Friday, November 22, 2013

John F. Kennedy

Arlington, VA     Visited April 1972

This post commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  It also represents what I think is the first of my historic graveside visits I can remember.  I’ll weave that part of the story in below.  Trying to write about John Kennedy in a condensed way is a challenge given the volumes of material written and broadcast about the 35th president.  His story is mythic without the need of exaggeration, his death tragic in a way that has shaped the national psyche and his legacy one of the great debates of the modern era.  

You might find this short C-Span bio a helpful primer on our subject.  


John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in the Boston suburb of Brookline, MA on May 29, 1917.  He was the second of what would eventually become a family of nine children born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy.  At the time of JFK’s birth the Kennedy family was already something of a dynasty in New England – he was named for his maternal grandfather John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald – the legendary mayor of Boston in the early 1900’s.  John’s father, Joseph Kennedy, was the son of the other great politician of the era and when he married Rose Fitzgerald the two great Boston Brahmin families were joined.  Joseph Kennedy went on to a long career in politics, most significantly serving as US Ambassador to England during World War II. 

The Kennedy Clan

Gridiron Jack


John (called ‘Jack’ by family and friends’)  was a somewhat sickly child who grew stronger through family competition – particularly with his older brother Joseph Jr., whom he both idolized and competed against.  Both Kennedy boys went to private prep schools and matriculated to their father’s alma mater at Harvard University.  Joe Jr. was always considered the brighter and more promising of the two.  Both played football for the Crimson, but Jack had to quit due to a back injury, a malady that would affect him for the rest of his life.  John Kennedy graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1940 with the intent of going to law school.  His senior thesis explored the question of how England was unprepared for the start of World War II and was later published as a book (which became a best-seller) under the title Why England Slept.

Both Joe and Jack enlisted in war effort.  Joe joined the army air corps and Jack, after being rejected by the army for his back issues, enlisted in the navy.  He was given command of a patrol boat in Pacific.  On August 2, 1943 Kennedy’s boat, PT 109 was on night maneuvers when it was rammed by a larger Japanese ship.  Kennedy’s response in the rescue of his men earned him the Navy and Marine Corps medals and a Purple Heart.  The commendation reads,

For extremely heroic conduct as Commanding Officer of Motor Torpedo Boat 109 following the collision and sinking of that vessel in the Pacific War Theater on August 1–2, 1943. Unmindful of personal danger, Lieutenant (then Lieutenant, Junior Grade) Kennedy unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore. His outstanding courage, endurance and leadership contributed to the saving of several lives and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

 When asked later in life to explain his heroism Kennedy would just say, "It was easy. They cut my PT boat in half”.  Kennedy's heroism was portrayed in full Hollywood style in the 1963 film PT 109 starring Cliff Robertson as JFK.  The movie was released just five months before the assassination.  Here's the trailer for the film

Injuries resulting from this event forced JFK to leave the service.  What compelled him into politics was the death of his beloved brother Joe, who was shot down on a high risk bombing mission in 1944.  Joe had been the one groomed for political office and Jack felt the burden to take the family obligation on his behalf.  He was elected to Congress in his first run in 1946 and served three terms before taking a Senate seat for the state of Massachusetts in 1952.  A year later, he married Jacqueline Bouvier, a socialite and budding journalist who was twelve years his junior. 
JFK’s senate career was highlighted by the publication of Profiles in Courage (later acknowledged to be co-authored by Ted Sorenson) which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.  But Kennedy battled serious and debilitating illness throughout the Fifties, which limited his impact in Congress.  Nevertheless, in 1960 there were a number of political and cultural trends which thrust young and charismatic JFK to the forefront of the Democratic Party as a symbol of a new era of national political leadership.

Kennedy/Nixon debate - Old School Talking Heads

The 1960 election against Republican Richard Nixon was one of the closest in U.S. history.  In fact it may well have turned on the first televised debate where Kennedy’s youthful charisma was vividly cast against Nixon lack of telegenic presence. Interestingly, although polls among those who watched the debate clearly favored Kennedy, polls reflecting only those who heard the debate on radio favored Nixon.  In the end John F. Kennedy was elected the youngest president (and first Catholic) in American history. 

Jack and 'John John' and the
Resolute Desk

Jack and Bill

The Kennedy presidency was dominated by two significant realities – the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement.  Rather than chronicle the three years of the Kennedy presidency, I’m going to highlight two great achievements and two significant shortcomings of a brief but eventful presidency.  What I consider the two great achievements are: 
  • The Launching of the American space program.  The Apollo project, designed to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, was bold, visionary, and politically advantageous in pushing the United States ahead in technological research and development during the Cold War years.

  • The Cuban Missile Crisis.  In perhaps the closest point in history to armed US/Soviet conflict, Kennedy’s brinksmanship and use of intelligence and emerging technology to push the Russian missile launchers out of Cuba show the presidency in one of its great moments. 

What I consider to be Kennedy’s most significant shortcomings are:
  • The Bay of Pigs fiasco.  The disastrous attempt to invade Cuba with an army of anti-Castro Cubans failed miserably, not only embarrassing the US government, but establishing Fidel Castro as a communist icon within 90 miles of the US coast. 

  • JFK’s incessant womanizing.  In Kennedy’s day, rampant unfaithfulness to a marriage by a politician was rarely reported on by the press.  However, the recklessness with which we now know he engaged in this behavior would certainly be impeachable in our day. 

Great Speeches

John Kennedy was not just a telegenic leader, he was a capable of soaring oratory.  Here are key moments from three memorable speeches in JFK's brief presidency.

 The Inaugural 1/20/61 - "Ask not what your country..."
 Rice University 9/12/62 -
 "We choose to go to the moon...."
Berlin 6/23/63 -  "Ich bin ein Berliner...."

 November 22, 1963

With my friend Steve Gonzales at
Dealy Plaza with the Texas
School Book Depository in
the background
The Assassination of John F. Kennedy is a watershed in American culture.  Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, Dealy Plaza, the Texas School Book Depository, the Grassy Knoll, the Zapruder Film, the Warren Commission are part of an iconic lexicon of American tragedy.  The events of November 22, 1963 have been discussed, debated, dissected, documented and dramatized maybe more than any other single event in U.S. history. 
We will never know what a full Kennedy presidency would have produced; whether the youngest president ever elected would have guided the nation through the turbulent Sixties or allowed his own personal weaknesses to undermine the presidency a full decade before the Watergate scandal.  What we do know is that far more changed with the death of John F. Kennedy than would have ever been imagined prior to that dark day in November.

The JFK assassination and aftermath is the first significant historical event that received nearly round the clock video coverage.  The images and moments captured by news cameras and amateur photographers remain among the most iconic and emotionally moving in our history.  As I was doing research for this post two particular video clips resonated with me.  One is the CBS coverage by Walter Cronkite leading up the confirmation of Kennedy’s death in Dallas. 

The other is a grainy video clip of the bugler at Arlington Cemetery playing Taps during the graveyard service.  Early on he misses a note but recovers to complete his task.  At the time this missed note coming from the emotion of the moment resonated with both those at the cemetery and those watching on TV as an poignant expression of faltering confidence in the face of national tragedy.  And his recovery radiated the well of resolve that would carry the Kennedy family and the nation through its grief in the days ahead.  Here’s a clip of the bugler's call.
Funeral procession into Arlington Cemetery

The Kennedy family grave area at Arlington Cemetery is one of the most frequently visited historic sites in the nation’s capital.  I first visited it in the spring of 1972 as a seventh grader on a trip with other school safety patrol students on a train trip from Atlanta to New York City and back.  As part of our tour we visited Arlington and I saw JFK’s grave and the eternal flame for the first time.  The main thing I remember was that after we visited Arlington we were dropped off from our buses at the Smithsonian where we were allowed to roam around the museum area.  Imagine several hundred unsupervised seventh graders running around the Washington Mall with no watches on a time schedule to catch a train for New York.  Things were very different back then.  I’ve since been back to the Kennedy site several times, most meaningfully with son and my father about a year and a half before my Dad passed away.  
I don't remember where I was the day JFK was shot - I was four years old.  But I know the world I was growing up into changed that day.  And I'm a product of what it has become. 

A picture I took with my Instamatic camera on the
seventh grade patrol trip - April 1972.

Your blogger and son just about 40 years
later - November 2012.

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