The idea, it was said, was to shift the public focus away from the President’s tragic assassination and instead put the spotlight on his birthday (May 29th) and his achievements.
It was well meant. But by now we can safely say that it also didn’t move the spotlight. (Even the Kennedys backslid this year.) We just can’t let go of Dallas, the grassy knoll, Lee Harvey and the open-topped limousine and all the rest.
In a way, that’s a good thing for JFK. If you’re a president who dies in office, you end up in one of two categories: the painfully tragic (JFK, Lincoln, FDR) or the slightly comical (Harrison and his two-hour speech, Taylor and his ice milk and cherries, Garfield and his stupid fat-fingered physicians). On the whole, better to be a tragic loss than a trivia punchline.
So, what to make of it all on the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s death in Dallas?
I know more about John Kennedy than about any other president. I was two when he was killed, and he was a hero of my youth. I’ve read many of the biographies, and I did my senior thesis on the Cuban Missile Crisis. I’ve been to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. I have loitered at his old apartment. Now I live in Boston, where we’re surrounded by Kennedy plaques, quotes and the legend.
For all that, I just can’t work up a major burst of sorrow or even emotion on this 50th anniversary. I’m still fascinated by him, but sad to say, that was all a long time ago. Even a trip to the excellent JFK Library these days seems more like looking at the ruins of the Parthenon than like a vision of someone who walked the earth a short 600 months ago.
Still, these are the things that I like and admire about him:
- His curiosity.
- His wit — the wit of a brainy man who really understood the world and knew what he thought about it.
- His concern for the poor, even when as a wealthy man he could have ignored the poor.
- The way he volunteered to fight in World War II, even with connections and a bad back that could easily have won him a free pass.
- How he towed one of his crewmen three miles to safety, swimming with the strap of the lifejacket held in his teeth, after the PT-109 was sunk.
- His distrust of and loathing for Richard Nixon.
- His awareness that generous foreign policy ideas like the Peace Corps can contribute just as much to our national defense as aircraft carriers.
- The fact that he was catnip to the ladies.
Curiously, what I regret much more about the Kennedy legacy now is simply the notion of the neverending political clan. The Kennedys weren’t the first political dynasty (John Adams and John Quincy Adams were presidents #2 and #6, after all), but they certainly set the tone for the last 50 years.
The election of someone so unqualified as George W. Bush, simply because his father was president, was a very bad sign. Disastrous as his administration was, his brother Jeb Bush continues to be mentioned as presidential material, with George P. Bush waiting in the wings.
And then we have Hillary Clinton and her likely run in 2016. If she wins the presidency and serves two terms, we will have had two families in control of the White House from 1988 straight through to 2024, a full 36 years, with only Barack Obama’s eight years to break them up. Whatever that is, it isn’t the sign of a healthy democracy.
Some of that I think you can lay at the feet of the nepotism of the JFK-RFK-Teddy dynasty.
But ah, well. That is a modest complaint. John Kennedy remains, for me, mostly a heroic figure — someone whose brains, charm and sheer energy I wish I could match. I’m glad we had him for as long as we had him, and I salute him on this 50th anniversary of his death.