The media and television medium that he and his family so skillfully exploited ensured that we remember him as young, handsome, articulate, witty – he thus remains more hip 50 years later than anyone else who has since arrived on the presidential scene.
Those of us who were around in the early 1960s are likely to get a bit nostalgic during the next few weeks as we contemplate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.
I remember it vividly – the interruption of regular cartoon broadcasting; Walter Cronkite somberly sharing the news of a shooting; and later the tears he displayed when he announced the president’s death.
That was only the beginning of one of the most traumatic weeks in our nation’s history. Over the next few days, the assassin was gunned down by another assassin on national TV; to muffled drums a riderless horse marched down Pennsylvannia Avenue as the young president was laid to rest, his young wife and children nearby stoically facing the nation; and then began the difficult process of trying to make sense of what it all meant.
For me, it had the feel of an intimate tragedy. I lived in Dallas at the time of the assassination. My mother worked for Abraham Zapruder, who took the now legendary film of the president’s final moments. If all that were not enough, my mother’s image wound up in magazines, newspapers and eventually encyclopedias because she happened to be there in the Dealey Plaza crowd a minute or so before the fatal shooting as the presidential motorcade passed by – her image and that of the young presidential couple tied together for an eternity.
The New York Times’ Jill Abramson, in an insightful recent essay/book review, “The Elusive President,” reports that some 40,000 books have been written about Kennedy. The themes generated by his death are by now almost clichés in our cultural lexicon: America lost its innocence, the Democratic Party lost its way, the nation lost its sanity, the world lost a cosmopolitan and heroic leader. Nothing less than optimism itself died on that bleak November day. Camelot lost.
Conspiracies abounded (and still do) about what really happened and who really did it and why. (Put me down as a lone assassin advocate in the spirit of Occam’s razor: the simplest and most obvious answer is usually the right one.) Even folks you might expect to be balanced and reasonable seem to lose their equilibrium when trying to make sense of that day.
As several commentators have noted over the years, conservatives and Republicans are understandably perplexed by the story line that a lone act committed by a Marxist somehow wound up an indictment of America and its political culture. But that would become the norm through the 1960s: Malcolm X murdered by the Black Muslims, Robert F. Kennedy by a radical Palestinian and others – President Ford, George Wallace and even John Lennon – targeted by disturbed individuals obsessed with celebrity and/or delusions of fame. Yet, somehow it all became an indictment of the establishment, also ironic when you consider that JFK was the ultimate establishment figure by the time he became president, his Catholicism notwithstanding.
Abramson provides a thoughtful overview of the many interesting and not so interesting books that have been written over the years on Kennedy and the assassination. One she regrettably fails to mention is James Piereson’s fascinating analysis of the implications of the assassination on modern liberalism. Piereson is convincing in arguing that JFK’s death cast the Democratic Party adrift and liberated it to travel a leftist path that Kennedy himself would have likely resisted.
Abramson is certainly right (though not original) in suggesting that JFK is elusive. This is due in large part for three reasons: 1) his presidency was cut short before he had fully established his vision or his imprint; 2) his politics no longer conform to acceptable Democratic parameters – his was a blend of pro-business anti-communism and New Deal liberalism only partially embraced; 3) his personality.
The third point bears elaboration. JFK never fully exerted himself – not as a politician, not as president, not even as a womanizer. Though burdened with health issues, most things came easy to him and he moved fluidly from situation to situation, served by his loyal minions, floating above the fray of emotions, interests and passions. As Kundera might put it, he was blessed (or cursed) with an unbearable lightness of being. He cultivated the image of effortless grace. He already had digested the fragility of life, given several near misses with death and the family tragedies he had already endured and thus studiously avoided the appearance of being overwrought or overly serious.
While a cool crisis manager, it is also clear that he was mobilized more by the mechanics of politics and power than by a specific issues agenda. He read the scripts put in front of him with great skill, even as he was amused, one suspects, by the audacity of the theater he was performing. (Family man – whatever; committed liberal, ah, not really; great visionary, okay, provided it doesn’t stop the band…)
Perhaps the most convincing argument that he would not have gotten deeply entrenched in Vietnam is that he would have found the high cost of life and treasure disproportionate, no matter the political stakes. If he would not commit a few planes on behalf of anti-communist Cuban rebels only a few miles off America’s shores, why would he agree to send hundreds of thousands of troops to Vietnam? It is a point that still generates heated debate.
For all his ambitions, JFK took himself less seriously than his fawning entourage. When asked how he could justify naming his inexperienced brother Attorney General, he quipped: Bobby needs a little legal experience before he gets a real job. He once observed in the wake of the Bay of Pigs disaster: the worse I do, the more popular I get. Perhaps, as Peggy Noonan suggests, he truly agonized over his legacy and his mistakes. But I doubt it. His was the studied indifference of a man greatly gifted and privileged; he took life and his own foibles in stride.
It is difficult indeed to find a cause that JFK embraced with focused passion. He enjoyed the political world, for it was his ticket to power, competition and a chapter in history, but he also could not fully comprehend those who expended so much effort trying to solve problems that knew intuitively to be intractable. He left the heavy lifting to others, including his brother Robert, as he floated from stage to stage, issue to issue, the man above it all.
He was, even more than Reagan, the actor who played the politician, a characteristic that Normal Mailer observed brilliantly in his skillful 1960 depiction of Kennedy in Esquire magazine. Mailer himself could not bring himself to fully embrace Kennedy, never convinced of his true allegiances. (If calling me a liberal gets me elected, then by all means call me a liberal or whatever else gets the job done, one can imagine JFK thinking.)
JFK remains refreshingly modern even a half century after his death because in rhetoric and in style he was not tied to the past, but to an imperfectly defined future that held out the promise of endless possibilities. (We will go to the moon, we will end world hunger, we will educate our young, we will carry the torch of freedom forward, etc.). No other president, other than Reagan on occasion, could match his charisma and that special ageless quality that even today makes him relevant and yet impossible to place concretely in history.
The media and television medium that he and his family so skillfully exploited ensured that we remember him as young, handsome, articulate, witty – he thus remains more hip 50 years later than anyone else who has since arrived on the presidential scene. In some ways, he was in life what he became in death – a celluloid creation, a fleeting image, a flickering flame, a man here but not here; a president engaged, but not fully engaged; a human being who even at the young age of 46, basking in Texas sunshine one November day, already understood that reality was a shadow and life as elusive and as fleeting as time itself.