Not long ago I bought several books, all of them about politics. I’ve never been much of a poli-sci reader. But I picked these up, not because I wanted to feed my intellect, but because they were $5 a piece. (A great place to pick up excellent secondhand books is the Calico Mall in Hattiesburg.)
Still, I did accidentally learn a thing or two. Namely, what we look for and admire in our public leaders and how wrong preconceived notions can be.
“Robert Kennedy in His Own Words”
This book is a series of candid interviews with Robert Kennedy. The book offers a revealing behind-the-scenes look at an administration facing huge foreign and domestic policy challenges. Both Robert and John Kennedy’s struggles with the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis are talked about in depth.
Perhaps the most interesting reading was the Kennedy’s position on the civil rights movement. Here are some quotes:
• On civil rights — “I don’t think that it was a matter that we were extra-concerned about as we were growing up. There wasn’t any great problem.”
• On the Freedom Riders — “I didn’t know anything about it (beforehand).” “(JFK) was fed up with the Freedom Riders who went down there when it didn’t do any good to go down there.”
• On who was helpful during the unrest — “Jim Eastland … never made any effort to stop us from doing anything in the state of Mississippi … (he) always told me who I could trust and who I couldn’t trust.” “I found it more pleasant to deal with him than with many so-called liberals …”
“Turning Point” is the self-penned memoirs of a Georgia farmer in the 1960s who, only a week before elections for state senator began, decided to run though he had never sought public office before. He did amazingly well and would have won outright if not for the most blatant election tampering imaginable from an old “county boss.”
The farmer was despondent and discussed taking the matter to the courts. His family and advisors, including his legal counsel, were against it. But the farmer felt a conviction to do something — to do nothing would be irresponsible.
So, he fought. Through many twists and turns, he managed to get the ballots thrown out and a new election ordered. And he won. A few weeks later, that young peanut farmer from Plains — Jimmy Carter — was sworn in as state senator.
“The Great Game”
This book is also self-penned by a man named Leopold Tepper. Tepper was born in Poland in 1904 and early in his life fell under the spell of Lenin and communism. He eventually worked as a militant, often carrying out semi-spy activities.
As hostilities grew between Hitler-led Germany and the former Soviet Union (his family moved there when he was a boy), the Soviet Union asked Tepper to set up an extensive espionage ring in western Europe. This created a dilemma for Tepper. He had already grown bitter over Stalin’s purge of his comrades and felt the dictator was ruining both his country and communism. But in the end he chose the lesser of two evils and began working toward the defeat of Hitler’s “brown plague,” because Tepper was not only a communist — he was a Jew, as well.
Tepper was hugely successful. Soon radio operations all over Europe were sending mountains of information back to the Soviet Union. (For funding and cover, Tepper set up a legitimate business in Belgium making raincoats. The company was a money-maker. It makes for interesting reading as the good communist tries to explain how distasteful it was to have to behave as a “degenerate” capitalist, yet talks about his company with obvious pride.)
Tepper and his ring continued to work behind enemy lines after World War II began. Eventually, however, Tepper and most of his colleagues were captured. Tepper expected to be tortured, murdered or put in a concentration camp. But the Nazis, who didn’t know he was Jewish, had other plans. They wanted him to switch sides and help the Germans funnel false information to the Soviets. The Germans called it the “great game.”
Tepper had almost decided not to cooperate when he struck on a bold plan. He agreed to send a false message to re-establish contact with the Soviets. But as his Nazi guards slept just a few feet away, Tepper wrote another message warning of the subterfuge, which he handed to his captors with the bogus note.
It worked, and for months it was the Germans who were duped. After the war and a 10-year prison stay ordered by Stalin (he never was given any reason for his imprisonment), Tepper was decorated as a war hero.
From the Kennedy book I learned how wrong we can be about people and events. Robert Kennedy, a symbol of Massachusetts liberalism, was tepid on civil rights and the movement, and leaned on Eastland, a symbol of white Southern conservatism, for help in the crisis. That flies in the face of everything I assumed to be true.
But I also learned that we want no compromising on the job. I have heard a lot of politicians talk about what they think people want from their public leaders. I think the last two books give the answer – we want people of backbone who do what they feel is right and move in that direction whether it is popular or not.
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at email@example.com.