Santa and Jack: Keep the Myth

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John F. Kennedy had been dead 13 years by the time the first of our six adult children was born. By the time they cracked their first high school history book, JFK had long since passed from flesh to myth. He had become a two-dimensional icon along with Washington and Lincoln and Roosevelt, and his passing was notable primarily because it was one of four presidential assassinations that had to be memorized.

For me, John F. Kennedy’s presidency and his sudden passing were intensely personal events – “the semicolon,” as one writer put it, “of my life.” Boomers will know what I mean when I say everything was different after JFK died. Hope, idealism, and a respect for authority, all dimmed. J. Patrick Moynihan remembered a conversation with journalist Mary McGrory after the assassination. “We’ll never laugh again,” McGrory said through her tears. “Heavens, Mary, we will laugh again,” Moynihan replied. “It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”

I was 17 when JFK died and I did laugh again but the character of my youth changed. Before November 22, 1963, I enjoyed the protection of a close-knit family in a village that provided predictable comfort in a safe middle class cocoon. After that, my youthful optimism was modulated by the realization that horrible things could happen without notice and beyond reason.

My children always observed, if not always with understanding, that the anniversary of Kennedy’s death was a day of mourning for me. They respected that although, I suspect, it would have made as much sense to them to shed tears on the death dates of James Garfield or William McKinley.

And we have learned a lot about JFK in the 55 years since he died, including his chronic womanizing, his painstaking deceptions to hide his poor health, and his patrician inability to fully comprehend what it was like to be poor or a person of color in America. As Professor David Greenberg wrote this week in Politico on the death of former President George H.W. Bush, respect for the dead must coexist with the historical record.

Last week my 12-year-old grandson watched an episode of a television series devoted to museums and science. This particular program examined the logistics and physics of the Kennedy assassination to determine whether he was shot by more than one gunman. The program included a clip from the Zapruder film, which is not family viewing.

“He was very upset by it,” my daughter said. “He said he had no idea what it had been like, ‘but there was all this blood everywhere.’”

Indeed, this vivid Super8mm film of the president’s head exploding is one of the ghastlier artifacts of U.S. history and no child should have to see it (not withstanding the fact that it can be instantly Googled). The rosy Camelot myth of JFK is charming and endearing; the harsh reality not so much. But I will always be charmed by the myth.

For the past several weeks I’ve been working on a small children’s book for our five grandchildren, The Hot Christmas of 1962. It’s a fanciful story about how Christmas was threatened by global warming until it was rescued by two equally mythological figures: Santa Claus and John F. Kennedy.

Without reopening the debate about the reality of Santa Claus (Yes, Virginia), I will freely admit that there was no such person as the John F. Kennedy of myth.

But when I look back on my own youth, I very much wish that the mythical JFK still walked among us.

And for a few brief moments, in The Hot Christmas of 1962, he does.

And I’ll leave it to my grandchildren to decide whether any of it is real.

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The Hot Christmas of 1962

For my grandchildren and the children in your life, a story about two mythological figures – Santa Claus and John F. Kennedy – and how they saved Christmas from an early episode of climate change.

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Harry and Harold

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President Harry S Truman and Governor Harold E. Stassen were divided by party lines, but they had more in common than either would have admitted.

Both ordered the racial integration of armed forces under their command, in Truman’s case all branches of the service in 1948 and in Stassen’s case the Minnesota National Guard when he was governor of the state 1939-1943.

Both ran for president of the United States in 1948. Truman was successful and Stassen lost the Republican nomination to Thomas E. Dewey.

And both made a major impact on Baptist history. In 1984 I wrote an editorial about Truman’s centennial in The American Baptist magazine.

(Truman) was never a candidate for a cross and crown pin for perfect attendance, and if he couldn’t bring himself to darken the door of his church every week, his reasoning was familiar enough: “Lot of hypocrites in church,” he observed.

It has also been rumored that he argued with his pastors from time to time. There is a legend that when he announced his intention to appoint General Mark Clark as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, he showed up for worship at Washington’s First Baptist Church and heard his pastor, Edward H. Pruden, denounce his move as unconstitutional. Mr. Truman never worshiped at First Baptist again. (Like all rumors, this one has more than one interpretation. Dr. Pruden said Mr. Truman had told him that he was not avoiding church because of the sermon; the president had been a recent target of an assassination attempt by Puerto Rican nationalists and he had been advised to stay away from church for security reasons.)

Harry Truman had more than one difference of opinion with his fellow Baptists. His frequent habit of downing a “slight libation” of hard liquor and his love of cards (poker was his game) would have placed him at odds with many (but by no means all) Baptists. And although he was fond of preaching from the Bible, and did so on several occasions, his tendency to “give ‘em hell” did not always have a theological context. His plainspoken, often profane language bothered some of his friends as well as his critics. Mr. Truman once telephoned fellow Baptist Brooks Hays to express his condolences on Hays’s defeat in his bid for reelection to Congress. “Mr. President you’ve taken a lot of heat, I guess I can too,” Hays remembered saying. “No, Brooks, it’s different with me,” Truman replied, “I can cuss, and you can’t.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, Harold Stassen and his wife Esther lived across the street from the American Baptist offices in King of Prussia, Pa. He had a law office in Philadelphia, which I visited in 1969 along with two other students from Eastern Baptist College. We had asked Stassen for an interview for Eastern’s student newspaper, The Spotlight, and he was a gracious host.

We sat in a board room and listened with awe to his reminiscences about people he had known, ranging from 1940 GOP presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie to Joseph Stalin (“Stalin had very little understanding of democracy,” Stassen said with Minnesota understatement). We talked for over an hour and it never occurred to us students how much that time was worth to an international lawyer.

On the way out, I noticed a crude oil painting of Abraham Lincoln on the wall of his office. Thinking it might have been painted by one of his grandchildren, I asked about it. “Yes, Ike painted that for me,” Stassen said. I refrained from further comment.

I encountered Stassen several times during my tenure on the American Baptist communication staff. He would stop by the offices for various meetings. The older staff felt comfortable calling him “Harold,” but I always called him Governor.

Occasionally he would call my office. This was when Johnny Carson and other talk show hosts were renewing Stassen’s national fame by joking about his chronic pursuit of the presidency, so I had to warn the receptionist that if someone called saying he was Harold Stassen, it was probably really Harold Stassen.

It was true that Stassen ran for president every four years when he had no chance of winning the Republican nomination, and a lot of people thought that was amusing. I once asked his son Glen, a prominent Baptist theologian, about his father’s ambitions. “Look, he’s an international lawyer,” Glen said. “I imagine he has clients who are impressed by the fact he’s a presidential candidate. And at least he’s not chasing after women.”*

In the fall of 1972, Harry Truman lay dying in a hospital in Kansas City, Mo. I knew American Baptists would be issuing a statement when Truman died, and it occurred to me that there was no better person to do that than Harold Stassen. If history had unraveled differently, Stassen and Truman might have opposed each other in the 1948 presidential campaign, and I knew they had a lot in common as Baptist politicians. In early December when medical bulletins revealed the gravity of Truman’s condition, I called Stassen and asked if he’d be willing to write a statement.

“Sure,” he said. “I’ll write something and bring it by.”

Later that day Stassen placed a sheet of yellow legal paper with a scribbled note on the receptionist’s desk at the American Baptist offices. I typed it twice, once as a separate statement to read to news outlets when Truman died, and once as a part of a general release that would be mailed by American Baptist News Service. As Truman’s condition continued to deteriorate, I waited.

And waited. Days passed and Truman clung to life. When the holidays approached I took the releases home with me. And waited.

Christmas came and went and still Truman lived. Or so I thought.

I was awakened by a phone call on December 26. It was Stassen.

“Phil,” he shouted in his rumbling baritone. “Where’s the darn release?”

I quickly turned on the television and saw that Harry Truman had died during the night. I told the governor it was “on its way,” and I started calling the Associated Press and other news outlets to read Stassen’s statement to them. (That’s the way it was done in dark ages before email). The statement became part of the evening news cycle and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Over his long life American Baptists frequently honored Harold Stassen. He received the Edwin T. Dahlberg Peace Award in 1972, an honor named for another great Baptist. Stassen gratefully accepted with an eloquent speech, which he had scribbled in pencil on a sheet of a yellow legal pad. When he finished, I discretely stuffed the speech in my brief case to preserve as a historic document. For years I kept the speech in a special file in the communications offices but lost track of it when I left the Baptists in 1991. I hope it still exists somewhere.

When Stassen died in 2001 at the age of 93, several news outlets observed that his protracted pursuit of the presidency had caused many to underestimate him. He had also been a signatory of the United Nations charter, president of the University of Pennsylvania, and president of the American Baptist Churches in the USA. He received the Legion of Merit for his Navy service in World War II, and he served President Dwight D. Eisenhower in cabinet level appointments.

So far as I can tell, he only made two glaring errors in his life.

One was in 1948 when he confronted Thomas E. Dewey in a televised debate over whether the Communist party should be outlawed in the United States. Stassen – perhaps fawning to prevailing public opinion – said the party should be outlawed. Dewey said that, as despicable as the Communists may be, the Constitution forbade that kind of flagrant interference in democracy. Stassen never recovered in the polls from that philosophical misstep. Had he handled it better, he might have been president of the United States.

The other error was a god-awful toupee that he plopped on his head late in life. It was the most unrealistic looking toupee I have ever seen and it looked like a comatose possum.

“I have a very high forehead,” Stassen explained, and he didn’t like the way his bald pate looked on television.

The problem is, there were tens of thousands of news photographs – including a cover of TIME magazine – that showed the high forehead intact. Everyone knew that and, in my opinion, the toupee made him look vain and clownish, I think it contributed to his undeserved image as a comical figure.

But I have long since made my peace with the reality that it was a national misfortune that Harold Stassen was never president of the United States.

And I have also tried to accept the excuse of Stassen’s friend and fellow Baptist Brooks Hays, who also bought an ugly toupee in his later years:

“What God has not wrought,” Brooks explained, “I went out and bought.”

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  • In past years, whenever I had wrote about Harold Stassen, Glen would respond with positive comments or critical suggestions. Glen died in 2014, and I will miss not hearing from him.
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And, like most women in ministry, she makes it look easy.

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The concept of Mary as the Untier of Knots was well known in the 17th and 18th centuries and is best memorialized by a 1700 painting by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner.

_Johann_Georg_Schmidtner_,_by_Johann_Georg_SchmidtnerJorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, saw Schmidtner’s painting in the Church of St. Peter am Periach in Augsburg when he was a student in Germany.

When Bergoglio became responsible for protecting the lives of Jesuit priests who were opposing the brutal dictatorship in Argentina, he struggled with conflicting imperatives of justice and safety.

According to tradition, a nun reminded him of the solace of the Untier of Knots, and as Cardinal in Argentina he promoted her veneration throughout Latin America.

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Johnny, We Really Did Hardly Know Ye

jackshadeNovember 22, 2018 – Today is Thanksgiving and also the 55th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As Billy Joel put it, “JFK, blown away, what else do I have to say?”

After more than half century, the ironies we feel at our Thanksgiving tables have nothing to do with JFK. This year other things mitigate the blessings we count. In 1963, we knew the occupant in the Oval Office had stirred the idealism of a generation by favoring Civil Rights, planning fair housing and fair employment opportunities for struggling working people, seeking an end to the arms race, calling for humane immigration laws, and sparking the greatest technological advances in history by setting a goal to land a human being on the moon. All that made it possible, even in the gloom a week after his death, to celebrate a day of thanks.

Today our thanks are mitigated by another dweller in the Oval Office, a chief executive whose racism and xenophobia are palpable, who doesn’t believe in science or global warming, who believes tax cuts should benefit the rich and not the poor, who believes teachers and pastors should be armed with guns, and who has slammed the door on millions of would-be immigrants to the United States.

In many respects, it’s harder to be thankful today than it was November 28, 1963, a time of deep national mourning.

Those of us of a certain age remember John F. Kennedy with unfeigned fondness. As one whose memories of November 22, 1963 will always be painful, I rarely see a picture of JFK without thinking how much better it was when we admired and trusted the Oval Office occupant and when most people respected the President regardless of party.

I would hate to think those days are gone forever and in my more rational moments I sense the current circus in Washington will be gone in an election or two.

But also – in my more rational moments – I am beginning to sense that my scorn for Trump is making it hard to be objective in my idealistic affection for Kennedy.

One thing Jack and the Donald had in common: they were both rich men’s sons with a strong sense of sexual entitlement and misogyny on steroids. I’d like to think JFK was too much of a gentleman to grab genitalia without warning, but Stormy Daniels’ description of Trump’s assault reminded me of White House intern Mimi Alford’s description of how she lost her virginity to JFK in the White House residence: “The next thing I knew he was standing in front of me, his face inches away,” she writes. “He placed both hands on my shoulders and guided me toward the edge of the bed.”

Another thing JFK and DJT have in common is the ability to get away with it. Most reporters and all Secret Service agents knew Kennedy was having trysts with different women on the average of once a week, but no one thought it was appropriate to invade the president’s privacy. When a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger about Kennedy’s affairs, Salinger said, “Listen, he’s the president of the United States. He has to work 16, 17, 18 hours a day. He’s got to handle foreign policy. He’s got to handle domestic policy. If he’s got time for mistresses after that, what the hell difference does it make?” The reporter laughed and nothing was ever written.

That was a time when the press and most Americans believed the private life of the president was no one else’s business. But even before the #MeToo movement cast light on the widespread abuse of women by powerful men, politicians knew they were under greater scrutiny. A Republican House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton over his 1990s affair with Monica Lewinsky, and earlier this year Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said “looking back on it, Clinton should have resigned.”

Trump’s misogyny, on the other hand, has taken place under the full glare of the klieg lights and scores of women have come forward to accuse him of abusive behavior. Still, his popularity polls, which hover at just over 30 percent, are unaffected and Trump’s base remains strongly supportive of him. But I have serious doubts whether history will be as kind to Trump as it has been to JFK.

Looking back on the 55 years since he has been gone, I confess I still think JFK was a great and effective president and I still miss him greatly. There was so much that he did right, and millions of Baby Boomers were inspired by his example to lead constructive lives that made the world better.

But there was so much about John F. Kennedy that we did not know when he was alive, principally, that he was a powerful man who took advantage of scores of powerless women.

How much difference would it have made if we had known?

That’s a contextual question that is difficult to answer in 2018. It’s a little like condemning Washington because he owned slaves in the 18th century, or scorning Lincoln because he was a racist in the 19th century. In the 1960s, Kennedy’s sexual conduct was placed in the category of “what the hell difference does it make?” and in 2018 the same behavior is clearly monstrous.

But that is the point. The behavior is clearly monstrous.

And the current occupant of the Oval Office – and his minions – would do well to remember that.

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An American Baptist Cartoon Memoir – Just for fun

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I served on the communications staff of American Baptist Churches in the USA for two decades. Most of that time I was editor of The American Baptist Magazine, a position I assumed as a callow youth. I was a naïve 28 when Editor Norman R. De Puy passed the mantle along to me, and a jaded 45 when I resigned in 1991 to return to newspaper writing.

When I joined the American Baptist staff in 1971, the denomination looked back on a proud history of prophetic advocacy in civil rights, peace, eco-justice, and gender equality. I was extremely proud to work for Martin Luther King’s home denomination. But as Dr. Frank Sharp, director of American Baptist News Service pointed out, the zest for justice was greatest among the staff of the national offices in Valley Forge, Pa., and dwindled precipitously the further one strayed into the Baptist hinterland.

As editor, I knew I was communicating to a highly diverse audience. I tried to write balanced editorials about theological and political issues of interest to American Baptists and generally elicited a balance of approving and disapproving editorial mail. Perhaps the most vicious spate of mail I received followed an article on the National Council of Churches new inclusive language lectionary. Baptists, who generally don’t use a lectionary, thought we were referring to a radical bible that would force them to read “Our Mother who art in heaven …” My mail ran from polite dismissiveness to threats of violence and I thank God there was no Twitter back then.

Given that insight into our readership, I probably should have avoided introducing editorial cartoons into the magazine. And I’m sure that if I hadn’t been editor, the cartoons would never have appeared, because any other editor would have seen I was no Walt Kelly or Herblock. But I told myself cartoons could appeal to a wider demographic of readers and I forged ahead. In the end, nothing we could do seemed to make a difference and The American Baptist magazine went the way of all print media in 1991.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the budget watchers decided it would be too expensive to continue to use glossy paper to publish The American Baptist so we switched to crude newsprint. The magazine was never the same after that. This weekend I began pulling some old scrapbooks off my shelves and realized the worst: the magazine is continuing to crumble. I spent several hours scanning the contributions that mean most to me – namely, the cartoons.

Now that they are digitally available, I’m going to attempt to blog them into iCloud eternity.

I submit them for your approval, hoping for your indulgence. And praying that for American Baptists of a certain age, these pen-and-ink scrawling’s may bring back memories of a halcyon age of denominational life.

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American Baptist Cartoon Memoir – Holidays

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