May 29, 2017 – President John F. Kennedy would have been 100 today.
For those who lived through his presidency, it is singularly impossible to imagine the smiling young chief as an old man. He is frozen in our memories, forever young.
Skeptics have observed that his assassination at 46 rescued him from an ignominious old age. He didn’t live long enough to see the unraveling of his secrets about his fragile health and assiduous sexual pursuits.
Then again, it may be his assassination and its turbulent aftermath that ended our innocence and turned us into a nation of cynics. As a result, we are suspicious of every politician. Had Kennedy lived, leaving our national psyche unmolested, we may not have been sufficiently motivated to peek beneath his sheets. We would have accepted Press Secretary Pierre Salinger’s response to a reporter who asked about rumors of JFK’s peccadillos: “Look, he’s the president of the United States. He’s got to work 14 to 16 hours a day. He’s got to run foreign and domestic policy. If he’s got time for mistresses after all that, what the hell difference does it make?”
Of course it makes a difference, although there is little evidence JFK’s relentless trysts detracted from his presidential decision-making. He did, after all, avert a nuclear holocaust in 1962, for which we can all be grateful. And 54 years after his death, we’ve seen enough quirkiness by a succession of presidents to be grateful if they when don’t start a nuclear war or melt the Antarctic ice shelf. We try not to think about what our presidents do in bed.
I try not to think about many of the secrets JFK maintained. I was 17 years old when he died and I must mark his presidency as the primary diversion of my high school years.
I yearned to shake his hand. I was jealous when our school’s foreign exchange student, Maria Christina Castro of Argentina, went to the White House because I knew she would meet him. For weeks afterwards Maria teased me about her close encounter with JFK before she finally admitted she was actually lost in a large crowd of foreign students and was too far away to see the President.
Maria knew I wrote to Kennedy weekly, hoping to elicit a response. I never wrote love letters so zealously, and love letters they were. Usually I received a boilerplate response on White House stationery from Ralph A. Dungan, special assistant to the president: “President Kennedy was glad to hear from you and regrets that he is unable to personally respond.” I collected a small pile of identical letters from Dungan, each signed lightly in blue ballpoint pen, before I decided to change tactics. I drew a political cartoon of JFK and sent it to the White House. The cartoon must have attracted Dungan’s attention because his next letter included a small White House card on which was undecipherable scribbling in black ink. It took me days to interpret the scrawl: “With Best Wishes – John F. Kennedy.”
I was pleased but I kept sending love letters to the president. A few weeks later I received a copy of the Fabian Bachrach official portrait of JFK with more scribbling near the president’s left ear: “John F. Kennedy.” (The card and picture appear above.)
I was pleased again and I should have curtailed my letter writing campaign. But there must have been other letters from me in the pipeline, and I think Ralph Dungan was beginning to recognize my name. The last letter I received from him said (as I recall):
“Dear Philip, You must realize that President Kennedy is extremely busy and does not have time to respond personally to the thousands of letters and requests he receives each day.”
Point taken. I suddenly realized it could be my patriotic duty to stop writing to the president. Soon, of course, the president went to Dallas and it became a moot point.
My greatest regret is that I discarded the letters I received from Ralph Dungan. I didn’t appreciate who he was or the exceptional service he provided for President Kennedy and, later, for President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Dungan, who was an effective U.S. ambassador to Chile during a turbulent period in that country’s history, died October 5, 2013 in Barnados.
Robert Dallek, author of Camelot’s Court wrote of Dungan: “As a man of integrity and intelligence, a good liberal who was sensitive to the crosscurrents in our relations in Latin America, he was a man of consequence to both Kennedy and Johnson.”
Bill Moyers offered this assessment in Dungan’s obituary in the New York Times: “I knew him from when I was one of the founding organizers of the Peace Corps, dealing with issues involving foreign aid. He was a very strong presence without being conspicuous about it. And then during the transition, Ralph was the gentleman on the bar stool. If a fight broke out, he would try to negotiate. He knew who started it, he knew how to let everyone withdraw from it. He could get opponents on policy to see there was a principled compromise.”
For me, the lesson came late. All the time I was writing to John F. Kennedy, I was corresponding with one of the unsung heroes of American history.
I wish I had treated Ralph Dungan with greater respect.
At the very least I wish I had saved his letters.