John Fitzgerald Kennedy: “He Speaks to Us Still”
East Hartford Gazette
November 21, 2013
By John Larson
In November 1983, I submitted an op-ed to the East Hartford Gazette on President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Thirty years have passed and I asked Bill Doak if the Gazette would be receptive to a revision. Most, myself included, would rather dwell on the President’s birth and celebrate his heroic service. Indeed May 29th should be a national day of remembrance. President Kennedy would be 96 years old if he were alive today.
But it is that youthful, vigorous man that remains, seared in our memory, whose life was taken from us in the summer of his years. For my parents’ generation it was December 7, 1941, a day that would live in infamy. For my children and the current generation, it is September 11, 2001. For my generation it remains November 22, 1963, the day the nation stood still…in shock and disbelief.
The shot heard round the world was not the one fired at Lexington and Concord, but in Dallas. The shot that cut down the 35th President of the United States ended dreams of Camelot and cut short the life of an American hero.
Everyone can recall where he was and what he was doing when he first heard the news of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Fifty years after his death, the country still gropes for answers and searches to fill the void created by his departure.
It was sixth period in Mr. Desmond’s French class when Mrs. Bray’s voice, noticeably shaken, announced over the loudspeaker that the President had been shot. An unsettling silence that was laden with anxiety fell over a perplexed and unbelieving class. Attempts to calm the class were fumbled by a visibly stunned teacher as he sought answers to a host of questions. Such an irrational act – it just couldn’t be. What seemed to be within minutes, Mrs. Bray’s tearful voice announced that the President had died. Hollow disillusionment and deep sadness engulfed not only the classroom but the entire nation. Despair was replaced by speculation concerning the perpetrator of such an act.
Walking home from school, conjecture of this heinous crime centered on the KGB and Castro as likely culprits, but even conjuring up these villains brought no resolve. When I reached home, my mother, with Kleenex in hand, sat motionless next to the TV. She was glassy-eyed and unable to comprehend the events of the day that saw the first president born in this century struck down. The family gathered around the TV and waited for Dad to come home; surely he could explain. When my father arrived, everything from the Russians to the Texans was mulled over as my father revealed various theories discussed at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, but all with the same anguish and perplexity. Thus began a family vigil with Walter Cronkite, but even he couldn’t explain to the viewing public…that’s the way it was on Nov. 22, 1963.
It was a numbing experience for our family and the rest of the country as we sat in shock, traumatized as the first real-time media account of the ‘60s unfolded in our living room. In a weekend that never seemed to end, we witnessed a nation in mourning, the apprehension, then murder of Lee Harvey Oswald and subsequent arrest of crime figure Jack Ruby; the plot only seemed to become more complicated. The complexities of American society and the very fabric of our way of life in this nation hit home like never before. What I most recall from that weekend are the vivid scenes and images of that ordeal.
The distressed widow in a blood-stained pink suit, with all the dignity and strength she could muster, being met at the airport by Robert Kennedy, the long lines of people passing through the Rotunda to pay their last respects, the veiled face of Jacqueline Kennedy as she kneeled over the coffin, clutching the hand of her daughter, Caroline, the Kennedy brothers, the Kennedy family, the boots placed backwards in the stirrups of Black Jack, the horse following the caisson, the procession of world leaders enroute to Arlington, a weekend of images culminating in John-John’s final salute to his Dad.
I will never forget that weekend of tragedy, wrought with emotion and dream-crushing reality. Its impact and the impact of other events in that decade perhaps won’t be fully understood until the next century. As William Manchester noted and puts in perspective, “In November of 1963, among the living were Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and 58,209 young men who would die in Vietnam over the next nine years.”
Questions went unanswered. The Warren Report was unconvincing. Camelot lay in ruin and the American Dream was severely shaken. David Brinkley was to conclude that the assassination was beyond understanding, “The events of those days don’t fit, you can’t place them anywhere, they don’t go in the intellectual luggage of the time. It was too big, too sudden, too overwhelming, and it meant too much. It has to be separate and apart.”
Jacqueline Kennedy, writes Ralph G. Martin, in her memorial to her husband, someone who had loved President Kennedy, but never had known him, wrote to me this winter: “The hero comes when he is needed. When our belief gets pale and weak there comes a man out of that need who is shining – and everyone living reflects a little of that light – and stores up some against the time when he is gone…” “So now he is a legend,” Mrs. Kennedy said, “When he would have preferred to be a man.”
And so it has been – Steinbeck said of Kennedy, “This man who was the best of his people and who by his life and death, gave back the best of them for their own.”
Arthur O’Shaughnessey stated, “For each age there is a dream that is dying and one that is coming to birth.” John Fitzgerald Kennedy embodied dreams that were coming to birth and through his Presidency ushered in the future dreams for this century and the next.
Heroes are those people who we admire for their achievements, their character, and their ability to inspire. They are often an extension of what we would like to be. If John Kennedy had never been president of the United States, he would still have been a bona fide hero. His war record alone was heroic, his Pulitzer Prize admirable- combined with his personality, wit, and intelligence and you have a man to emulate and respect.
It is as President, that we remember John Kennedy and in that capacity, his greatness came from being the cog, the catalyst, the spark that ignited the tremendous latent strength of his nation. Summoning the nation like no other president, Kennedy established goals for excellence, raised the consciousness of the American people to a level of dignity befitting a nation embarking on building a positive future for mankind.
Some would say John Kennedy was a tragic hero, much like the tragic heroes of Greek literature and Shakespearean plays. Kennedy was neither Achilles nor Hamlet. He was a man who through sheer force of personality and conviction motivated and excited people. He moved a nation. What he shares with ancient heroes was the great promise of youth, cut short by death before that promise could be fulfilled. James Reston wrote, “The tragedy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was greater than the accomplishment, but in the end the tragedy enhances the accomplishment and revives hope.” What died in Dallas was promise, the hallmark of both the Kennedy Administration and the man.
“It’s sad to see what happened in this country,” Ted Sorenson has commented. “It’s as if people don’t want to believe in anything today. Sometimes they even turn against John Kennedy because he was the last man they believed in.” Sorenson’s remarks are well taken. I share his sadness and tire of cynics who seek only to tear down, discredit, destroy and in general, believe in nothing. I do not share an untainted or distorted view of John Kennedy, for whatever his human foibles and shortcomings may have been, his rhetoric of purpose, his goals for the nation are still worth believing in and aspiring towards.
Others will say that Kennedy had a superficial charisma, hyped by his ability to manipulate the media. Ralph G. Martin, a biographer of Kennedy’s notes, “John Kennedy had more than charisma, sports figures have charisma. He had more than the magnetic attraction of a movie star. What Kennedy had was real…Magic…” John Kennedy’s appeal was not limited to this country, it was worldwide. Throngs gathered throughout the world, not to chant anti-American slogans, or to protest, they came to touch, to hear, to see the man who represented the hope of the free world. One has only to recall the vivid scenes in Berlin to realize there was a special magic about John Kennedy; the excitement was real.
John Kennedy struck a chord in all of us. “Why are you crying?” Senator Hugh Scott’s wife asked, “You didn’t have that much admiration for him.” He was to have said, “I’m not crying for him, I’m crying for the American people.” What John Fitzgerald Kennedy meant to America was lodged in their hearts and minds. He opened the door through his challenge and beckoned the people to a greater future, a ‘New Frontier.’ He was our voice. History will probably bear out that a thousand days was too short a time to judge the greatness of Kennedy as president, but it will also bear out what Robert Kennedy said of his brother’s legacy, “The essence of the Kennedy legacy, is a willingness to try and to dare and to change, to hope for the uncertain and risk the unknown.” It is in that context that the Civil rights movement, the Bay of Pigs, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Space Race and other actions of his administration will be judged, with the constant footnote to that ancient thief…time.
“It was all too brief,” Ted Kennedy said of his brother’s era. “Those thousand days are like an evening gone. But they are not forgotten. You can recall those years of grace, that time of hope. The spark still glows. The journey never ends. This dream shall never die.” It is the end of the story of Camelot that takes on significance, for it is that point in the tale when King Arthur tells of his legends to the young boy, so they would still remember even if he were killed in battle.
Fifty years have passed and the life and death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, it is the topic of every magazine, newspaper and TV series across the nation seeking separate the myth from the man.
Who was John Kennedy? Certainly not a myth, he was a real man with hopes, fears, doubts and the same human frailties and desires we all possess. Was he a great President? His time in office was too short to objectively evaluate his long-term objectives and goals. But we can never forget him or let him go – Chris Matthews recalls Daniel Patrick Moynihan once saying to him, “’We’ve never gotten over it.’ Then, looking at me with generous appreciation, he added, ‘You’ve never gotten over it.’ I saw it as a kind of benediction, an acceptance into something warm and Irish and splendid, a knighthood of the soulful.”
John Kennedy is a hero because of the message he brought, the hope and dreams he inspired. He set a standard by which all successive presidents are measured. He united the country on the great issues of the day, guided the nation through crisis by calling on the American people to uplift their expectations, their goals, and their fellow man. It wasn’t hollow rhetoric or dazzling showmanship; it was sincere and compelling belief in the purpose of this country and its people.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy is a hero for all time and for those who believe in the promise of America because he elevated what it means to serve in government on behalf of the people. He made elective office, the Peace Corps and public service noble and honorable pursuits. He made poetry, literature, and the arts in general, a part of the fabric of everyday life and did it all with the ease, grace, wit, humor, and understated elegance that exuded the confidence of his nation and his countrymen.
For those who listen, he speaks to us still.