Today, November 22, is more than Thanksgiving Day, a time of national celebration. It is also the 44th anniversary of a day of national mourning, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. What 9/11 was to the millennium generation, the Kennedy assassination was to my generation: a universally shared moment, such that we remember where we were when we heard the terrible news. I was in law school at UT, and I had gone to Tower Drug, a couple of blocks west of the law school, for lunch. When I went to pay my bill, tears were streaming down the cashier’s cheeks. “They shot the president,” she said through sobs. It was about 12:30. I rushed home and turned on the TV, and soon afterward Walter Cronkite announced that the president was dead. My memory is that he took off his glasses first, as if the burden of the message was too much to bear.
I really liked Kennedy as a president. The Eisenhower years had ended badly. The Soviets beat us into space with Sputnik; they accused the U.S. of sending spy planes to violate their air space, and when Ike denied it, they produced the pilot of a plane they had shot down; and Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian leader, had come to the United Nations to announce, “We will bury you.” A novel called The Ugly American captured the way the rest of the world looked at America’s “dollar diplomacy.” Kennedy defeated Nixon by promising to close a missile gap that, as it turned out, didn’t exist; by choosing Lyndon Johnson as his running mate, thereby keeping the South Democratic; by promising to “get America moving again”; by having a better make-up man for the first-ever presidential debate – and, some say, by stealing Illinois’ electoral votes.
His inaugural address was one of the great ones. Comedians (on records, in those days before late-night TV, made fun of his Boston-Irish accent “pahk the cah”), but, like another president of Irish descent, Ronald Reagan, Kennedy knew how to inspire. The inaugural address, coming at a time of high tension between the free and communist worlds, was crafted to rouse national pride at home and to set to rest concerns (which had been a campaign issue) that his relative youth (43) and inexperience (eight undistinguished years in the Senate) would render him ineffective in dealing with the Russians:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—-born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—-and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
And the other memorable passage:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—-ask what you can do for your country. We didn’t know, then, that what so many of our generation would do for our country was die in Viet Nam.
He was not, alas, a successful president. The main domestic issue of his time was civil rights, but Southern Democrats controlled Congress and kept legislation bottled up until after Kennedy’s death. (He did send the Alabama National Guard to enforce the admission of two black students to the University of Alabama and met with Martin Luther King Jr. at the White House before King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.)
He got off to a bad start in foreign policy by approving plans made by the Eisenhower administration to invade Cuba at the Bay or Pigs. The invasion proved to be a fiasco. But he learned from the experience, and he was much more prudent and cautious during the Cuban missile crisis in the fall of 1962, when he outmaneuvered the Soviets by declaring a naval quarantine rather than a blockade, and again after the Soviets and the East Germans erected the Berlin Wall the summer of 1963 to prevent people from fleeing communism. The speech he gave in the shadow of the Wall struck exactly the right note and turned a strategic setback into a rhetorical victory:
Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was “civis Romanus sum.” Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.
What Kennedy could do better than any president in my lifetime–even Reagan–was deliver a speech that expressed America’s ideals and reinforced his audience’s belief in them. This skill was immensely important at a time when America was engaged in a worldwide conflict over values with a formidable adversary and was unsure of its eventual success. It made me proud that he was president, and that is an emotion I have felt too seldom since.
The president and the first lady had such charisma and style that they were practically viewed as royalty by the worldwide media and other heads of state. The idealized Kennedy White House came to be known as Camelot, King Arthur’s castle, and the title of a then-popular Broadway musical of the same name. It was said that the original cast recording was a favorite of the president’s, and particularly this verse from King Arthur’s closing song:
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot,
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.
This idea of “one, brief shining moment”–which was cut short by gunshots in Dallas–haunted the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. There was no way that LBJ could match the rhetorical skill or the dashing image and youthful vigor of his predecessor. I was no fan of LBJ’s then; innocent of the demands of politics, I embraced the frequent criticism of Johnson as a “wheeler-dealer.” The sense of loss over the death of President Kennedy was made worse by the realization that Johnson was now president. In later years, reading Robert Caro’s biographical tomes and listening to Johnson exercise his artfulness as a politician on tapes released by the Johnson Presidential Library, I came to appreciate his political instincts and skills, but in the dark hours after the assassination, I cringed at Johnson’s Texas accent and the halting, awkward rhythms of his futile attempts at oratory.
As the memory of Camelot receded, Kennedy’s reputation suffered. Aside from making manned spaceflight and landing a man on the moon a top priority, avoiding a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban missile crisis, and being the victim of one of history’s greatest unsolved murders (if you buy into the conspiracy theories, which I don’t), his legacy is scant. The generation after mine knows him primarily as someone who was recklessly adulterous, bedding women like Judith Exner, who was also mistress to Mafia leader Sam Giancana, and Marilyn Monroe. That is too bad, because Kennedy helped infuse American politics with a sense of idealism and a concern for the common good.
More than John F. Kennedy died on November 22, 1963. The shock of the assassinations and the lingering questions of who killed him and why (George Christian, press secretary to Lyndon Johnson, told me that LBJ always thought Castro was behind the assassination) proved to be fatal to the sense of optimism about politics that Kennedy kindled in so many people. LBJ was able to use the memory of Kennedy to pass the civil rights laws that Kennedy couldn’t, but even these significant achievements couldn’t keep the sixties on course. The assassination had rerouted the decade into cynicism and drugs and hedonistic revolution. The years ahead brought the Viet Nam war, the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations, the black urban riots, and Watergate. By the time Nixon resigned, much of the idealism of the early sixties had been wrung out of politics.
The lesson of the Kennedy presidency–and of the past 44 years as well–is that idealism matters. Without it, and without the accompanying sense of a common public good, politics loses much of its meaning. Kennedy understood that, and, more important, he was able to convey it, however briefly, to a generation. The next time it happens, I hope the lesson sticks.