In 1960s America, there was a connection between a Democratic president and remnants of World War II. Even yet. John F. Kennedy is really the first president I remember clearly — and there are many reasons why. But three stand out beyond any other president since — his youth, his religion, and his death. At 43, he was the youngest man elected to the presidency, the first Roman Catholic, and in my lifetime the first and only president assassinated while in office. But it was his heroism in a World War II battle that impressed my parents.
“He became a hero the moment his PT boat was cut in half,” my mother used to say. “He can handle the Presidency certainly better than most, and without a doubt better than Nixon.”
Without as much as a question, I came to love this 35th president of ours, mostly through my mother. There was more celebrity to him as time went on. There was also a stream of controversy. He drew together a crew of visionaries, some introverts so deeply wounded their songs would never have been heard in the struggles of post-war America if Kennedy hadn’t been the one at the helm. But at my young age of twelve, what I remember him most for was patting the head of his toddler son, reaching outward toward Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis, and his now famous inaugural address in which he also said: “So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” Over and over I saw his courage, his resiliency. And at his death, I saw that too, over and over again.
We had passed through the beginnings of a technological revolution during this man’s presidency, rapidly and without interruption. Television brought Kennedy to every home, his wife to many world events, his children into the hearts of millions. Like Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy took the time to collect small moments, rare moments of observation, as if he was as eager to learn as we were. Nothing missed his gaze, and even in my pre-pubescent adoration I could see he was flawed. But it didn’t stop me from crying at notice of his death, or breaking down at the riderless horse Black Jack in Kennedy’s funeral procession, or the little boy, John, saluting his father’s passing. I’m not sure as I look back whether this was the moment I ceased being a Democrat in my heart (in fact, I ceased being anything political). But there is something about that event that took all the breath away from this nation, at least for a while. And for some, that breath hasn’t been revived since the time of the 35th president.
As we draw into the ever-tightening gyre of another presidential election, I think of Kennedy as a theologian might think of Noah. It is almost impossible to define another era of presidency as important as his was — because he literally saved the world in a blend of magnificent obsession and televised detail considered the best, maybe the only verification of truth in his time. It’s very hard to surpass that one aching moment in a millennia when the right man was able to deliver, every day, right in front of all of us. There was no imperfection of speech, no minimum requirement of words. There was secrecy and plenty of it. But cargo was being loaded into a boat to save humanity, the earth and every creature on it, extending to those without privilege, without homes, without voice. So little was left unrecognized in Kennedy’s time aboard a vessel constructed to go into the future that we thought it would not only succeed, it would never end.
And now we’re here. It’s 2020, almost sixty years later, and I’m not sure we know that kind of deliverance anymore. From anyone — . Television has been tooled into something of a pry bar, no longer bringing a leader into the focus of his generation. There are few small moments of quiet observation anymore, little that isn’t fodder for heightened animosity. Kennedy’s flair for drawing us together, something I still remember so painfully at his death, exists no more. It is as though we are grabbing at the ropes to a mighty Ark that has already pulled up anchor and sailed without us. Quietly, surely departing carrying Kennedy’s dreams — the last Democratic president or maybe the only man, like Noah, who could do the job intended.
So I’ve voted, and I wait. But mostly I remember.
“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebearers. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
[Commencement Address at Yale University, June 11 1962]
― John F. Kennedy
References: Thoughtco.com, Goodreads, Wikipedia