anniversaries. Vietnam might have sunk him as it did his successor. Today’s media would have finished him, on his private peccadillos alone.
But he fulfilled one of the prime conditions for remembrance, be it fair or foul, by dying young. And dying spectacularly, with controversy thrown in that bubbles and boils with mystery to this day.
My youngest daughter was in her Grade 5 classroom in an Ottawa school the day Kennedy was shot, and the teachers wheeled in a TV set so the kids could watch history being made, something they would remember all their lives. And they have, more vividly than they remember any of our prime ministers, even the Kennedy-esque Pierre Trudeau. More than they remember our prime minister of the day, Lester Pearson, whom Kennedy admired above all Canadians, as intensely as he despised Pearson’s predecessor, John Diefenbaker.
My own experience on the day of Kennedy’s assassination was unique, in that I was led to believe it was either Pearson or Diefenbaker who had been shot. I was in Jakarta on a round-the-world journalistic junket and had arranged an interview with the Indonesian dictator Sukarno, at his mountain retreat in Bogor.
During the drive up-country, the Indonesian conducting officer turned to me and said, ‘Your leader has been shot.”
Startled, I said: “Lester Pearson shot?”
The man shook his head.
“John Diefenbaker?” I blurted.
The name “John” must have rung a bell, because the man nodded assent, and I spent the rest of the 100-km drive mourning Dief, and wondering who could have shot him, and why.
It was only on arrival in Bogor that I found the Sukarno cabinet assembled, hailing Kennedy’s death as a victory for freedom (the Red Chinese also celebrated it as a bright day), and pondering whether Sukarno should go to Washington for the funeral. The answer was no and my interview was cancelled. I asked to be taken back to Jakarta, where the only refuge from the festive re__ action to Kennedy’s death was the United States Embassy. So I went there, and joined in the shedding of tears.
My first sight of Kennedy had been at the Los Angeles Democratic convention that nominated him for the presidency in a bitter fight with Lyndon Johnson. It was a close-run thing, as was the subsequent election against Richard Nixon, and to be near to it was to know how important the Kennedy money was, and how hungry for power was Kennedy’s younger brother, Bobby. Without Bobby, there would have been no Kennedy in the White House, and yet watching him I developed a dislike that lasted until he, too, fell to an assassin’s bullet The recruiting of Johnson as vice-presidential candidate, and the marketing of Jack and Jackie as the dawning of a new age for America, overcame the public prejudice against a Roman Catholic, and cancelled the momentum of the popular presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, the hero of the Second World War.
Kennedy ran as a war hero, too, and the voters fell for it. Even in Canada, where we put down
our own war heroes, we liked Ike, and even named our most famous mountain after him, though the name didn’t stick and it reverted to Castle Mountain. Our mountain named for Kennedy, in the Yukon, has had better luck.
Canadians were no strangers to Roman Catholics in office, though religious prejudices were as deep here as in most of the United States. But there, the election of a Roman Catholic president was revolutionary, and it got Kennedy off to a roaring start with echoes of hope and re newal heard around the world.
The Canadian connection was special, from the time Kennedy came to Ottawa on his first foreign visit as president and aggravated his old wartime back injury planting a tree in the grounds of Government
House. Diefenbaker took an instant dislike to “the young whippersnapper,” and it was heightened when Kennedy addressed Parliament and called on Canada to accept her responsibilities and join the Organization of American States. Diefenbaker regarded it as a command to “jump through the hoop,” and said no.
The best anecdote on the Diefenbaker-Kennedy feud followed the discovery of a White House working paper in an East Block wastebasket, the paper listing the things the United States should “push” Canada to do. Diefenbaker kept the paper as a reminder to resist all pressure from Washington. The legend is that Kennedy had scribbled in the margin: “What do we do with the s.o.b. now?” Kennedy subsequently denied it, reportedly saying he couldn’t have called Diefenbaker an s.o.b. when he didn’t know he was one at the time.
His opinion jelled during the Cuban missile crisis, the globe’s closest brush with a Third World War. Canada was part of the North American Air Defence Agreement, along with the United States. Washington deemed that Soviet missiles on Cuban bases were a threat to continental security and put its forces on combat alert, expecting Canada to do likewise. Diefenbaker said no. Canadian defence minister Douglas Harkness sided with Kennedy and ordered a partial alert of Canadian forces, without informing Diefenbaker. The result was a split in the Canada-U.S. defence alliance that would not be healed as long as either Diefenbaker or Kennedy remained in office.
Diefenbaker, with a shove from Kennedy, was the first to go.
Things came to a head in the Canadian election of 1963, when a key issue was whether Canada was committed to taking U.S. nuclear warheads for Bomarc anti-aircraft missiles, Diefenbaker saying no, Lester Pearson saying yes. Kennedy backed Pearson, and a letter
was circulated from U.S. ambassador Walton Butterworth congratulating Pearson on his nuclear stand (the stand that caused Trudeau to call Pearson “the unfrocked prince of peace.”)
Pearson won the election and ordered an investigation that led to the Butterworth letter being branded a forgery. Diefenbaker dubbed Butterworth “Butterballs” and kept copies of the “forgery” handy for the rest of his life.
Kennedy’s influence in the 1963 Canadian election may have swung the balance, because pro-U.S. feeling was strong here and Kennedy was more popular with Canadians than any homegrown leader.
Pearson’s grappling with the English-French question was reminiscent of Kennedy’s approach to racial divisions in the United States, though both problems remain 30 years later. And there were traces of Kennedy in Dalton Camp’s campaign to unseat Diefenbaker as Conservative leader in 1967. Camp enlisted the youth wing of the party in his cause
HE FULFILLED A PRIME CONDITION FOR REMEMBRANCE BY DYING YOUNG
and it has always been my belief that he aimed for the leadership himself, believing he could rouse the same emotions in Canada that Kennedy had. But Diefenbaker was too tough for Camp & Co. to swallow, and though they unseated him they had to settle for Robert Stanfield as his successor. Diefenbaker’s farewell speech to the parliamentary press gallery included what must have been the toughest attack ever voiced by a Canadian prime minister about a U.S. president, and Diefenbaker carried the Kennedy grudge to his grave, leaving subsequent PMs to grapple with the ups and downs of relations with the United States.
Stanfield was billed as “the man with the winning way,” but the trouble was he was a slow mover—and what there was of the Kennedy magic in the northern air moved to the Liberals and Pierre Trudeau. The story of Trudeaumania is one of the strangest and most unlikely in Canadian political history, but much of the flair displayed so suddenly by this shy, introverted man was on the Kennedy pattern, including the sexy side that was totally new, happening right in the open with women of all ages throwing themselves at his feet.
Part of the Kennedy inheritance was to complete the swing of Canada’s attention from British politics to American. The Second World War and FDR had led Canada away from British ways to a perceived role as honest broker between London and Washington. With Kennedy, Washington became predominant in Canadian foreign and even domestic affairs, and has remained so ever since.
Like Pierre Trudeau, he haunts us still. His memory diminished the presidencies of all who followed him, just as the memory of Trudeau has taken its toll of Joe Clark, John Turner, Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell, and casts a shadow over the prime ministry of Jean Chrétien. It is Pierre and Maggie that we remember, just as we remember Jack and Jackie, almost as though the brave new world they promised actually had come to pass.
It didn’t in either country, but in a cold climate, the memories stay warm, along with the expectations that there must be a better way of doing politics. □
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