August 17, 2010
James Jackson Kilpatrick, known as Kilpo to his many friends, has passed away. The news was not surprising but still jarred me. I remember him well. Its not as if I really knew him. But I remembered all my life his lecture to a group of young college students at University of Virginia.
We were gathered in Newcomb Halls ballroom—our idea of an elegant location—to hear the famous editor of the Richmond News Leader. I now realize that Kilpatrick was only 43 when he spoke to us. It seemed he was decades older. He was one of those people who seems to have been 50 when he was born.
The time was Thursday night, November 21, 1963. I recall he was putting forward some bizarre idea of everyone voting for independent electors in the upcoming presidential election as a way to throw the election into the House of Representatives. Kilpatrick did not like President Kennedy and hoped he would be defeated. Many of us in the room knew that we would be too young to vote for or against Kennedy in 1964—the Twenty-sixth Amendment having not yet been passed. But that did not mean we werent keenly interested.
As soon as he finished his erudite but puzzling talk, hands shot up. Whom would the Republicans nominate in 1964? Sen. Barry Goldwater, Kilpatrick confidently predicted.
As a New Yorker, I thought that was odd. We were told daily by the New York Times that Richard Nixon was all washed up and that Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, the undisputed emperor of the Empire State was the obvious Republican choice. (The Times favorite idea of a presidential contest was a liberal Democrat versus a liberal Republican.)
Then, someone asked Mr. Kilpatrick who the Democratic nominee in 1964 would be. We laughed. It was a ridiculous question. President Kennedy was then sailing along with an approval rating in the high 60s. He had just gone eyeball to eyeball with Khrushchev over the Cuban Missile Crisis and, as one of his top aides said, the other guy blinked.
Kilpatrick answered curiously. The Democratic nominee, if hes alive, will be John Kennedy.
If hes alive? President Kennedy, at 46, was tanned and relaxed, the very picture of sunny good health. He had vigah, or so we thought.
The next day, at noon in Dallas, President Kennedy was assassinated. I could not get out of my mind James Jackson Kilpatricks strange answer from the night before: If hes alive… I wonder how many of the young students in that room that night might have given credence to all the conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination. Why would Mr. Kilpatrick have said something so odd? Did he have some knowledge of what was to come?
Of course not. Kilpatrick the savvy journalist knew what many reporters knew: Jack Kennedy was actually a very sick man. He needed constant medication to cope with Addisons Disease, a life threatening illness.
Fortunately, no one ever fingered Kilpatrick for what he said to us that night. I could never watch James Jackson Kilpatrick on television as his career took off, however, without remembering that weird scene.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kilpo was a familiar figure to millions of Americans from his Point/CounterPoint segment on CBS televisions popular 60 Minutes news show. Kilpatrick was put forward as the conservative voice on everything. He was often placed in opposition to Shana Alexander or Nicholas von Hoffman.
I must admit, I dismissed most of what he said, even the stuff I agreed with. Thats because I knew Kilpatrick as a segregationist—probably the leading segregationist intellectual in the country. I wanted no part of that.
Also, Kilpatrick seemed forever out of sorts. He was one of those people who was weaned on a pickle. His clashes with Shana or Nicholas didnt make me agree with them, but they put me away from him, to be sure.
Michael Deaver tells us in his memoirs how CBS offered to make Ronald Reagan their conservative spokesman. Deaver had just inked a deal with the Mutual Broadcasting Company for Reagan to do three-minute radio commentaries. But when CBS television reached out with its offer of tens of millions of nightly viewers, Deaver jumped at it.
No, said Ronald Reagan. Weve just signed a contract with Mutual. Theyve been good to us.
And besides, I dont think people will get tired of me on radio. Reagan knew radio. Reagan knew the movies. Reagan knew television. He wasnt called the Great Communicator for nothing. TV is catnip to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
So CBS gave America James Jackson Kilpatrick as the face of conservatism. And America grew tired of him. It showed the power of the liberal news media to control not only their own message, but to choose who would be allowed to speak for their opposition.
When Reagan ran for president, he offered a conservatism with a smiling face. Sunny, optimistic,
hopeful, Reagan did for conservatism what Franklin D. Roosevelt did for liberalism. It was the brainy Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who described FDR as a second-rate mind, but a first-rate temperament.
People tried to put down Ronald Reagan, too. Liberals called him an amiable dunce. But Reagan knew they looked down on the American people, as well, so he didnt care. He learned in Hollywood, he said, the difference between the critics and the box office.
Happily for his memory, James Jackson Kilpatrick grew to reject as evil his early vocal support for segregation. But for all his talk about the Supreme Court and judicial tyranny, he never understood the worst example of raw judicial power —- Roe v. Wade. And maybe, in his own way, he enhanced Reagans appeal. After years of watching Kilpatricks sour pickle conservatism, Reagans was all ice cream. May Kilpo rest in peace.