Too Cool for Congress

Kennedy never worked well with Congress, even while he was a member. Here, a longtime television correspondent examines the cultural roots of JFK's problems on Capitol Hill.

In his State of the Union address on January 14, 1963, President Kennedy proposed a tax cut for individuals and businesses as well as higher spending on nuclear weapons. (Associated Press)

While President Kennedy was receptive to new ideas, he never called up task forces in any way as systematically military as Eisenhower’s. Perhaps it was because among the campus intellectuals he brought to Washington, each thought he was his own task force, needing no outside experts to think up ideas because he had ideas. There were so many ideas; in fact, they poured out too fast and went to Congress too fast, before a public understanding and acceptance had been generated and before the private politicking and hand-holding and cajoling had been done. (“He asked Congress to move out forward before the artillery and the Air Force had been brought up”—Senator [Eugene] McCarthy of Minnesota.) [Lyndon B.] Johnson as vice president watched with dismay while Congress was overwhelmed with Kennedy messages and programs to the point of choking confusion.

Kennedy was a good politician but not a great legislative mechanic, and the congressional response to him was slow and often nonexistent. They remembered him as a junior member who even as president still stood in awe of the congressional elders and vestrymen, with their encrusted seniority and habits of command, and they remembered that he had barely been elected at all.

There was another factor, not much spoken of, but a factor nevertheless. A high proportion of congressmen are country boys, and even some of those who are not like to say they are, and there was some mild dislike of Kennedy’s city ways. A country-boy congressman from Tennessee told me in 1962, “All that Mozart string music and ballet dancing down there and all that fox hunting and London clothes. He’s too elegant for me. I can’t talk to him.”