Dennis Kennedy, former deputy editor and long-time columnist with the Irish Times, was one of fifteen journalists chosen to visit the USA in 1963, courtesy of the World Press Institute in Minnesota . Almost 50 years later he has published his reminiscences.
The one year fellowship, designed to increase awareness of the USA among foreign journalists, included a period at Macalester College in Minnesota, a spell working for the Newark News, an extended tour of 20 states and ended with the 1964 Republican Convention which nominated Barry Goldwater.
The group’s well-connected hosts also provided icing on the cake in the form of corporate access at a high level, including meetings and briefings with major figures from the Sixties, including the owner and founder of Time Magazine (Henry Luce) and Readers’ Digest, Senators Fulbright and McCarthy, Willy Brandt (then Mayor of Cold War hot spot West Berlin)and Billy Graham. Governor Wallace of Alabama, segregationist hero, reminisced to the Japanese journalist in the group about his part in the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945.
It was a memorable, indeed seminal year. When he arrived in August, JFK was in the White House and Martin Luther King had just made his famous “I have a dream” speech. Then came the bombshell of Dallas. Amazingly, their hosts got the group to Washington, flown on 3 M’s corporate plane, into the White House to view the President’s coffin and to witness the funeral, and even into the empty Oval Office. Looking back, the author remarks not only on the assassination but on the smooth transfer of power and the first months of the new President, LBJ, who proved far more than the journeyman politician he had appeared.
The book contains a number of vignettes covering the main events and places visited by Dennis, some amusing, some amazing, and offers a short time capsule of the USA before Civil Rights and Vietnam. In Newark he was house guest of James Joyce and Joyce Joyce, proud Irish Americans. Particularly striking is his account of the US South and the “profoundly shocking” blinkered attitudes on race he encountered among some of the whites he met –many of whom denied there was any racial problem whatever in the South. The world he describes, including a “Whites Only” municipal drinking fountain in Montgomery, was portrayed vividly recently in the film “The Help.”
A different era, certainly. All fifteen journalists were male, unthinkable today. By the end, the USA, though English speaking, had become for the author “a foreign country with which I had a unique bond.” A sequel, offering comparison based on a return visit today, would be fascinating.
A gentle book by a gentleman.