Several months ago marked the 50th anniversary of the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Everyone in my generation remembers where we were when we heard the news that the president had been shot in Texas. I was told this is referred to as a “flashbulb” memory that stands out like no other.
I was exiting a Grade 11 French exam and was confronted by students frozen in wailing tears and silent sobs. To many, he was our beacon of hope then, young, handsome, energetic, the quintessential role model. The Peace Core, striving for a better world, civil rights, corralling nuclear bombs made us feel that our generation could finally shake off the doddering Eisenhowers and the scary Hitlers. We would eventually be tagged the baby boomers in love beads and long hair, and we would be young and free forever, dancing our way into the future. Or so we thought.
When news of Kennedy’s indiscretions were revealed, we were all ready living in a world of birth control, free love and we were maybe a bit miffed, but cool. The icon, the image of the man overrode our criticism although it did give pause as we hadn’t really intuited the cracks behind the carefully presented façade. We hadn’t seen him hobble on crutches as FDR had; we didn’t know Dr. Feelgood was pumping him full of vitamins and amphetamines so he could confront Nitika Khrushchev and stand his ground during the Bay of Pigs. Maybe we were vaguely aware of his response to Soviet tanks that instigated East Germany’s erection of the wall that divided East and West in Berlin. The gossip about Addison’s disease was disabused and he shone before us: the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, graciously reflecting her luminescence; and the adored father who even encouraged Caroline and John-John free reign in the presidential office.
The phrase coined after his death by Theodore H. White and prompted by Jackie Kennedy was “ Camelot” and we clung to that, wanting to believe that the man behind the smile was mythic, able to drive evil away and stand up for good.
Watching American History ( television show) over the last few days provided a balanced overview of the man and his times. Perhaps because I am now so much older, I can appreciate the reality that was once overblown into fantasy. Without smudging from the truth, the documentary presented Kennedy’s naivety as he wrongly accepted the advice of his chefs of staff and so-called specialists in the CIA during the Cuban debacle, positioning the world on the brink of war.
For my family, growing up, it was one of the few moments we huddled around the television and I truly comprehended that my parents were afraid. And that it had to do directly with the televised message the President was solemnly intoning.
The American History show explored the lies and half-truths self-righteously proclaimed in the local and foreign press that were fed to the public during his administration: Kennedy’s original disinterest in the first bus bombing of civil rights in Alabama was disheartening; Kennedy’s decision to go into Viet Nam to turn American minds away from domestic turmoil and stop the further advance of Communism disingenuous, aligning himself with a weak and corrupt head of state. The show did not flinch from presenting the facts as they were exposed. They were laid out without rationalization, without nostalgic explanations or pandering. Bare, and ugly, they spoke to a badly informed, young and unwise leader.
However, Kennedy was also portrayed as the hub of a great constantly turning wheel who absorbed information from the multi-spokes. Responsible for making the ultimate decisions, Kennedy’s demeanor and decision-making processes exposed the paradoxical nature of the man. On the one hand, arrogant and self-contained to make those decisions by himself; on the other, willing to listen to diverse views but taking responsibility as he navigated the hot seat of his presidency.
However, as bad decisions accumulated and the pitch towards war mounted, Kennedy began to grow into the man we had imagined he was. To his war-mongering chefs, he stood alone in saying NO. To Khrushchev’s reneging on his private promise of continuing to build missiles in Cuba, he said, No more. He trusted that Khrushchev felt similarly : about the threat of actually engaging in nuclear warfare and the real fear of annihilation, granting him the empathy Kennedy himself was experiencing.
From Joseph P. Kennedy’s dominating wings, the son emerged, thoughtful, taking his time, cautious, weary and willing to weigh the consequences of his actions that would impact on every single person in the country.
In spite of his initial reluctance and motives, Kennedy announced the bill to end segregation. On June 19, the president sent that bill to Congress. If you listen to Kennedy’s address on the occasion of University of Washington 100th Anniversary Program, November 16, 1961, you will hear in stunning rhetoric an appeal for peace, acknowledging that America is neither ”omnipotent nor omniscient”. He speaks for diplomacy and defense, explaining that there are two dominant groups of citizens: those who call for appeasement; and those who are warmongers. He quotes Winston Churchill and reaches out so that any agreement or compromise provides an acceptable solution for the countries involved. Given at the university, the goals of Kennedy’s speech are aptly lofty as he addresses the challenges of defending freedom while maintaining peace as a world power. It is compelling as he describes the state of American international relations. There is empathy as he displays a willingness to collaborate and compromise, ensuring a livable result for all players. It is a stand down from war and a deep understanding of what is at stake. It is brilliant.
Watching the television production, I felt this is the best of reality TV. I respected the thoughtfulness and honesty enabling me to re-evaluate the man. Once drawn into the magic and glamour, maybe too young to be critical; then scornful and dismissive at Kennedy’s womanizing and treatment of domestic issues, now I could look at the entire man, and consider the complexity of parts.
I admit to being impressed.
I could applaud the growth and the acceptance of responsibility. I could acknowledge an understanding of peril, the awareness of reaching out with an olive branch, working towards compromise, and reconciliation and not allowing himself to be pushed towards war.
Exposing the human sides of his flaws made him more human, less godlike. Brought down to earth, the glitter now worn thin, he provided us, I think, with what is best about people and in some cases- if we are fortunate- leaders. He was finally capable of listening to informed perspectives of others as well as his own quiet voice within that moved him towards what he believed was right.
We became the baby boomers who heard his drumbeat as we wove our flowery mantra around a man who was both buds and weeds. Perhaps not considered by history as one of the greats, he has- for me- been re-established with the respect and magic with which he originally dazzled.