JFK’S ‘Best and Brightest’ revisited
Jack Kennedy hadn’t been elected to anything yet.
The last “election” he’d won was “Most Likely to Succeed” just before he graduated from the Choate School in Wallingford. Later, Jack Kennedy won the congressional nomination in an overwhelmingly Democratic district in Massachusetts, guaranteeing his election in November.
The soon-to-be congressman was asked to speak at his alma mater to celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary. Kennedy spoke at Choate on Sept. 28, 1946.
Kennedy had serious misgivings about his time at the prep school, where he’d chafed under its strictness. And he had his own issues. Feeling he couldn’t compete with his older brother Joe’s previous achievements at Choate, Jack hadn’t focused on his studies, but instead on pranks, women, giving the faculty a hard time and breaking rules.
When the headmaster chastised lazy students as “muckers” and threatened to expel them if they didn’t straighten out (without naming names), Kennedy was offended by the bigoted mention of “mucker.” It was a derogatory label aimed at the then poverty-stricken Irish who cleaned the streets of muck (horse droppings).
Jack responded by forming a prohibited club — the trouble-making Muckers. Kennedy’s room became a center for the club’s activities. Every night before chapel, the room was filled with fellow Muckers whooping it up, enjoying records played on Jack’s Victrola and planning pranks.
When the Muckers joked about hauling real muck to the Spring Festival dance, the headmaster expelled all 13, ordering them to take the afternoon train home. But staff and teachers convinced him to rescind the order. The day was saved — and perhaps Kennedy’s career. The influence of Jack’s father, Joe Kennedy, also was considered by the school’s administration.
So, Kennedy’s 1946 speech offered faint praise for the school’s contributions to American society, noting its failure to engage its students in politics studies.
“We from Choate and graduates of the other private schools must bear our share of the responsibility,” Kennedy said. “It seems to me that Choate and schools like it, and colleges too, have been taught by men who have taken small interest in the contemporary political life around them.”
Recognizing that many Americans looked down on politicians because of their free and easy compromises, he continued, “I am not going to make any defense tonight for American politicians. However, I do think it is well for us to understand that politicians are dealing with human beings, with all their varied ambitions, desires and backgrounds, and many of these compromises cannot be avoided.”
He issued a warning: “I believe that in the future, if Choate is really to survive, the men who teach at Choate must instill in its students an active interest in our politics and in the national life around us.”
Jack Kennedy urged the headmaster, who had temporarily expelled him 11 years previous, to substitute Frank Kent’s books on politics (“The Great Game of Politics,” and “Political Behavior”) for dated readings of Aristotle.
“We must recognize that if we do not take an interest in our political life, we can easily lose at home what so many young men have so bloodily won abroad.” (The next year, a public affairs course was instituted and has been taught at the school ever since.)
That was more than 75 years ago. But there’s no doubt that Americans today have similar negative feelings about politicians. Rancor and division are rampant. The nation is polarized, and it is rare that somebody from one party votes with the other party. If they do, they risk an end to their political career. Thus, politicians err on doing what is politically smart to save their political hides — instead of what they believe is right.
No doubt the increase of corporate funding of candidates has further muddied our political landscape and integrity.
But it wasn’t always so bad. In the years after Kennedy’s election to the House of Representatives and then the Senate, the chambers were less coarse and a more agreeable place to do business. Compromise was possible, the fever of language more reasonable.
When Kennedy became president, he surrounded himself with people who became known as the “best and the brightest” - skilled, accomplished, intelligent and quick thinking. They were political intellectuals, corporate leaders and public officials.
Perhaps it is time again to consider Kennedy’s views as a new school year begins. We need a new breed of the best and the brightest to make politics welcoming once again.
Nurturing the best and brightest begins early. Political matters should be an important aspect of our national education. Teaching our youth to be active in public life and to go about it honorably and skillfully can only benefit our public discourse.
If this happens, our nation will reap the benefits indefinitely.