Memory has whims of its own, and is all the while choosy. Or perhaps it has its own rationale which it refuses to disclose. Thus it happens that on a somewhat chilly and windy January morning in Calcutta, memory hectors me back 50-odd years across the span of continents and oceans.
January 1961 and it was Inaugural Day in Washington, DC. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was to be sworn in as the new president of the United States of America. He had won back the presidency on behalf of the Democratic Party after a lapse of eight years in one of the closest, bitterest contests, defeating Richard Nixon; then vice-president and the Republican candidate.
American politics had been passing through an intensely interesting phase during the preceding few decades. The long post-First World War reign of the Republican Party came to an end because of its gross failure to tide over the crisis of the Great Depression. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had an impeccable plutocratic background, was nonetheless elected the Democratic president in the 1932 polls. He was imaginative enough to launch the New Deal; the stream of publicly-sponsored projects he initiated succeeded in creating new jobs and the economy began to turn the corner. That was applied Keynesianism even before Keynes’s General Theory had been published. Roosevelt was thunderingly re-elected in 1936, again in 1940, and, with the Second World War on, once more for an unprecedented fourth term in 1944. But by then he was physically a wreck and was soon dead. The vice-president, a former haberdasher from Kansas, Missouri, formally filled in as president. He took everyone by surprise; he was full of guts and was quick to take decisions. It was at his decision that the bomb devastated Japan; hastened its surrender and drew the final curtain on the Second World War. Truman’s truculence was again the central factor which terminated the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union and the tacit understanding with it over respectful territorial jurisdiction in Europe in the post-Nazi era; in a sense, therefore, he was, along with Winston Churchill, the co-author of the concept of Cold War.
It had been a long wait. The Republican Party was itching to get back to the White House. Harry Truman frustrated them even in 1948 and got elected almost on his own by plunging into a fighting campaign, making all predictions look foolish. In desperation, the Republicans turned to the vastly popular Dwight Eisenhower, the victorious Second World War army general, and implored him to be their candidate in the presidential elections in 1952. He agreed. His ability to charm the people was unbelievable. The Democrats had put up a former governor of Illinois, the slightly scholarly Adlai Stevenson, as their candidate. He was no match for ‘Ike’; the Republicans re-captured the White House after 20 years.
Eisenhower was re-elected in 1956. By then, though, he was old, dazed and worn out. Administration slackened, problems piled up, but the president was always away, either in hospital or playing golf in California or Florida. It was during this season that the following folk quip spread: Roosevelt proved that one could be US president for ever; Truman proved just anybody could be president of the country, and Eisenhower clinched the point that the United States does not need a president.
Anyway, 1960 presented a transformed picture. The incumbent vice-president, Dick Nixon, was the Republican candidate to take over from Eisenhower. He was raised in California, was of humble stock and had risen, steadily but rapidly, in the party hierarchy. There lay a paradox though: while immensely popular in party circles, he was widely distrusted by outsiders, only partly because of a dark spot in his official records in the early stage of his career. The ascription of ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon could never be shaken off. Herblock, the widely known Washington Post cartoonist, was particularly merciless on him, his caricature of Nixon as an unshaven, furtive-looking evil-intentioned lout became his identity for anti-Republicans. Mind you, all this was way ahead of what would transpire almost a quarter of a century later.
The Democrats had emerged with an unusual candidate. John F. Kennedy was a Boston aristocrat loaded with money. He was, however, a Catholic. This handicap notwithstanding, he was young and eloquent with an excellent war record and hemmed in by advisers and speech-writers full of ideas. Perhaps his biggest campaign asset was his ravishingly beautiful and glamorous wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy; she enlivened the campaign no end.
Conservative America tenaciously resisted a feared Catholic takeover. The presidential race was as close as it could be. The final result, hanging on the outcome of the polls in one or two crucial states such as Illinois, could not be known till mid-afternoon the following day. Kennedy had won, just barely.
Still, the point was that he had won. It was reckoned as a mandate for bold initiative and youth. A series of exciting appointments were announced to key positions in administration by Kennedy in the weeks preceding his inauguration; one of the most remarkable was the naming of a distinguished Harvard alumnus, Robert McNamara, as defence secretary. Quite a few other dons were to adorn various advisory posts. But the newspapers and telly channels gave nearly equal space to cover stories of how Jackie Kennedy would overhaul the decor of the White House and the exotic luncheons and dinners that were on her schedule. All things considered together, the in-coming administration held out the promise of new initiatives, competence, sophistication and, courtesy Jackie Kennedy, elegance.
The Inaugural Day dawned, a national holiday in the United States. It was the beastliest possible weather in Washington: shiveringly cold, rainy, gloomy, a blustery wind blowing across every now and then intensifying the discomfort. The swearing-in was to take place in the massive downtown quadrangle where the main arteries of DC’s North-West, such as the Massachusetts, the Pennsylvania and the Connecticut Avenues converged, a stone’s distance from the White House and about equidistant from the US Congress. The turnout was huge. It was a patient, shivering, suffering mass of people, amid a sea of umbrellas and raincoats.
Some of us friends were spending the afternoon together. S.N. Badri Rao, one of the nicest persons I have ever known, was economist with the World Bank. I.G. Patel was India’s alternate director on the executive board of the International Monetary Fund. M.K. Sambamurti, then working in the Purchase Mission of our Washington embassy, was later chairman of the Central Water and Power Commission and retired as power secretary at the Centre. I was on the faculty of the Economic Development Institute.
In a manner of speaking, it was a very special day for Badri Rao too, or at least we needled him by claiming it to be so. For Badri had a little history. When he joined the World Bank in 1946, he was its first Indian employee: it was a bit of news in the stodgy provincial village Washington, DC then was. Jacqueline Bouvier, still in her teens, very much a fluttery society girl, was casually working as a roving city reporter for the Washington Star. She interviewed Badri and the story occupied a full page in the news paper; it also printed a shot of Jackie Bouvier in conversation with Badri, both in clear profile. Ever since John Kennedy’s nomination as Democratic presidential candidate, an enlarged mounted copy of that picture had made its appearance on Badri’s office desk at the Bank. There was great hilarity over it among friends, but Badri was unflustered. His wife, Shakuntala, joined us in the needling game. She invited us for lunch on Inaugural Day; the idea was we would sit round the television set while eating an indolent lunch and watch the inauguration on the screen and raise a cheer for Badri every time we had a glimpse of Jackie.
Someone amongst us with a passion for contract bridge suggested that, since the inauguration would stretch for quite a while, we might play a couple of hands before eating lunch and at the same time keep watching the events on the telly. The wives kept away; Badri, I.G., Sambamurti and myself made the foursome, I.G. was Badri’s partner and I was Sambamurti’s.
One particular deal during that bridge session is an inseparable, integral part of my memory of the Kennedy inauguration. Sam and I went a bit overboard and bid a small slam; between the two of us we had nine out of the 13 trump cards, but neither the ace nor the king, the call was not just folly, but idiocy. Sam smiled at me and commented that there was only one far-out possibility of our making the contract.
Meanwhile, the inaugural speech had commenced. With the wind getting wilder, Kennedy was finding it awesomely difficult to prevent the sheets he was reading the text from from flying away; we could even see him on a couple of occasions swallowing swear words at the wind; Jacqueline, occupying a prominent place not far from the podium, dazzlingly attired and bejewelled, was visibly concerned. Kennedy’s voice was, however, steady, firm and, whenever called for, stentorian. Ted Sorensen was his usual speech writer; McNamara, we later learnt, had done most of the first draft of the inaugural oration. At that particular moment, though, we were more interested in the externalities that were obligatory accompaniment of the inaugural occasion. And we nudged at and cheered Badri every time Jackie was espied on the screen.
But a small-scale crisis was looming. The forlorn slam deal suddenly came alive. Sam had won a trick and played a low trump from his hand. I.G. sitting at second hand, had three trumps headed by the king. He looked at the dummy hand lying open and found the highest valued trump was only the jack. He decided to take the sure trump trick early and go fishing in one of the side-suits. Even as Kennedy reached the climactic sentence, “You have nothing to fear except fear itself,” I.G., defying the rule ‘second hand lowest’, played the king. Disaster, for it fell to Badri’s singleton ace. Sam’s remotest possibility turned into reality; he and I won the small slam. Badri was livid. He had every right to be. It was his — and Jacqueline’s — party.
Fifty-three years have gone by. John Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. Jacqueline became Jackie Onassis and is long dead too. Sam, Shakuntala, Badri and I.G. — the lot of them — are gone; only I survive, and the memory of the windy, chilly Inaugural Day and the not-possible-yet-made small slam keeps teasing.
Is it not ironical that by far the most outstanding initiative the Kennedy administration took was enlarging the scale of military engagement in Vietnam, a decision which caused deep misgiving across the globe and tore apart the American nation itself and its denouement was an American defeat, for the first time, in a war with a foreign power?