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The Presidency: A Diversity of Dilemmas

6 minute read
TIME

May God defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies.

—Voltaire

President Kennedy was among friends—some 10,000 delegates and guests of the United Auto Workers in annual convention. Around Atlantic City’s Convention Hall were huge signs reading “U.A.W.—All the Way with J.F.K.” and “You’re the Skipper, Jack. Full Speed Ahead. Damn the Tories.” As U.A.W. President Walter Reuther introduced Kennedy, the delegates jumped to their feet, whistling, stomping and cheering.

Yet Kennedy’s labor friends might cause him more trouble than the enemies he recently earned among businessmen. Since the steel crisis, most of the U.S. has been waiting to see if he would meet wage-increase demands by Big Labor with the same merciless tactics. The President had journeyed to Atlantic City not to praise labor (though that was part of the ritual) but to admonish it in firm fashion to stay in line.

With a Single Voice. “I speak,” he said, “as President of the United States with a single voice to both management and labor . . . I believe it is the business of the President of the United States to concern himself with the general welfare and the public interest . . . I believe that what is good for the United States—for the people as a whole—is going to be good for every American company and for every American union.” Unjustified wage and price demands, said the President, are equally “contrary to the national interest.” His Administration “has not undertaken and will not undertake” to fix prices or wages or to intervene in every little old labor dispute. Instead, it depends on labor and management to reach settlements within “guidelines” suggested by the Administration. The basic Kennedy credo for labor: wage hikes should hang on productivity increases, thereby enabling labor to seek its gains “out of the fruits of technology instead of the pockets of the consumers.”

But even as Kennedy spoke to the U.A.W., there was before the convention delegates a resolution stressing “the imperative necessity.” in order to expand demand, “for real wages to increase at a rate faster than the rate of productivity advance.” When newsmen first saw and asked Reuther about the resolution. Reuther hastily called the White House with a promise to clear up the “misunderstanding” before Kennedy came to Atlantic City. The U.A.W. policy on collective bargaining, announced Reuther. “is in conformity with and supports the efforts of the President to achieve a stable price structure.” But after Kennedy’s convention appearance, the U.A.W.’s international executive board unanimously approved the resolution as union policy. Said Reuther: “We think we’re right on this question of greater emphasis on the need for expanded demand.”

Beyond that, in approaching aircraft and missile industry negotiations, the U.A.W. and the International Association of Machinists are not only seeking wage hikes based on productivity rises but also, as Reuther put it, “catchup raises to bring aerospace wage rates up to date with other major industries.” The Administration concedes that a strict wage-productivity ratio may not work in all indus tries. But Kennedy is confronted by the fact that he crunched the steel industry for asking for just such a “catch-up” in prices.

Only a Few S.O.B.s. Kennedy’s triumph over steel has. in fact, placed him in a diversity of dilemmas. It won him the deep distrust of the business community. In answer to a question at his press conference last week, the President took pains to limit the remark he was quoted as making during the heat of the steel crisis: “My father always told me that all businessmen were s.o.b.s, but I never believed it till now.” Kennedy lamely insisted that neither he nor Old Joe had been talking about all businessmen but just about a few steel magnates. At Hot Springs, Va., where top U.S. businessmen were attending a meeting of the Business Council, Roger Blough. chairman of both U.S. Steel and the council—and presumably one of the steel magnates included—showed himself willing to forget the matter. There is every reason to believe, said Blough, that business and Government are embarked on a new era of good feeling. Nonetheless, many businessmen were passing around buttons spoofing their residence in the Kennedy doghouse.

Also at his press conference, Kennedy was asked in separate questions about whether he would intervene in three different labor-management disputes. Again he went to great lengths to say that the Government cannot get in on such arguments unless and until they threaten the national interest. Yet almost in the same breath, he offered the good offices of Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg to help out in West Coast construction-industry negotiations and in the Detroit and Minneapolis newspaper strikes.

Foot in the Air. The fact is that Kennedy, having stomped on steel, finds himself in the political position of keeping his other foot poised to tromp on any inflationary wage demands by labor. And it is pretty hard to maintain balance with one foot in the air. If he fails to move against labor, he will certainly lay himself open to the charge of favoritism. If he does move, with the same angry abandon that he did against steel, he will increase the fears of many thoughtful Americans. They worry lest Kennedy, by carrying out extralegal power ploys, might eventually create a situation in which basic U.S. liberties would be compromised.

It was in that sense that Republican Dwight Eisenhower, after a Washington strategy conference with the G.O.P.’s Capitol Hill leaders, last week defended Kennedy’s foreign policies but strongly criticized the President for “the strenuous efforts of the Administration to increase greatly the power of the executive branch of the Government. It has long been my judgment that the real threat to liberty in this Republic will be primarily found in a steady erosion of self-reliant citizenship and in excessive power concentration.” To back up his charge that Kennedy is asking for too many powers, Ike cited Kennedy’s requests for authority to modify income taxes when he decides it is necessary, to finance emergency public works by diversion of funds, to “regiment all agriculture,” to “take over a whole host of state and local responsibilities, notably including the proposal for a Department of Urban Affairs,” and “to dilute the independence of the Federal Reserve Board by presidential appointment of its chairman.” Added Ike: “The objectives under lying many such proposals are not in themselves controversial. I do not agree, however, that in every instance more presidential power is needed to achieve them.” Thus, in his diversity of dilemmas, and with Big Labor plainly determined to demand as it pleases, President Kennedy may yet find that Voltaire knew precisely what he was talking about.

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