Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote in the early 19th Century that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Cognizant that the changing times require that women be added to Carlyle’s analysis, it is true that events and places often are greatly impacted by the acts or omissions of powerful public figures.
54 years ago to this very day, on a sunny Friday in Dallas, Texas, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated. History notes that his killer was Lee Harvey Oswald, a committed communist who had his own ideas regarding crafting himself a place in history as a powerful figure. Whether Oswald acted alone in firing the mortal wounds that day will never be fully known, but it is clear that this pair’s names will forever be intertwined like Brutus and Caesar and today, November 22nd, will be remembered thousands of years from now in the same manner that the Ides of March of 44 BC is recounted as the date that Caesar traded mortality for immortality as a legend or a myth.
As a lover of history, I concluded long ago that President Kennedy was a man whose greatness lives on as more legend than deeds accomplished, at least from a legislative standpoint. Kennedy as myth owes his legendary status to the shrewd if not perspicacious public relations campaign that his widow, Jackie, embarked upon after his death, one in which she helped usher in the phrase “Camelot,” the fictional home of King Arthur, to describe the brief 34 months that she and her husband inhabited the White House. The delicious irony in such description is that much like King Arthur, Kennedy was a man possessed of extreme pride, ebullient passions, and endemic flaws typical of the scions of great wealth from years past who, because of their privileged status, felt compelled to offer themselves up for the public good.
This latter point–the offering of oneself for the public good–unquestionably characterized President Kennedy as well as his brothers, Attorney General and later New York Senator Robert Francis Kennedy, and younger brother Edward Moore “Teddy” Kennedy, the longtime Senator from Massachusetts. The Kennedy brothers, raised by the rum-running “Papa” Joe Kennedy, a man with a dubious past as a gangster who parlayed his ill-gotten wealth into several lucrative legitimate enterprises and an eventual appointment as Ambassador to England by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Papa Joe was convinced that some day, a Catholic would become President of the United States and with the exception of history buffs, few modern Americans can recall that there was a time in which there was a strong anti-Catholic bent in America, one so pronounced that when New York Governor Al Smith became the first Catholic nominated for the presidency in 1928, his resounding defeat to Republican Herbert Hoover was not lost upon Papa Joe and accordingly, the Kennedy brothers who were groomed early for leadership in his hopes that one would break the anti-papacy glass ceiling.
Still, greatness for President Kennedy was not a given in that the evidence shows that he was a smart young man but an average student all the way through Harvard. More critically, the evidence shows that his “hero” status as the savior of the crew of PT-109 during World War II was a public relations ploy of Papa Joe, who was able to keep his son’s “heroism” on the front pages of American papers despite reports that Kennedy’s lack of leadership led to the PT-Boat being sunk in the first place.
But as is often the case, John F. Kennedy’s meteoric rise from freshman congressman in 1946 to the leader of the free world by 1961 had as much to do with the advent of television as any other factor. It is well documented that during the 1960 presidential race, Kennedy was young, vibrant, and calm during the televised debates with Republican candidate Richard Nixon and in a close race, his debate performances–and according to some reports the shenanigans of some of Papa Joe’s mob friends in stealing votes–helped prove the difference.
Still, 54 years later, the question remains whether President Kennedy was “great?” As with all things, this analysis belongs to the beholder; I contend that what Kennedy did well, much like another Irish president–Ronald Reagan–would 20 years later, was to inspire confidence in those who heard his lofty words. Whether it was challenging America to place a man on the Moon before the end of the decade (accomplished), giving tacit approval to civil rights in the South despite some private reservations about believing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr to be a communist; standing firm in the rhetorical war with Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev that avoided an actual war with the Soviet Union in October of 1962, or inspiring hope for millions of Europeans under Soviet domination by uttering the simple phrase “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”–“I am a Berliner”–in the wake of the Berlin Wall being built, Kennedy, clearly, was an “Inspirer-in-Chief.” The facts that the Cold War would not be won on his watch or that major civil rights legislation would not be secured on his watch do not negate the fact that his words later transformed into solid actions by his successors in the White House.
To that end, 54 years later, I conclude that yes, Kennedy certainly was great, and I further conclude that even in his frailties and failures, from suggestions that he used marijuana and other opiates to ease his chronically ailing back while in the Oval Office, to confirmed reports of his notorious philandering, Kennedy’s legacy is indirectly responsible for ushering in an age of greater scrutiny of our political leaders. Some lament this development, and in an age where seemingly every day the American public arises to some new pernicious or puerile Tweet from President Donald Trump, or news that some Republican or Democratic politician has sexually assaulted or harassed men, women and children, the “Age of Innocence” in which politicians received passes for poor deportment is no more. Indeed, many of Kennedy’s own mistakes and sexual dalliances would have been amplified far greater had the scrutiny back then been as tough as it is today.
Still, as we take note of what transpired on the early afternoon of November 22, 1963, lest we forget that the killing shots that day not only killed a good, albeit flawed man, it also gave birth to what I believe is the one redeeming aspect of the tragedy–that news, on television then and other forms of media now, is readily accessible to those willing to gain knowledge. And let us pray that as wreaths are laid and encomiums heaped upon Kennedy at his resting place at Arlington National Cemetery near the Eternal Flame, that we, the modern American electorate, enhance the ephemeral flicker that burns out easily due to our short attention spans and rigid and rabid partisanship that refuses to hold our elected leaders to greater account professionally and morally.