The 40th anniversary
of John Kennedy’s assassination promised to bring us plenty
of nostalgia, retrospection and mourning and we have not been
Channel has already brought us several specials and more are
to come. Chris Matthews devoted an hour to reviewing the Kennedy
legacy and the impact of his assassination on the nation. I
suspect a few more specials or replays of such will find their
way to the viewing public.
lived in Dallas at the time of Kennedy’s assassination
(I was all of six), my own emotions regarding that day are not
inconsequential. My mother worked for Abraham Zapruder, the
man who took the famous footage of the assassination. She caught
a glimpse of Kennedy just a few minutes before he was shot,
one of the throng there on the Dallas streets, and she was immortalized,
in our eyes at least, when her photo wound up in newspapers
across the nation, part of the backdrop to the young presidential
couple basking in Texas sunshine, waving to the masses moments
before night descended on the country. To this day, I occasionally
pull out the preserved newspapers from Dallas that document
the events of that awful day. I was a witness – like millions
of others – to the horror and sadness that unfolded that
Orwell, who is claimed by all political sides, Kennedy is an
elusive man who defies easy definition. He is a liberal icon
who had conservative tendencies. He was a bright man, but his
alleged intellect has been exaggerated by an army of troubadours
who have sought to immortalize him. He had great gifts, but
also seismic flaws. He wore the cloak of idealism for public
consumption, but ultimately was a political pragmatist who reacted
to events more than he shaped them. So let us consider the man
in the context of yesterday and today.
unlike many Democrats today, grasped the importance of the struggle
between freedom and oppression. He initiated the largest peacetime
defense buildup in American history and articulated with clarity
and courage the role the United States must play as the defender
of liberty. He was stridently anti-communist and his administration
served during a dangerous time, when Soviet aggression could
not be deterred. Or so it seemed. It is clear that Kennedy’s
performance during his first summit with Khruschev was not his
best moment, as he himself admitted. The weakness he apparently
displayed may well have tempted the Soviet leader to test the
young president, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear
war over Berlin and Cuba.
did not possess the strategic vision or confidence of a Ronald
Reagan, for example, whose tough, calculated stance toward the
Soviet Union resulted in the liberation of much of the communist
world. But Kennedy was a cool crisis manager, by most accounts,
a man who listened and carefully evaluated his options. He did
not overreact to the pressures of his time, which were immense.
he was tax cutter and pro-business. Conservatives love to point
this out because it is tough to find a tax cutter among our
current crop of Democrats. Kennedy also was a latecomer to the
civil rights struggle, liberal wishes notwithstanding, and even
then he urged protesters to respect the rule of law. Given the
importance of the south to his own political future (remember
he had barely won office in 1960), one can appreciate –
to a degree – his reluctance to embrace what was, in early
1960s, a difficult and emotional issue. Though he questioned
the tactics of the civil rights protesters, he did eventually
endorse the need for America to turn the page on the issue of
civil rights and race relations.
program was a noble initiative, but interestingly these days
it is the Democratic left that most often laments this nation’s
investments in space. They believe, right or wrong, that the
money is better spent on social programs that serve people.
That doesn’t make them bad, but it hardly makes them Kennedy
Kennedy was, by today’s standards, a neoconservative.
Again, he advocated tax cuts, had an aggressive foreign policy,
and was wary of social engineering of the sort advocated by
today’s Democrats, most notably his younger brother. He
talked about the rule of law, and seemed to appreciate the limits
of government. His most famous phrase – ask not what your
country can do for you, but what you can do for your country
– suggests that government, though it has its purposes,
could not be the sole or even most important vehicle for fostering
did not prevent him from reaching out to others around the globe.
His speeches often addressed listeners from other nations and
he articulated in a convincing way a real concern for their
fate and their future. As leader of the free world, he would
not abandon them to the forces of darkness – whether they
be hunger, disease or communist tyranny. Yes, some of it was
rhetoric, but it does not diminish the fact that Kennedy remains
– abroad – one of our most popular presidents.
of the men and women who have shaped our history, Kennedy’s
style set him apart as much as substance. No one can deny his
charm or wit, particularly relative to other politicians. He
was the best when it came to television and public speaking.
Since him, only Reagan has compared.
had a refreshing gift for candor. When his poll numbers went
up after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he observed that the worse
he performed, the more popular he became. He clearly enjoyed
bantering with the press, and they with him, which partially
explains why he was given the benefit of the doubt so often.
He disarmed but also did not dodge the tough questions or try
to gloss over the difficulties of a given issue.
a product of wealth and privilege. Democrats are selective about
which of our political leaders can enjoy such pedigree without
being ridiculed. It might be interesting for a moment to compare
JFK with George Bush, who takes so much grief from Democrats
and the left because of his privileged background.
came from famous families. Those families were close, though
the patriarch of the Kennedy clan was a tasteless and crude
man by all accounts. JFK went to Harvard, Bush to Yale. Both
were indifferent students. One inherited wealth from a father
who worked shady deals, the other benefited from connections
that provided ready-made opportunity. One chased women relentlessly
and was addicted to pain medicines (please note Rush critics),
while the other drank relentlessly, until reforming. JFK never
got the chance to reform, though it is arguable whether he would
have ever walked the straight road of fidelity or self discipline.
Hugh Sidey, the presidential historian, suggests that Kennedy
might well have been undone by his indiscretions, sooner or
serve in World War II, and wound up something of a war hero,
though his candor was evident yet again when he observed that
his only heroism was to be in a boat that got sunk. Nevertheless,
Bush took a pass on Vietnam, as did many of the educated elite
during that war – Republican and Democrat alike. JFK was
a Senator whose achievements were marginal. Bush became governor
of one of our largest states. All of this, and Al Gore’s
own history, might explain why the Democrats never get much
traction when they try to depict Bush as a product of privilege
only. He is more than that, and so was Kennedy.
national tragedy (and conspiracy?)
you buy into the Kennedy hype or not, there is no question that
the tragedy that has hung over the family is a tough to take.
They have paid for their mistakes and excesses and then some.
We all got another bitter taste of it a few years ago when JFK
Jr. went down in a plane with his wife and sister-in-law, another
stabbing wound in a nation already numbed by the Kennedy story
and its many sad and sordid chapters. Even Malcolm Muggeridge,
a trenchant debunker of Kennedy myths, noted the Shakespearean
dimensions of it, and that was in the mid 1960s with so much
more to come.
a particularly American trait to wish for happy endings. Whether
that is a natural idealism borne of our youth and success as
a nation, or whether it is television and Hollywood working
on us, we have – since November 1963 -- somehow hoped
the wrong could be set right, the loss redeemed. Those hopes
inevitably resided in a little boy who saluted his father so
many years ago and won a place in the heart of a nation. He
need only have asked (though he might not have), and he would
have had the Democratic nomination, and probably the presidency.
When John Jr. went down in the dark waters near Cape Cod, it
was as if the gods were punishing those who harbored such hopeful
fantasies. There would be no resurrection, nor even a healing
normalcy. The tragedy played on.
the mists of nostalgia emerged a string of conspiracy theories
about who killed Kennedy. The History Channel presented a compelling
circumstantial case that Lyndon Johnson and his Texas cronies
were responsible. This scenario is almost as convincing as the
conspiracies that link the assassination to the mob, the defense
establishment, to Cuban exiles or even the Soviet Union (despite
its denials). In each instance, researchers have spent a lifetime
compiling all kinds of evidence, including testimony from people
who claim to have knowledge about those bleak days 40 years
ago. There is only one problem – they can’t all
be right, can they? Or did all work together in some kind of
grand nefarious conspiracy?
is a segment of our population that is ready to believe any
explanation except the most obvious one – that Lee Harvey
Oswald, the man who ordered the murder weapon and whose fingerprints
were on it, actually killed JFK. Some day, and I hope I am alive
when it happens, a secret file or piece of evidence may turn
up that tells us the final truth of what occurred. Until then,
these assassination anniversaries will provide brisk sales for
those who traffic in Kennedy lore.
is this consolation. No one would have been more bemused by
his fate as a martyr than John Kennedy himself. For all his
political and personal gifts, the man was ultimately a pragmatist.
His flaws were interwoven with his gifts and one sensed he never
took himself as seriously as his legion of admirers did. He
saw through himself, and knew the difference between the actor
and the part. Surely, he would have found their grief and tributes
overwrought, as they sought to transform him into some kind
of secular saint who would have made right all that has gone
wrong, if only….
Jack Kennedy liked
a good cigar more than a symphony, and he liked gossip as much
as the classics. He trod the same hard ground as the rest of
us. However human the temptation, one has to question how helpful
it is to torture ourselves, each anniversary, with what might
have been. One suspects Kennedy would be the first to counsel
us to learn to live with what is and do our best with it. This
much is certain: that a lone gunman could create so much angst
in a nation for so long is a testimony to the accidents –
and fates – of history.
Shadroui has been published in more than two dozen newspapers
and magazines, including National Review and Frontpagemag.com.
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