Perhaps it’s the shallow sentiment of age. Perhaps it’s nostalgia for an era that seems far brighter than the dark political gloom that engulfs us now. Perhaps it’s because I loved him from afar though I never met him. Whatever the reason, for the last fifty-five Novembers I have thought of John F. Kennedy when the twenty-second of the month draws near.
There is little need to point out that was the day in 1963 he was assassinated in Dallas. None of my adult children were alive on that day and nearly 70 percent of Americans living now were not yet born. But people know about it because the Kennedy assassination has become part of American folk lore.
My adult children have been very patient – even sympathetic – about my propensity to mourn a politician who seems as far removed from them as Chester A. Arthur.
And this year it’s beginning to seem a bit silly to me, too. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was one of the most complicated and compartmentalized politicians ever to sit in the Oval Office. The dry, statesmanlike JFK we saw in his televised press conferences was one of many JFK’s we rarely saw.
There was also the rich white JFK of privilege who lived through but never experienced the Great Depression.
There was the self-absorbed JFK who was short on human empathy. When one of his girlfriends pointed out poor people in a decaying neighborhood, he shrugged and said, “Poor bastards.”
There was the calculating “Mick politician” JFK (as his aide Kenneth O’Donnell put it) who could be ruthless in dealing with political opponents and dismissive of his friends when they no longer suited his purposes.
There was the crass political strategist JFK who hesitated becoming involved in the Civil Rights movement because he feared losing votes in the South.
There was the philandering sex addict JFK who told British Prime Minister Harold McMillan that if he didn’t have sex with a different woman every two or three days he would get “terrible head-aches.”
All of which is appalling.
But there were other more positive JFK’s lurking in his many compartments, and they make him worth remembering.
There was the idealist JFK who inspired a generation of Boomers to join the Peace Corps, serve in their country’s armed forces, and pursue careers in politics and public service.
There was the quick-witted JFK who could crack a joke or tell an anecdote that made his audiences laugh.
There was the poetic JFK who could interpose in his speeches inspiring verse from memory.
There was the courageous JFK who ignored General LeMay, Dean Acheson, Lyndon Johnson, and other hawks who advised him to invade Cuba in 1962 to remove offensive missiles.
Perhaps it is that last item – his hesitation to go to war – that makes him worthy of remembering. As we know now, there were Soviet lieutenant colonels in Cuba authorized to launch the nuclear missiles at the first sign of an invasion. And that would certainly have triggered a massive nuclear conflagration.
As complicated and compartmentalized as he was, that is one thing we can all thank JFK for: he stood up against the warmongers and kept us all alive.
So as November 22 approaches again, I do my best to remember John Kennedy for all he was, his great strengths and horrendous weaknesses.
And like many in my generation, this will continue to be so until I have no memory left.