John F. Kennedy photo

Press Conference of Senator John F. Kennedy, Portland, Maine, WGAN-TV

September 02, 1960

Senator KENNEDY. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It is a great pleasure to be here in Maine today. This is really, in a sense, the beginning of our campaign, and I have been traveling the State of Maine with Ed Muskie, Frank Coffin, who is the candidate for Governor, Lucia Cormier, who is the candidate for the U.S. Senate, Jim Oliver, Congressman from this district, John Donovan, and Dave Roberts. We have traveled from Presque Isle, and we are going to speak tonight and go to Washington. Tomorrow morning I fly to Alaska and speak to a dinner in Alaska tomorrow night. In a way, therefore, I am covering the oldest section of the United States, Maine, and going to the newest section, Alaska. But in a very real sense, both Maine and Alaska have the same problems, because they are the problems of the United States, in a very difficult and dangerous time for us all. This campaign is important because the issues we face are important, and because what happens to this country is important. I am glad to be here and I would be delighted to answer any questions that the press might have.

QUESTION. Senator Kennedy, would you tell us how you feel about your chances in Maine in November, and those of the other candidates of your party?

Senator KENNEDY. Well, I think that we are hopeful in Maine in November. Ed Muskie has given Maine the kind of leadership which I think these other candidates, all of whom I know personally - I think the kind of leadership which they can give the State. There is an old saying that as Maine goes, so goes the country. I would hope that we would do well in Maine and as Maine went, so went the West of the United States.

QUESTION. Following Vice President Nixon's southern swing, he said, "The Kennedy-Johnson ticket is in real trouble in the South." Would you care to comment on that?

Senator KENNEDY. Well, we have problems in the South and I suppose we have problems in all sections of the United States. The Democratic Party is the national party, the oldest party in the world. There are farmers in it, workingmen, businessmen, ranchers, fishermen from Maine, farmers, it covers the whole United States. I think the problem which any candidates have for the Democratic Party is to rally all the multigroups that have maintained the Democratic Party and put the national interest first. I think, finally, we are going to be successful in November, but it is going to be a hard campaign and it will be a hard campaign in the South as well as in Maine.

QUESTION. Senator Kennedy, if you are elected President, will the Passamaquoddy Bay project become a reality?

Senator KENNEDY. I have supported the Passamaquoddy Bay project since I have been in the U.S. Senate. I have great hopes for it. It is now before the Commission. I hope that the United States and Canada will come to an agreement. It will be a great source of power, for not only Maine, but I think the whole Northeastern United States. I support the project, whether I am in the Senate or I am President.

QUESTION. If you were President, would you attend the General U.N. Assembly, the session which Mr. Khrushchev said he would attend?

Senator KENNEDY. I think the President should make the judgment on whether he attends the United Nations because he is the President and he is responsible for foreign policy until his term comes to an end. I would not, therefore, attempt to suggest. This is going to be an important session, but I would not attempt to advise the President on this question.

QUESTION. Senator Kennedy, would you explain why you, the new titular leader of the party and Lyndon Johnson, the majority leader in the Senate, were not able to get more of what you wanted out of this recent session?

Senator KENNEDY. As you know, we thought five or six bills were of great importance, medical care to the aged, tighter social security, a bill to increase the minimum wage to $1.25, and a housing bill. In addition, we wanted to try to do something for the farmers, which I think need particular relief at this time. We were not as successful as I hoped we would be. But I think the real difficulty is the fact that on the two bills which were most controversial, the $1.25 minimum wage, and the aid to the aged and social security, we were informed in both cases that if those bills passed, the President would veto them. All the President has to do to stop action is to veto any bill and he needs, according to the Constitution, only one-third plus one of either body to sustain his veto. It is extremely difficult for us to enact legislation if a President were opposed to it. If I were President, I would indicate my support for these programs and I think in those cases the Congress would respond. But this way, when the Congress acts, and it is threatened with a veto during every stage of its action, it is extremely difficult, with the division of powers in our Constitution, to secure action.

QUESTION. Senator Kennedy, on balance, would you say that the reconvened short session helped or hurt your candidacy in terms of the political impact of the decisions or the nondecisions?

Senator KENNEDY. I think it was unfortunate for the public interest because I did not think we got by what we should have gotten by. As you know, we had a good deal of opposition on the other side of the aisle. Unfortunately, this was a session where the political atmosphere was highly developed. In the long run, however, I am not so sure this session is a loss. I think that the American people have seen in the last 3 or 4 weeks the difficulty of operating a governmental system where the President and the Congress hold different views on great public questions. I think there are sufficient divisions of power given to us in the Constitution without having a President of one party who is opposed to these programs and a Congress of another party which is committed to these programs. If there is anyone who is listening to me who does not want action and who does not want the Congress to carry out these programs, then this divided government is fine. But I think what we need, and I think this last 3 weeks showed it, is a Congress and a President working together for progressive, responsible pieces of legislation. I am committed to that program, and I think that we have had a good evidence in the last 3 weeks why it is necessary to unite the President and the Congress and not separate them.

QUESTION. Senator Kennedy, one theme of the Republican campaign appears to be that Vice President Nixon has experience and maturity which are superior to your own.

Senator KENNEDY. Yes, I have heard that said.

QUESTION. How do you intend to answer this argument during the campaign?

Senator KENNEDY. Well I think as far as our ages they are very close. We both came to Congress 14 years ago. In fact, the same day. As far as experience, I have been a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I spent a good deal of my life before the war, at least in the last years, traveling. I was in the Soviet Union, I think, in 1939, and in Poland. I have been an active member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in my service in the Senate as well as the Labor Committee. I have been concerned about foreign policy since my father was in London, and my judgment is that the American foreign policy has been, in general, relatively unsuccessful in the last 4 or 5 years; that the power and prestige of the United States in relationship to that of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communists in the underdeveloped areas of the world has declined relatively. Therefore, I do not feel that the last years have been so successful that we should move from those to an endorsement of a previous action. I don't think that you can suggest to me one new program in the field of foreign policy which has had general acceptance around the world that has been developed in the last year. Nothing comparable to the Marshall plan, to NATO, to point 4. I think what we need is a new administration with new people, new vitality, and new ideas.

QUESTION. Senator, can you tell us what you had in mind earlier when you spoke of protection for New England industry? Are you implying some new trade proposal here?

Senator KENNEDY. No, but what I am implying is that as we get to atomic power as well as the Passamaquoddy power, which will permit us to compete more successfully, as we are able to clean our rivers to make them less polluted, as we are able to attract new industries by providing, I would think, a minimum wage which puts us on a par with other sections of the United States, as we concentrate our effort on education, our colleges and universities and schools, in order to have the most highly skilled people, in these ways I think we can strengthen our position.

QUESTION. But the word protection was used, Senator. That is what aroused our interest. What does that mean?

Senator KENNEDY. It means to try to protect and nourish and develop our industries in this section.

QUESTION. By means of tariffs?

Senator KENNEDY. In the case of textiles we have had some protection from the voluntary quotas which have not been altogether successful. I supported the peril point and the escape clause, both of which are in the present Reciprocal Trade Act. I would not suggest additional legislative action, however, on reciprocal trade. But I do think it is a matter of great concern what is happening to our textile industry and I do think we want to make sure that the domestic industry is permitted to maintain itself.

QUESTION. You mentioned there were problems in all parts of the Nation. I think one of the issues possibly that would affect Maine quite a bit is the Democratic plank on full parity price support.

How could you convince Maine people of the rightness of this plank in view of the fact that its implementation would mean higher grain costs for Maine farmers and would mean higher costs to the consumers of food products and higher taxes for our taxpayers?

Senator KENNEDY. Well, I don't consider that that is an altogether accurate description of the Democratic plank. I think that farm income nationally is wholly unsatisfactory. It is as low now as it was 20 years ago. It is a matter of national concern. Farmers of the United States, whether they live here in Maine or whether they live in Oregon, are the very important segment of the American economy. I don't think the Maine economy prospers if American agriculture is on the decline. You sell a good many things that you manufacture in this State, and we do in Massachusetts, to the Midwest. Therefore, it is a matter of great national concern if the farm income sharply declines. The average wage for a dairy farmer in the State of Wisconsin - and it is true that our own dairy farmers have been hard hit - is 50 cents an hour. The grain farmers income in many grain parts of the country is the same level it was in 1938. I think this is a matter of great national concern. Farmers are the No.1 market for Detroit automobiles. Detroit automobiles are the No.1 market for Pittsburgh steel. If farm income drops, so does Detroit, so does Pittsburgh, and so does Maine. So I don't consider it a battle between Maine and Wisconsin or Iowa.

QUESTION. Senator Kennedy, I have a two-part question here for you. This has to do with the OAS conference that was recently held. At that conference, I believe the United States agreed to sever relations with the Dominican Republic, I presume in an effort to get the South American countries to go along with our suggestion that they censure the Castro government, and perhaps place restrictions on the Castro government.

If we severed relations with the Dominican Republic, granted Trujillo is a dictator, and there are other dictators we do recognize, he has never done anything to us, he is anti-Communist and there is the possibility that a Communist regime will succeed him if he topples. At the OAS meeting all they did with regard to Castro was to adopt a vague resolution condemning the penetration of South America, by Communists, not mentioning Cuba by name.

Do you think we were wise in severing our relations with Trujillo, No.1, and, No.2, do you think we were successful at this OAS conference?

Senator KENNEDY. I do think that our policy toward Trujillo is wise. The basic wave which has swept South America in the last 10 years is to have independent governments within their own countries. It is antidictatorship. The reason that American policy in South America does not enjoy the high esteem which it enjoyed during the 1930's during the period of good neighbors was our relations with the former dictator of Venezuela, our intimate relations with dictators in several other countries. I don't think we can expect the people of Latin America to join us against the dictatorships in the whole hemisphere unless we also don't attempt to play the game the way it is.

The second point which is a valid one is that the Latin American resolution against the Castro government was not as strong as we wanted it to be. That I consider a very ominous sign. That is the Castro regime has sufficient popularity in Latin America, both because it is directed against us and our stature is not strong there, and also because too long people of Latin America have been denied their economic opportunity. Therefore, the political leaders of those countries, who I think are anti-Castro without a doubt, were not politically strong enough to afford to condemn Castro out of hand. I think he should be condemned. I think he is a source of maximum danger. I think the big task of the next administration is going to be to contain this revolution in Cuba, itself, and not have it spread through Latin America. We did make progress to a degree, though not satisfactory, however, in my opinion, and a constant struggle is going to go on if we are going to isolate this Communist conspiracy in Cuba.

Now, let me say that I am critical of this administration for its policy toward Castro in its early days and its policy toward Batista's dictatorship in the last days. I don't take the views that the only alternative to a dictator is a Communist dictator. If the United States had just had its influence, and at that time the United States was extremely powerful in Cuba, it seems to me we could have persuaded Mr. Batista to hold free elections at the time he was permitted to go and permit the Cuban people to make their choice instead of letting Castro seize power through revolution.

I think we are going to have a good deal of trouble in the future with Castro through all of Latin America. I agree we did not do as much as we wanted to toward Castro. I do not agree with our policy toward Trujillo.

QUESTION. The House Inter-American Subcommittee recommended today that the United States retain complete control over the Panama Canal and, in effect, keep the U.S. flag flying exclusively. What is your view toward this?

Senator KENNEDY. I think we should keep the flag flying over the Panama Canal, and I think we should also be concerned about our relations with Panama. I think we should make our relations with their country as palatable as possible. I would keep the American flag flying from the points of ownership, but I would certainly attempt to keep close relations with Panama. It is very difficult to operate that canal if it is operated in a sea of hostility.

QUESTION. I come from a section in the State of Maine that will either go Democratic or Republican. The people I have talked to think there is a great similarity between both programs. I would like to have you tell us tonight where the Democratic platform differs from the Republican. I know it is a big subject, but what is the greatest difference?

Senator KENNEDY. I think the Democratic Party and I hope the candidates running, certainly the candidates in this State and I think the candidates nationally, I think, are better prepared to meet the very revolutionary future which faces the United States and the free world. This administration has been in office 8 years. They have been in office during some of the most difficult and trying periods. But I do think in that 8-year period, the image of the United States as the most vigorous, vital, and powerful country in the world has begun to dim. I mentioned in Presque Isle today a poll which Gallup took in 10 countries, asking those people whether they thought the Soviet Union or the United States in 1970 would be first militarily and scientifically. The Soviet Union won both of those polls in the 10 countries involved, in both categories. I don't think there is any doubt that 10 years ago the United States was preeminent. I think the Democratic Party is prepared to bring new people, new ideas, with a true recognition of the seriousness of the struggle that we face.

QUESTION. Senator Kennedy, yesterday, Mike Wallace, he is the TV man, said that there has been a tremendous outbreak of what he calls scurrilous and malicious literature and he says it is having its effect on some parts of the country. I wonder if it is your feeling that this work is the work of a well-organized group or whether it is something that is coming from what you might call a lunatic fringe group and could be ignored.

Senator KENNEDY. Well, I don't think it probably could be ignored, and I would be reluctant to think it came from any organized group. There are a good many Americans who are concerned about the question of religious freedom. The power of the President is great. There are a good many Americans of good will who honestly want to hear my views on the question of religious liberty, constitutional separation of church and state, and so on. I have given those views on every occasion that I am asked and I am glad to give it again. Of course. I believe in the U.S. Constitution. Ed Muskie, Frank Coffin, and I take the same oath as the President takes, to defend the Constitution as Members of Congress, and I would take that oath if I were elected President, and I would take it on the Bible. So I am delighted if anybody asks me my feeling about it. I don't feel at all reluctant to discuss it. I know there is a group of people who would not accept any answer, who are not interested in my views on the matter, who are not interested in my experience, who are not interested in what has happened in this country in our history where we all believe in it. I can't answer them and I suppose they are going to vote against me. All I say is they are really wasting their vote, because here in the most difficult time, when we in this country are on trial as the exponents of free government, are going to spend the next 2 months discussing our churches, and where we go - I think my candidacy would be unfortunate. The purpose of this discussion is to discuss issues and give alternatives.

QUESTION. You do understand the type of literature I am talking about?

Senator KENNEDY. I have seen it sent to me.

QUESTION. You do not believe it is the work of an organized group?

Senator KENNEDY. Obviously it is organized enough to send it around the United States, but I just feel we are going to meet that problem. I have faced it before. I ran into it in West Virginia and we emerged successfully. The State of Maine has shown that what it values as the kind of men they choose for office is not what their religion is. That is why this country has been so successful. I am not prepared to say that we are not going to have a comparable experience in this election. My judgment is that come November this matter will assume its proper proportion.

QUESTION. Senator, last week's Kiplinger Washington Letter mentioned that both you and Vice President Nixon have your own private, personal public opinion polls. I am wondering how yours compares with the latest Gallup report?

Senator KENNEDY. I have only seen a couple of polls since the election. I thought this last Gallup poll was about the way mine was. I would say this is a very close election.

QUESTION. Senator Kennedy, prior to World War II, the United States had undisputed economic lead throughout the world because of its mass production methods. Today we have equipped most of these foreign countries with modern machinery as we have, if not actually more modern than ours in many instances. Their wages are very low. We have dropped our tariffs considerably to accommodate their goods. I understand that recently for the first time foreign concerns have been able to undersell us in Europe and they are underselling us at home today. If our wages here continue to spiral and limitations are placed on the amount of work that people may do, how are we going to increase our economy by 5 percent a year?

Senator KENNEDY. Well, let me say in the first place the balance of trade is still relatively in our favor. Where we have lost is because we have maintained troops overseas and we have contributed a good deal to maintaining the economies of other countries. That is what has really contributed to the balance of payments run against us. The trade balance is still even and in many cases is in our favor. I do suggest - I do agree that you have suggested a long-range problem, and that is how can we compete successfully with not only Western Europe but also the Soviet Union. I think it is going to be a matter of the greatest possible concern. We can stay ahead. I think that we are going to find a great investment in capital goods. I think by changes in our tax laws we can stimulate new investments in new machinery. I think our productivity is going to be maintained. I would say it is a serious problem but it is one that is possible of solution. I don't think what is causing us difficulty is that we are paying generous wages. I am not interested in driving our wage levels down. I think we are still meeting the competition. Generally we are and we can continue to do so.

QUESTION. In the prepared text of your speech at Manchester this morning, with reference to the decline in the textile industry here, you listed full use of valuable weapons against the excessive imports as one means of reversing a serious decline. I gathered from your response to Donovan's question that you are opposed to fixing mandatory quotas or increasing tariffs in order to achieve this. Is that correct?

Senator KENNEDY. Well, in the case of worsteds we have a quota in the sense that when worsted imports go over 5 percent, then the tariff changes. In the case of cotton textiles we have relied on the so-called voluntary system, though of course we do have some protection for cotton. All I am suggesting is that while the Japanese have relaxed their imports in accordance with agreement, we are getting a great increase in textile imports from Hong Kong and certain other countries. I think these must be a matter of concern. Several appeals have gone to the Tariff Commission and we are still in rather critical condition in the textile industry. I think that there is a proportion in every industry between imports and domestic production. I don't want to see any domestic industry driven to the wall by excessive imports and that is my general view. I say in the case of textiles, the last 18 months have been a matter of concern to me.

QUESTION. Senator Kennedy, you mentioned that the threat of veto had some effect on at least two pieces of major legislation during the special session and yet your opposition publicly and through various periodicals has said that you assumed the mantle of leadership from Mr. Johnson and you failed miserably. Would you want to comment on it?

Senator KENNEDY. I realize that that is what the Republicans say, but they are entitled to do it. We did not do as well as we could hope. Let us take a look at two pieces of legislation in which I was extremely interested, housing and education. Neither one of those bills came to a vote in the House of Representatives because there they were bottled up in the Rules Committee. There are four Republican members of the Rules Committee, and not one of them would vote to permit, even though the President requested housing legislation and aid to education, not one of the four Republican members of the Rules Committee would permit either one of those bills to come to the floor for a vote. Two Democrats joined with them. I think that was a mistake. But the four of the Democrats voted for those bills to go to the floor. Not one Republican on the Rules Committee would vote with us.

No.2, we went to conference between the House and the Senate on minimum wage. Six out of seven Republicans on that conference voted against that not only the $1.25 minimum wage, but also against the President's own program which we finally offered as a compromise. Six out of seven Democrats on the conference voted for the $1.25 minimum wage. I will give you the fourth one.

In the case of medical care for the aged on social security, 45 Democrats voted for it and 1 Republican voted for it, even though Governor Rockefeller had endorsed it strongly and even though it was the most efficient and economic way to do the job. I think the record is quite clear in this Congress, and I think the American people are going to have to decide whether they want a repetition of the kind of negative blocking actions which were carried on in this Congress or whether they want us to move ahead. We cannot possibly challenge a President who is opposed to us. The Constitution gives him too many powers. All I say is the American people ought to decide whether that is what they want or whether they want to move ahead.

MODERATOR. Ladies and gentlemen, you have time for one more question.

QUESTION. Senator Kennedy, in a few days the State of Maine will be the first State in the Union to be without any passenger train service, according to the Supreme Court of Maine. They say it is coming all over the country. Some of us think it is more important to get to Bangor than to the moon right now. I wonder if you have any thoughts about the transportation problem nationally.

Senator KENNEDY. I think the matter is a matter of greatest possible concern, the breakdown in negotiations. I am sure that the President is extremely concerned and I am hopeful that he will use the influence of his office to attempt to have the two groups reach an agreement. In the final analysis there is every important public interest as well as the interest of the parties, and I am hopeful that the President can serve as the bridge.

Let me say finally that I guess we are all finished. I want to thank Miss Cormier, who I hope is going to serve in the Senate, Frank Coffin, the candidate for Governor, Jim Oliver, the Congressman from here, and John Donovan, and all the rest who I think would serve as a first class team for Maine.

We finish here, but we are coming hack. I think we have in the great State of Maine to demonstrate that we have a new frontier. This is an old section of the United States, but I believe that its promise is still bright. I am going to carry that message to Alaska, and I hope that Dave Roberts and all the rest will be traveling the State of Maine with me when I come back in October. Thank you very much, everybody.

John F. Kennedy, Press Conference of Senator John F. Kennedy, Portland, Maine, WGAN-TV Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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