The President’s Best Friend

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The Germans would salute and say, “Heil Hitler.” Jack and Lem would wave and answer, “Hi ya, Hitler.”

Munich was their first exposure to the Nazis. Years later Lem would recount his impressions to Robert Kennedy, Jr.: “Lem said that he and Jack didn’t like the self-confidence of the Germans, the contempt. They saw contempt for Americans everywhere. The Germans would salute and say, ‘Heil Hitler!’ and Lem and Jack were expected to do the same. Instead, they got it down so that they just casually threw back their hands and waved, saying ‘Hi ya, Hitler.’” On the top floor of a beerhouse in Munich, they drank with a group of Blackshirt Nazi troopers, one of whom was Oxford-educated, chubby, and friendly. Confiding that Billings and Kennedy could take a couple of large beer mugs as souvenirs, he helpfully directed them to a door through which they were assured an undetected passage. No sooner had they followed his instructions than a waiter brusquely confiscated the mugs, detained them, and asked for their passports. Meanwhile, they saw the Blackshirt trooper gaping with laughter. They had no regrets about leaving Germany, with the one exception of having just missed seeing Hitler at a Nuremberg rally.

INTERLUDE: 1941-1945

CONTEMPLATING His future two months before graduation from Princeton in 1939, Lem wrote to Jack’s sister Kathleen: “None of us are worrying too much about jobs—this country is getting more and more war conscious—and we all expect to be over there at least by fall. … Last night at the movies they showed the newsreel pictures of our Air Force and Army maneuvers and everyone hysterically got up and cheered—even brother Jack’s flat feet and bad stomach won’t keep him out of this one.” As old classmates began to enlist after graduation, Lem grew increasingly anxious about his own medical defects. Poor eyesight would keep him out of any service if and when America entered the war in Europe. By September 1941 Jack had enlisted. After rejection by the Army and the Navy because of his bad back, Kennedy was granted a commission as an ensign in the Naval Reserve and went to work for the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington. Lem, trying desperately to get into the Navy, made frequent exploratory trips to Washington. He stayed with Jack at his apartment in the Dorchester Hotel on Sixteenth Street. Both of them were frustrated that autumn: Jack by his inactive desk job, Lem by his inability to get any kind of military post: he had been rejected by the Army, the Navy, the Air Force—even the Coast Guard.

 
 
 

One Sunday, after Lem accompanied Jack to eleven o’clock Mass, they began the afternoon with their usual disagreement about touch football. It was the one issue that consistently disunited them throughout their friendship. Jack loved to go down to the sweeping greensward around the Washington Monument, where a serious game of touch could always be found on a Sunday afternoon. As usual, Lem reluctantly capitulated; as usual, Jack found the most challenging game on the Mall. Then he and Jack would be picked by separate teams, and before long Lem’s teammates would realize the terrible mistake they had made.

This particular Sunday was no different, except that after the game was over, and the two of them were driving back to Jack’s apartment, a broadcast crackled over the car radio: Japanese bombers had attacked Pearl Harbor. In the excitement of the moment Lem felt disappointed and extremely civilian. Unlike touch football, this was not a conflict he wanted to watch from the sidelines.

Kennedy was soon transferred to Naval Intelligence in Charleston, South Carolina; Billings returned to his job as a junior executive at the Coca-Cola Bottling Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Both men were restless. In February, Lem visited his friend in Charleston for a week and saw Jack give his first public speech.

The twenty-four-year-old John F. Kennedy lectured the workers of an armaments factory about two different kinds of incendiary bombs. At first Lem was nervous for Jack; the technical details of the assignment seemed hazarous, particularly for an inexperienced public speaker. In fact, Kennedy knew very little about any kind of incendiary bomb. Nevertheless, he carried off the presentation with flair. Lem was impressed. Jack was too. The speech went so well that Ensign Kennedy was emboldened to call for questions—a dreadful mistake, Lem thought. The first one came from a man who wanted to know precisely how to distinguish one kind of incendiary bomb from the other. Lem held his breath. “I’m glad you asked that question,” replied the unfazed Ensign Kennedy, pausing for a moment, “because in two weeks, a specialist will be coming down here and that is exactly what he wants to talk about.”