The press conferences in Kennedy's Camelot were not at all like Trump's. He held court and the journalists were courtiers who knew their place. My place, on a sort of State Department travelling fellowship, was at the back, with a good enough view to note that the president seemed more florid of face and stockier in build than he seemed on TV. But in an age when deference was still fashionable, even in the Great Democracy, those several rows in front also knew their rank in a media hierarchy.
The main body deferred quietly to a chosen few among them, and all deferred gladly to the president. We all laughed dutifully, I think, when he got the cue for a well-prepared joke which linked the pressures of the presidency to the Camel cigarette advertising aimed at those who were 'smoking more but enjoying it less'. It was 18 months before the US surgeon-general's report that ended the illusions of tobacco advertising, a little less before the dreams of Camelot died at Dallas. But in that early summer of 1962 Kennedy, with the power of presidency and personality, was running the show and showing off. The most interesting political point I noted came when he told a questioner with a Texan drawl that he would be happy to keep Vice-President Johnson on the ticket for 1964.
It's difficult now, even in long retrospect, to decide how much that personal ascendancy owed to political affinity (for most east coast media people were Democrats even then), or power of personality, or to that respect for the office of president which was withdrawn under Nixon, never fully restored by the undistinguished decency of Jimmy Carter and, well before Trump's time, conspicuously absent in the lecherous reign of Bill Clinton. It was probably that respect which restrained media speculation about Kennedy's health problems, as well as his amorous enthusiasms, just as effectively as traditional deference maintained silence about aspects of Roosevelt's marriage and concealed the extent of his physical frailty. Kennedy seemed to be basking in the glowing prospect of a certain two-term presidency, still able to carry most of the south, with suggestions already that the office might stay in the family.
Things seemed more complicated once I set out into the hinterland of Camelot, going coast-to-coast and back, but Kennedy had an acceptance greater than his hair's-breadth victory in 1960 suggested. When I visited newspapers and university departments of politics or journalism – the main stopping-places on my travels – even people who hadn't been Kennedy enthusiasts seemed to have come round to him. When they talked about the Republicans their main and usually hostile interest was in the phenomenon of Barry Goldwater, an able right-wing senator (eventually routed by Lyndon Johnson in 1964) whom the liberals professed to find as terrifying as Trump seems today to their grandchildren, though he had two assets the present tenant of the White House lacks: practical experience of legislation and political compromise along with a coherent political philosophy. Only in upstate Indiana, in the high-tech university at Purdue, did I come across anyone who fancied Nixon for a comeback.
Happily my notes aren't all about politics. In Chicago Billy Graham was leading a crusade and I had a chance to hear him in his prime and almost on his home ground, for the lakeside city was full of southern immigrants. His style there seemed not only even more vigorous than elsewhere but a very individual American eloquence blending the sonorous and the colloquial. I encountered a more sedate religiosity in Denver when my host told me that 'there's some sort of Presbyterian convention in the auditorium.' It was the general assembly of the northern Presbyterians, not yet reunited with the south and not yet redivided by new arguments over scripture and morals. I sent off a piece to the Glasgow Herald gushing with naïve ecumenical enthusiasm and some hints (never taken) that the Kirk might be interested in hustings and vigorously contested elections.
I was also on holy ground at Salt Lake City where a journalism professor at the university up the hill got a lecture out of me and then shared a couple of Cokes. He said he was a liberal Mormon. Later I stood a whisky in my hotel room to another helpful and presumably ultra-liberal Mormon. But the Saints' press officer, who may have been a conservative Mormon, drove me nearly 50 miles in an opaque mountain downpour to Brigham Young University so that I could hear Eugene Ormandy conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for Brahms's 'German Requiem'. He also got me a friendly chat with the Mormons' supreme pontiff, a Caithness-descended McKay who had done a youthful missionary stint in Scotland. Strange theology. Fine people. Good Christians after their fashion. So I concluded then, and still believe.
But there was one point on which the Mormons, so confident in their faith, seemed uneasy. Their black members were deemed ineligible for the priesthood and were restricted in other privileges. The answer I got when questioning this was that 'we change as God's will is made known.' The process was clearly beginning but not ratified as a revelation until 1978.
Most of America could not be as patient or relaxed in these matters as Salt Lake City. Kennedy's presidency may now seem to have been a lull between the two most turbulent phases of the civil rights campaigns but at the time the continuing process of legal and social desegregation seemed to create a mixture of moods: a sense of incomplete achievement, nervousness, reluctance acceptance, resentment, uncertainty, and hesitant adjustment.
The oddest uncertainty I encountered was at the Biltmore Hotel, then one of the grandest edifices in Atlanta but nowadays nestling modestly (and no longer as a hotel) beside the soaring symbols of a much-changed south. Also there were some other State Department guests, mainly from poor francophone countries in Africa. They ventured down into the hotel's nightclub (with dance floor) and were refused admission. Then someone realised that they were not American blacks and rushed to invite them back. I met them again later at a meeting downtown with student activists led by Robert Moses, soon to be a major civil rights campaigner, and watched them quietly slipping the hosts a few dollar bills from their meagre stock.
But it was the hesitancy that was most apparent on a long bus journey through the deep south from Atlanta to New Orleans. This was long after the end of segregation on inter-state travel, six years after the Montgomery local bus boycott, and anyone could sit anywhere. It seemed that most blacks still clustered towards the back, most whites further forward. But when we stopped, and headed for the lunch counters via the 'restrooms' we still split clearly into our two tribes, even though above the doors were empty panels with traces of recently removed segregating lettering.
The USA in the 1960's, like southern Africa, imposed a sense of tribal identity even on those who would rather not have asserted it. Maybe it still does today. I say tribal and not racial because my notes reflect some bafflement over American attitudes to 'colour' and some odd personal experiences. In a Washington suburban school, I was asked if I was a Turk and if my moosetash – I spell as pronounced – was some kind of national symbol. Later I had a helpful briefing from a leading light in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – so light in fact that I assumed at first that he was a white man, though someone later told me that I 'should have looked at his fingernails', as if that mattered.
Then in a black restaurant near the black Atlanta University I became a case of mistaken identity, much to the mirth of my hosts. The word was going round that their pale guest must be Adam Clayton Powell, a congressman many shades lighter than most of his Harlem constituents, a pioneer of civil rights campaigning who was later outpaced by younger leaders. The error seems not entirely unreasonable if one Googles for pictures of Powell and compares them with pictures with which the editor of the Scottish Review sometimes prefaces my contributions.
All of this was a very long time ago and the America I have often visited since has changed in many ways, often (though not always) for the better. I only wish that two of the apparently constant factors had proved inconstant. One is that tribal consciousness linked to various strange and sometimes absurd concepts, first of 'race' and now evident in the further-fetched identifications of 'racism'. Another is the venomous intensity that can poison the politics of a country where the major parties and strands of opinion have usually reflected more consensus than those of continental Europe or even Britain. Goldwater got a raw deal from the media and liberal establishment. More recently Trump got his retaliation in first, as they say in rugby brawls, yet both he and his enemies now make the 1960s seem almost an era of good feeling in comparison.
But after browsing through my recently rediscovered notebooks from this olden time (dumped in a cupboard since a flitting that now seems almost as long ago) I began to realise what wasn't mentioned. Some of the omissions simply reflect changes in language. I never heard the term 'African American' and my notes reflect widespread and interchangeable use of 'black' and 'Negro'. But it's evident I hadn't come across problems and controversies which were soon to convulse America. They had gone unmentioned in hours of conversations with journalists, politicians, local hosts, liberal academics, and even arch-conservatives who thought most Republicans were dangerous liberals.
There's no mention of Vietnam. I must have read items about it in the few US newspapers that carried much foreign news but have no memory of them or any note of the subject coming up, though Kennedy had already sent hundreds of specialist troops as 'advisers'. It didn't even come up when, after minute checks on my ID, I met the Los Angeles leader of the John Birch Society, the once-feared right-wing pressure group whose name is sometimes wrongly attributed to 'the first American casualty of the Vietnam war'. (Birch was a Baptist missionary enrolled as a US officer but killed by Chinese communists.)
Nor did I hear any discussion of social controversies, soon to be argued with an urgency and ferocity which also took America by surprise and which still perplex and divide its people. I recall no mention of homosexuality, far less 'same-sex marriage', and no encounter with it in print except in a sub-plot of Allen Drury's political novel 'Advise and Consent' with which (along with bundles of civil war centenary paperback history) I eased the tedium of long and not always direct flights. And, though I met many women involved in public life and civil society, I recall nothing that I could call 'feminism' – and no sign of abortion as a great political and legal issue. How quickly things changed, and how old-fashioned Kennedy's Camelot seems in retrospect.
There are other significant omissions in my notebooks. No one was worked up about immigration. I heard no Spanish spoken, even in California, and no mention of Hispanics. I'm not even sure that at the time I knew the term, which seems to have got official status about 1970. I may possibly have heard in passing of 'Latinos' and knew about (without knowingly meeting) Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in the USA. I'd also been told to expect a lot of anti-Castro Cubans if I ever got to Miami, which I didn't.
Probably far more Hispanics than I or my hosts realised were already working among the scullions and grooms of Camelot but in demographic matters, as well as Vietnamese and social ones, America would soon be taken by surprise. I think the knights and ladies of its round tables knew that they still had great troubles ahead in integrating white America's old black and near-white servitors. They didn't know what else was coming and we shall never know what Camelot's king would have made of it if he had won his two terms and perhaps established a dynasty.
Next week: The thaw before the spring – Czechoslovakia 1963