From November 2013
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I’ve been thinking about the assassination of President Kennedy a lot the last two weeks. I will be the first to admit that I am an emotional person; paradoxically, I cry about twice a decade. I’ve cried twice the last week.
But I’m also an academic and I know every detail down to the commas of the seamy stuff, the predatory and amoral father who lobotomized one of his daughters and, when one of the others would have a 16-year-old classmate spend the night, he would lift the covers and climb into bed with her; the mother, so distant, whose response to the one fidelity of her husband—his devotion to his self-indulgence–was to use her faith to draw curtains around herself and live in a world made safe by priests and lit by stained glass. I know their anointed son, the first Irish Catholic American President, who blew himself up to steal the glory back from his younger brother, was an arrogant bully. I know what a mean-spirited little bastard Bobby was, which is exactly why he became my favorite, because when Jack’s death burned his own arrogance away he discovered his bedrock, his greatest strength, was compassion. I have not allowed the decades to erase the name of the young woman—it was Mary Jo–who drowned in Teddy’s car.
I know all that. I know how doom stalked this family, and it did so largely because they deserved it. I know all of that.
But I know one more thing: I still miss President Kennedy.
I miss him because his short time with us was so transformative. One example: among young people, there was a Renaissance of our folk music that coincided with his presidency. It was as if we had rediscovered in music our national identity, and one that we’d somehow forgotten was so joyful yet also so impatient—patience has never suited Americans—with injustice. Our history was living again.
It wasn’t a coincidence that so may Americans not much older (and some, like President Carter’s mother, were much, much older) than I was had joined the Peace Corps or were volunteering–and giving their lives, like three young men buried in shallow graves in an earthen dam in Nashoba County, Mississippi–to register African-American voters.
It wasn’t a coincidence that the White House introduced every American then alive to cellist Pablo Casals. While pundits justifiably mocked the President’s enthusiasm for James Bond novels, Kennedy’s passion for Byron was far more enduring and it was Robert Frost who became the co-star at the Inaugural.
Had Kennedy not been reading Barbara Tuchman’s superb account of the summer Europe collapsed into the First World War—The Guns of August—there is a good chance none of us would be alive today. Kennedy had picked up the book in the fall of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And it was fact that most Latin Americans and, even larger numbers of Europeans, liked us, that the President of France had a crush on Mrs. Kennedy, who spoke near-effortless French, as transparent as eighth-grade boy’s, and that the President’s triumphant visit to what was then still one of the poorest nations in Europe—Ireland—finally secured the bond made by the Irish Brigade, scythed in neat rows in the Wheat Field at Gettysburg.
My job in Kennedy’s presidency was more prosaic: It was my obligation, I decided, to shuffle out to the living room at 4 a.m. in my pajamas, wrapped in a blanket, no matter how cold the night before had been, every time a Mercury astronaut was to begin his mission. (Half the time the launches would be scrubbed and so I would fall asleep in class that day.) When it appeared the heat shield on Friendship 7 had become dislodged and there was a real chance that John Glenn’s re-entry would incinerate him, I prayed as hard as a little boy can pray and I was deeply touched by God’s reply: The parachutes above the little capsule, swinging gently like a bell in its descent, on the flickery television screen.
Let me be clear about this: I am not coming anywhere close to claiming the Kennedy was popular with all Americans. Many hated him. Some of that came from the memory of his father’s bizarre stint as our ambassador to England, when Joe Sr. had unwisely pronounced England finished and urged détente with Nazi Germany.
But a more visceral and widespread hatred was directed toward Kennedy’s Catholicism, the same bigotry, so deeply rooted in the Old Confederacy and the Mountain West, that had poisoned Al Smith’s run for the presidency only a year after jubilant French Catholics had mobbed Lindbergh at Le Bourget to make him one of their own. That kind of hatred is not only poisonous, it’s indestructible, and so it survived Dallas and lives today.
I am not forgetting how palpable the fear of the time was, either, when, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, my father came home empty-handed from Williams Brothers’ Market on Grand Avenue because the shelves had been stripped bare by our terrified neighbors.
But there is another side of Kennedy’s time that scholars are wary of because there’s nothing that historians hate quite so much as sentimentality. Sentimentality kills the reputation of any historian as dead as an easy rifle shot.
The shot that killed Kennedy before his time, of course, was immortalized in a few grainy frames of the Zapruder film that have become the pornography of the assassination. I will try my best to never watch that film again.
But I saw some film images last week that reminded me of the wellsprings of strength in John Kennedy. He was, for most of his life, a semi-invalid, a resemblance that connects his life to Franklin Roosevelt’s. In both men, physical frailty was their greatest gift, because it spared them their assigned destinies as spoiled rich boys who would lead lives of little consequence.
FDR mastered his polio by imprisoning his withered legs in steel braces and building a massive upper body that he learned to throw forward in order to force his legs to follow. The moment when the president approached the podium to ask for a declaration of war was terrifying, for his balance was never secure, but he refused to fall, and that refusal might also have been the hallmark of both his presidency and the nation itself in the years of Depression and war
Kennedy fought illnesses in waves—Addison’s’ Disease, or the back that radiated the kind of pain Inquisitors dream of. An accumulation of infirmities dogged him all his life. He was sometimes so sick that one brother mused that if a mosquito ever bit Jack, the mosquito would die.
Kennedy masked his vulnerability with lies and with a skillfully managed diet of images that projected vitality—touch football, golf (sparingly, because he didn’t want to Americans to connect him with Ike’s golf addiction), and the beauty of his wife and of his children.
Far more important, he also developed what FDR didn’t have: a first-rate intellect and with it, a sense of intellectual detachment and the ability to compartmentalize his emotions. The last trait would poison his marriage, but, in 1962, together these became the very strengths that would save civilization from nuclear destruction.
Just a little over a year later, Texans came out in enormous numbers to see the President and Mrs. Kennedy on Thursday and Friday, and, until last week, when I saw the footage of his last 48 hours, assembled by National Geographic producers, I had never realized how enthusiastic those crowds were. There was a warmth and a kind of celebratory communion in them that stunned the Kennedy advance people and the Secret Service detail.
Friday had begun with rain in Forth Worth. By the time Air Force One touched down at Love Field in Dallas, it was Kennedy Weather: bright, crisp, autumnal sunshine. The beauty of that day was quickly obscured by blurred images, snatches of rumor, the eloquent pause that registered the grief not even newscaster Walter Cronkite could master. It seems, sometimes, like Dallas was the last bright day we have ever had, and our time and our nation have ever since been staked by shadows.
I don’t remember those shadows before Dallas, but I was so very young. What I’m beginning to believe now is that most important and salient point of November 22, 1963, wasn’t that we loved the Kennedys, though, in my house, we truly did.
What was far more important was that we loved being Americans, and it was that self-regard and self-confidence that seemed to die, too, with such explosive violence, in Dealey Plaza.
I think it’s been that healthy self-regard that has made us such a positive force in the world. And I am not talking about a pernicious doctrine, American Exceptionalism, which emerged again in the last election as a kind of litmus test for holding office.
I don’t think John Kennedy’s generation, which included my Dad, born a year after the President, went to war to prove that our nation was better than everyone else’s. National Socialism already held that copyright.
So what we lost, in Dallas wasn’t the kind of jingoism that comes so easily to 21st Century politicians; it wasn’t arrogance. It was our faith in ourselves—the faith that Lincoln had articulated so well with his “few brief remarks” at Gettysburg, almost exactly 100 years before Kennedy’s death. I think we lost it, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone. It’s ironic, but I’ve seen flickers of that faith most in my travels abroad.
I will never forget the sunburst over Derrynane Bay in a stop for lunch on the Ring of Kerry and inside the little restaurant was a little sign, carefully lettered, that read “Happy Fourth of July to our American friends.”
We were visiting Reims Cathedral with our students when a Frenchwoman insisted on giving us a personal tour because precisely because we were Americans, and it was American money, from the Rockefeller Foundation, that was painstakingly restoring shell damage to the Cathedral from 1916.
Once a Bavarian woman approached Mr. Kamin, our German teacher, and his students near Munich and thanked him, and them, for the kindness World War II GI’s had shown her when she was a little girl. There were tears in her eyes. Of course, many of those young soldiers had died long before Mr. Kamin’s students had been born.
Young Americans, including young men like those soldiers, may be the best evidence we have that the faith we have in ourselves has such enduring power. In my experience, there are few images more evocative of the faith we keep than those that confront you silently in the fields of the dead.
My trips to the American cemeteries in the Ardennes, at Colleville-sur-Mer above Omaha Beach and to the Punch Bowl on Oahu never, ever made me want to wave flags or blow trumpets.
I always think instead of men who were once wavering toddlers, who took their first steps to a little smattering of applause from their parents. They waited expectantly and sleeplessly on Christmas Eves stalked by the Great Depression. When they did sleep, they would sleep with their arms around the best friend they would ever have, and one as mongrelized as Hitler said all of us Americans truly were: a dog. I think of boys whose hands shook when they tried to pin that damned corsage on the dress of their Prom date. And then they aren’t boys anymore: they’re young men fresh out of Basic whose last moments here, maybe a few free moments in San Diego or Philly, were marked by ribald laughter and 3.2 beer or poker—any distraction that would somehow increase the distance between themselves and the troopships waiting to take them to their deaths.
So I never think of patriotism at places like Colleville-sur-Mer. I think of baby shoes, and I think of mothers.
Or I think of somehow pulling off a temporal fraud so preposterous that I hope it really happens to me someday.
My fantasy is that I would get a chance to teach those boys the history of their country in my classroom, a history that some of them would not survive, and somehow I could help them understand what they would never have the time to understand: In their lives, no matter how short, there was a light so powerful that it would destroy the greatest darkness the world had ever known.
And maybe, somehow, I would get the chance, in my re-working of history, to put my arms around them at graduation, to hold them tight for just a moment until I would have release them to give them the chance they deserved to fulfill their destinies.
The young men I would like hold close to me have been dead a long, long time, and so has the president who emerged from that incredible generation. But I am so grateful that I am old enough to have recognized their light—our light–last week when I watched the news and saw an aircraft carrier group and a Navy hospital ship headed at flank speed for the Philippines, so devastated by a massive typhoon.
Kennedy understood that the most fundamental American value is generosity, and so the ships in that television image reminded me of the president whose life and whose call to service so illuminated my own. It reminded me that I live in a country I love so much that my love is greatest in the anger I feel when it is clearly in the wrong, warmest when my fingers touch cold marble in Normandy, brightest in the flame that marks the grave where my childhood, too, is buried.