“Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country.”
May 29, 2017, on this long Memorial Day weekend, comes the centenary of our 35th president’s birth. JFK 100? It seems impossible. For many of us he will perpetually be a youthful 46.
Nevertheless, pretty much everyone over the age of 60 knows exactly where they were and what they were doing the moment they heard of his assassination. I was standing in the hall outside of the Psych Dept offices at NMSU talking to another psych major about the football game the previous Saturday when someone shouted, “The president’s been shot in Dallas.”
An hour later I was home and glued to the TV with the rest of the nation when a somber Walter Cronkite announced that he had died. I was not interested in politics at that stage of my life and I was not particularly a fan of Kennedy or all the White House Camelot nonsense — but I remember being quite upset and teary-eyed. It prompted me to swear at my mother who disliked him immensely. I said something to the effect that, “Your blankety-blank Texas reactionaries shot him.”
My mother worked for the Navy as a clerk-typist at White Sands Missile Range. Several weeks earlier Kennedy had toured the Range and made a speech there. Sitting in temporary bleachers she was within a few feet of him as he went to the podium. Her comment was that he was not all that handsome.
I’m not sure why my mother leaned to the right in her politics or why she so disliked JFK. Perhaps, she was skeptical of his privileged silver spoon background. Or perhaps she sensed that he was a sexual predator. As an attractive single divorcee who’d spent many years as a waitress in fancy country clubs she’d been hit on plenty by men like him. Nevertheless, I could see that she was shaken by his murder and by my cursing at her.
Myself and others of us mark time by that fateful date: 11-22-63. It was the day everything changed forever. If our country ever had an age of innocence 11-22-63 was the end of it. Not much more than a month later I turned 21. About a year later the Beatles invaded, Bob Dylan showed up and announced “that the times they were a’changin”– and indeed they were. About two years later the Watts section of LA and then inner city Detroit erupted in urban warfare. LBJ went to war on poverty and North Viet Nam. There has been no turning back. We have more poverty now than when we went to war on it, and 58,000 young men never came back from ‘Nam.
“Incomplete” is probably the best adjective to describe JFK’s life and presidency. We will never know what kind of chief executive he would have been over a full eight years, but the promise of greatness was there. Though none were perfect, we were fortunate to have two decades of the inspirational leadership of giants — FDR, Truman, Ike and then Kennedy. I may be painting with the broad brush of nostalgia but it seems like what we have had since is a succession of dwarfs, scoundrels and incompetents.
Over the years we have learned very unflattering things about JFK and some of our other leaders deemed great. In the 1940s, 50s and 60s the press tended to be kind when it came to protecting the office of the president. In that more genteel era we had TV censors that forbade a married couple from being depicted in bed together. Likewise, the press was silent about the dozens of trysts that JFK had while in the White House. He had been a serial philanderer with hundreds of conquests throughout his marriage with Jackie, but he was dead nearly a decade before his infidelities became common knowledge. Today, the president cannot utter an off hand word or gesture without it being subjected to microscopic scrutiny — and within minutes becoming part of a screaming headline on the internet and the 24/7 news channels.
I know how I feel about his philandering, but I’m not sure how much it affects my opinion of him. A part of me is very turned off but another part of me says, “Does it really matter in the big picture? And did I really need to know?” And another voice in my thoughts says we would be better off as a nation if some respect were shown to the office of the presidency.
For me, his flaws do not take away from his achievements. He was an inspirational leader. The quote that prefaces this blog would sound like insincere pandering from any of the leaders we have had recently.
He was an authentic war hero. However, there are those who will point out that if he’d been more competent as a skipper PT-109 would not have been cut in half by the Jap destroyer.
His administration championed care for the mentally ill and handicapped like none prior. He founded the Peace Corps.
He proposed tax cuts and the economy grew.
He handled the Cuban Missile Crisis masterfully. After an early misstep on the Bay of Pigs invasion, he was the cold-warrior par excellence.
He was tough. He was a Truman Democrat — which is to say he would be quite out of step with the Clinton and Obama agendas.
RIP JFK 100