all the president’s embarrassment

It’s not a White House tape that’s going to displace any of Richard Nixon’s recordings on the all-time register of executive audio infamy, but John F. Kennedy’s feelings about the failings of the 1963 U.S. national hockey team deserve a listen.

Thanks go to The Toronto Star’s reporter in Washington, Mitch Potter, who tweeted an alert this afternoon to the tape in question. It’s not new in its availability: recordings from the Kennedy White House have been public for some time. As they’ll tell you there, a Dictaphone taping system was set up in the Oval Office — “and possibly in the President’s bedroom” — in the fall of 1962 to track telephone conversations. Robert Kennedy ordered the system disconnected on the day the President died, November 22, 1963. The telephone recordings — 12 hours’ worth, preserved on “dictabelts,” were later sent to the National Archives in Washington and, in 1976, to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, where the process of declassifying them took place of the course of the following two decades.

It was a Wednesday in March, and the President had been browsing the papers. What he found in the sports pages soured his cereal enough that he put in an emergency call to David Hackett to talk about the fortunes of the U.S. hockey team taking part in the world championships in Sweden.

“Dave,” said the President.

“Yeah, how are you?” Hackett was an old friend, from prep school, of Bobby Kennedy’s, and he was serving now as executive director of the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime. More to the point on this particular morning: after soldiering as a paratrooper during World War II, he’d attended Montreal’s McGill University. He’d played hockey there, and was good enough to be chosen for the 1952 U.S. Olympic team. (He broke his ankle and missed the tournament in Oslo.)

“Dave,” the President continued, “I noticed in the paper this morning where the Swedish team beat the American hockey team 17-2.”

Hackett: Yeah, I saw that.

President: Christ, who are we sending over there, girls?

Hackett: I don’t know, they haven’t won a game.

President: I know it. I mean, who got them up?

Hackett: I don’t know, but I can check into it.

President: God, we’ve got some pretty good hockey players, haven’t we?

Hackett: Yeah.

President: I suppose they are all playing on their college teams, are they or something? I would like to find out whether it was done … under what sort of sponsors it, and what kind of players they’ve got. Because I think that is a disgrace to have a team that … 17 to 2: that’s about as bad as I have ever heard, isn’t it?

Hackett: And they’ve been beaten by everybody by scores almost equal to that.

President: So it, obviously, uh, we shouldn’t send a team unless we can send a good one. Would you find out about it and let me know?

Hackett: Yeah, I will find out and let you know.

It would be good to know what Hackett’s findings were. As for the U.S. team, they had been having a hard time well before Washington took notice. As Hackett noted, before the Swedes schmucked them, they’d lost to Finland (11-3), Czechoslovakia (10-1), and Canada, a.k.a. the Trail Smoke Eaters (10-4).

Sensing, perhaps, their president’s shame, the Americans won their next game, beating West Germany 8-4. Then they got the Soviets, led by Vyacheslav Starshinov, who eviscerated them 9-0.  The Soviets carried on to the win the tournament; the U.S. went out on a tie, 3-3, with the other, Eastern Germans.

There were some pretty good players on the team, despite Kennedy’s derision, including Jack Kirrane, who’d not only captained the Olympic team that won an unlikely gold in Squaw Valley in 1960, but hailed from the president’s own hometown, Brookline, Massachusetts.

In Sweden, Krrane missed the game against Canada after conversing too vociferously with the referee whistling the Czechoslovakia game. Called for a minor penalty, his arguing got him a 10-minute misconduct, at which point (reported the Associated Press) he said something else to the referee that earned him the full heave-ho. When the International Ice Hockey Federation looked at it, they decided to ban him for a further game. It was a punishment you might call presidential in severity. Even if you didn’t, It was the first time in 55 years of world championships that any player had been suspended for a full game.

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