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“Imagine What They’d Do If You Didn’t Stay on Their Ass!”

One of the great pleasures of my work is being able to find and read or listen to documents and recordings from the presidencies and congresses of the early Cold War era.  Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon?  They’re all still very much alive in my brain.  So, too, is John F. Kennedy, most recently because of a story by R. Jeffrey Smith in the Washington Post (“Terrorism Funds May Let Brass Fly in Style,” July 18, 2008, page 1) on counterterrorism funds being spent by the Air Force on fancy furnishings for aircraft used for travel by high-ranking officers. 

I'm as opposed to and appalled by arrogant, wasteful spending by government bureaucracies as anyone.  But the Post story reminded me of two hilarious taped conversations1 from the Kennedy White House showing that, as Harry S. Truman often said, “The only thing new under the sun is the history you don’t already know.”

On July 25, 1963, the newspaper featured a story about how Air Force officials had spent $5000 on top-of-the-line bedroom furniture (from the Jordan Marsh Company) for a northeastern air base's hospital, in case the famously pregnant Mrs. John F. Kennedy would decide to have her baby there, should she be in Massachusetts when “the time” came.  (Indeed, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy would be born, following premature labor and emergency caesarian section surgery, on August 7 of that year at Otis Air Force Base, the Massachusetts facility in question on the JFK tapes.  The baby would die two days later in Boston Children’s Hospital.)

Fortunately, for those who love political history, the tape recorder was rolling when JFK telephoned two people just after seeing a photo in the morning's Post of an Air Force officer with the furniture.  An absolutely furious JFK told Arthur Sylvester, the press spokesman for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara: "I'd just like to send that goddamn furniture back…to Jordan Marsh in an Air Force truck this afternoon with that captain [who made the furniture purchase] on it…."  Further, JFK said, "What about transferring his ass out of here in about a month?…for incompetence, not for screwing us.  And that silly fellow who had his picture taken next to the bed, I'd have him go up to Alaska, too." (Click here to listen.)

Kennedy felt great pressure from liberals in his party in Congress and elsewhere who thought military spending was too high.  Meanwhile, most military leaders and conservatives on Capitol Hill thought the President (and his defense budget) were inadequate to meet the Soviet threat.

To his Air Force aide, General Godfrey McHugh, the President exploded:  "Did you see the Post this morning?....You just sank the Air Force budget!"  Kennedy predicted, “Any congressman’s gonna get up and say, ‘Christ, if they can throw $5000 away on this, let’s cut ‘em another billion dollars.’ ”

About the "silly bastard" featured in the Post photograph standing next to "Mrs. Kennedy's bed, if that's what it is…I wouldn't have him running a cat house!" 2

McHugh tried to respond, "Well sir, this is obviously a..." JFK didn't wait for McHugh to finish "--Well, this is obviously a fuck up!" (Click here to listen.)

1 I obtained the records at the Miller Center website  . The two conversations are numbered jfk_dict_23d1  and jfk_dict_23d2. Note: The first 40 seconds of the first recording are mostly silent.  Also, you and your computer may not find playing these audio files a user-friendly experience.  Don’t email me for technical advice!

2 JFK obviously had an edition of the Post with the photograph, though the copy of the story I found did not have that photo.