Realizing, to my own surprise, that I’ve never said much on this medium about John F. Kennedy and his legacy, this date serves as a good reminder to make note of that era. I can’t do so in any way that would do full justice — that would take hundreds of pages of writings — but here’s a summary, for posterity’s sake as much as anything.
22 November 1963: 57 years ago this afternoon, my dad was on a hotel balcony downtown, watching the motorcade. He heard (but didn’t see) the moment of the shots, since he was around the corner and a few blocks away on Commerce St. The motorcade was struck by bullets on Elm, a few dozen feet west of Houston St. He recognized immediately those were rifle shots echoing through the urban canyon, and dreaded hearing the news he immediately suspected was unfolding, even before sirens began to wail. It only took a few minutes for word the President had been hit by a shot to spread to his portion of the crowd.
My mom, who he wouldn’t meet until a few years later, was still living in Houston, raising children from her deteriorating first marriage. She saw this awful news unfold in her childhood home city on TV broadcasts. For her, it was a time of deepening turmoil and inner darkness of her own — a life rapidly emptying of joy outside those kids. This didn’t help. Even though she voted reliably Republican her whole long adult life, she admired Kennedy, and told me she would have voted for him in ’64. [She knew a lot about LBJ and his underhanded shenanigans in Texas, rightly didn’t trust him, and very reluctantly pulled the lever for Goldwater.]
Being born five floors above and several years after where JFK was declared dead, then growing up in Dallas in the decades following, I learned a lot almost by effortless osmosis about Kennedy the man and the president, as well as the murders of him and Oswald. Too much, really…the word-of-mouth and self-published conspiracy theories drifted on the air like contagious viruses, almost endless in their creative untruth. At times the utterances, from sources like, “heard it from a friend of Ruby” to “cousin Clem worked in the Depository” to “my buddy was a DPD detective and he said there’s no way…”, and so forth, make Infowars-style fringe stuff you now see online now seem lame by comparison.
Every 22 November, and really, many days before and after, offered another yearly lesson in newspapers and on TV. It was an informational dump truck of known facts, analyses and remembrances, most of it recycled, banal and unoriginal, unloaded amidst the continual dribble of conspiratorial innuendo available year-round. The November barrage was at once tedious, tiresome, somewhat dreaded, yet somehow infused annually with fascinating nuggets of new insight, in the sea of regurgitated remembrances. Interesting discoveries and legitimate new ideas would pop out from time to time, much as one might see a large mass of drab metamorphic rock containing an occasional glistening garnet or flake of gold.
Anyone paying half a measure of attention in Dallas during those times couldn’t help but swim in everything known about Kennedy, plus all the rumor and concocted bullcrap. Aggregated over a couple decades, it was hard not to learn a good deal about JFK and related events in that setting, especially for a very news-thirsty kid interested in issues. As I said, this could take hundreds of pages, with all the rabbit holes one could follow. The most simultaneously controversial and boring one — the Warren Commission report — still seems closest to truth, all these decades later.
In office, the reality of JFK’s life, the affairs, scandal, coverups, and medical problems, was no match for the Utopian image of Camelot that he and his family encouraged via a highly compliant and complicit press. So much of it was a big, fat lie, a cover-up the media were knowingly perpetuating. And yet…the inspiration both Camelot and his speeches offered was necessary and vital to a nation standing fearful under a thousand Swords of Damocles in the form of Soviet nuclear missiles. Even born of deflection and a lack of openness, they served a good, noble purpose.
A man whose difference between image and reality was as vast as any President’s could be, JFK regardless articulated with eloquentce and vivid clarity, a powerful and clear vision for America to reach greater heights. He set a standard for Presidential inspiration of the People through great speeches, sometimes backed up by deeds, that none since but Reagan has attained. His courage in setting a hard line on Khrushchev in Cuba stands as one of the ballsiest acts by a leader in world history. He started the Peace Corps, which has done great deeds for the impoverished and embattled overseas, and for the lives of youth who have gone over to serve them.
To be fair, evaluating his short but extremely eventful Presidency must include the failures, including but not limited to the short-fused debacle of Bay of Pigs, and for longer-term impact, ratcheting up involvement in Vietnam that haunts this nation to this very day. Coming from well-to-do families, the First Couple were about as gracious as could be publicly, but they couldn’t help it: in many blue-collar eyes, the Kennedys nonetheless oozed a nontrivial, passive-aggressive element of elitist snobbery, marinated in the bubbling cauldron of longstanding blue-collar resentments toward the upper crust. This was a common denominator in many (by then) middle-aged to old adults I knew who did not like JFK at all.
In his frequent use of Christian themes and Biblical verses in speeches, I believe JFK was being genuine, not consciously hypocritical, despite the despicable and inexcusable way he treated Jackie. Most people who attain that level of power have great capacity for compartmentalization, none more than JFK. To deal with some of the massive issues of the day and not go certifiably insane, one would need such an inner circuit switch. Too bad his legacy forever will be tarnished by misusing that powerful ability, for the purpose of turning off the Catholic marital morals of his upbringing for dalliances with Marylin Monroe, Judith Exner, Mimi Alford, and likely others.
But JFK was also a pragmatic and effective leader, notwithstanding the patently absurd facade of Camelot. He advocated for lower taxes to help the economy, businesses and workers, championed a strong military (being a WW2 vet himself, then in the darkest depths of the Cold War), NASA and other sci-tech support, deficit control, encouraged the arts, worked against racial discrimination, cited and encouraged faith many times in his speeches, despite his own many sins. These acts bettered the nation and engendered much-needed goodwill across party and class lines.
It’s hard to imagine that combination of governance positions today from any President of either major party. Issues-wise, it’s a winning formula, and for the lack of it, we’ve deteriorated this century. Were a president of either party to run on the exact platform he laid out (adapted to today’s issues of course), I’d vote for that, despite minor misgivings about the viability of some elements.
Instead, each party lacks half of what’s needed to take this nation forward. Can you imagine, for example, a low-tax, pro-life, pro-military Democrat citing the Bible, directly or indirectly, in most speeches? Join the club; I can’t either.
For all his many then-hidden demons, and Vietnam notwithstanding, I’d call Kennedy’s densely complicated presidency a net positive for the country. In today’s extremely polzarized cancel culture, however, I suspect JFK would be torched with no mercy from his left flank, and Eisenhower from the right. [Nixon and LBJ, by contrast, each had somewhat Trumpian mean and vindictive streaks a mile long, and likewise would be the type to egg it on for his own benefit, unfortunately.]
On a societal and individual level, too many have lost sight of, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Instead it’s all about what the country must do for me, me, me.
The only way to dial down or dilute this hyper-polarization, and to invite a sense of compromise back into the fold, seems to be one or two viable third parties. This is to reduce both the numeric and auditory volume of the Rs and Ds to levels more amenable to public accountability, requiring coalition governance more akin to Israel or some multiparty European states that forces a measure of cooperation for the sake of the republic’s survival. That isn’t extreme, in light of how the duopoly as it now stands is driving us slowly off a cliff.