Say it’s 1960, you are 16, raised by Democrats and fascinated by politics. Because there is someone like John F. Kennedy running for president, you’re also excited.
Unlike that old fogy Dwight D. Eisenhower, the current president, the candidate is young, witty, cultivated and articulate. He is a macho war hero who is talking about rectifying a missile gap with the Soviet Union, but he is also an idealist who wants to wake us up from the conformist, apathetic, great big yawn of a decade called the 1950s. He preaches a new frontier.
Clearly, Kennedy is better than “Tricky Dick” Nixon, that Republican cad, and the more you read about the issues, the more you think he is going to help America realize its specialness all over again. He gets elected; he seems to be doing a sound job.
Then comes that day, three years later, when you are in college and see a bunch of guys on campus gathered around a car, listening to its radio. You walk over, ask what is up, and they say President Kennedy has been shot. Is he alive? They don’t know.
You run to the dorm rec room, where you find dozens already surrounding the TV set. You watch and there are all these announcements and reports from Dallas, and finally there is CBS anchor Walter Cronkite fighting back tears as he announces, “President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”
The killing of Kennedy hits you hard, educates you, changes you. You had known in the abstract that hopes and assumptions can be turned upside down overnight, that the votes of millions and historical directions could be altered by a bullet, that someone important and admirable in your sense of things could vanish from this life with little warning. But here was the actuality, and it made you ache.
Image changes over time
Something else was to make me ache and affect my thinking as time passed, and that was the realization that John F. Kennedy was very little that he seemed to be.
Yes, as president, he started the Peace Corps, and that was splendid, if not major. He initiated work on the moon shot. The later landing was important for science, national pride and the human spirit. His economic measures made sense. But he was mostly lax on civil rights. He disastrously deepened our involvement in Vietnam. He was grotesquely incompetent in allowing the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba that helped prompt the Soviet Union’s placement of missiles there.
Kennedy has received ludicrously large credit for the way he handled the resulting missile crisis that actually was badly mishandled and risked a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union for the sake of politics. He was dishonest in not telling the public that the Soviets backed off because we agreed to remove our missiles from Turkey. And, by the way, the campaign business about the missile gap was phony, too.
Kennedy never should have run for president in the first place. An ABC News story on Robert Dallek’s book, “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963,” tells us that he suffered from four or five different ailments, was in near-constant pain that prevented him from moving about normally, and was regularly doped up on all kinds of drugs that included painkillers, stimulants and barbiturates.
Then there was his sexual behavior, which reached beyond wild to pathetic. Risking blackmail and other bad consequences, he apparently never slowed down for more than a few days from having sex with different women, including a Mafia moll. One story that makes you cringe is how he reputedly took shameful, degrading advantage of a 19-year-old college sophomore.
All of this is enough to render you a cynic, but cynicism makes you less alert to the good even as you become too quick to judge something or someone bad. Fifty years after that horrifying assassination, the lesson I aim to keep in mind is to try to look past a politician’s charisma, on the one hand, or a politician’s klutziness on the other, to what the person is really all about.