I borrowed this title from Joe Donahue’s poem sequence about JFK in his 1989 book Before Creation. I imagine a drawer in an old bureau in the cellar or attic filled with collectibles from the Kennedy years. Campaign pins, scrapbooks, LIFE magazine issues. I still have in my office at home a memento from 1963, a gold-painted plaster cast of President Kennedy’s head nested in the outspread wings of an American eagle—about the size of a small plate. It was not unusual to see these in homes around Lowell. Everyone seemed to have some form of representation of JFK on the wall, a framed print, a photograph, a calendar page. My memory is that my mother bought the plaster JFK at the supermarket.
Kennedyana is mounting as Nov. 22 approaches. Early yesterday morning on BBC radio there was a fascinating broadcast taped in Dallas with six witnesses to the event, including the top surgeon in the hospital room, the lawman who was handcuffed to Oswald when Ruby shot Oswald, the Secret Service man who climbed on the back of the limo, a mother who was a few feet from the car with two kids when the shots hit, a Dallas news reporter who was on scene, and a police officer who helped capture Oswald in the movie-house. Amazing that they are all still alive and could be rounded up for the news program. It was eerie to hear them recreate the moments, interspersed with audio news clips from the time. Each of them believes Oswald acted alone in the assassination.
I was almost ten years old in Nov, 1963, and after all this time I’m not sure I can describe what it has meant to have the president shot out from under us like that. I’m sure it changed me in ways that I don’t even know. Assassination. What kind of word is that for a kid to process? The event was like a natural disaster. My son was six years old on 9/11. My father was 22 the day Pearl Harbor was attacked; my mother 20. I was very aware of Pres. Kennedy, even at 9 years old. I have a vivid recollection of the inauguration. My mother kept me home from school that day. Of course we had a heightened sense of JFK as people of Massachusetts, as Catholics. He was young in years, but was for me as old as my parents, a few years older, born in 1917. I don’t know if I would have had a lifelong interest in politics if not for President Kennedy. He made politics appealing and significant. It looked like a meaningful way to orient your life. It mattered. I was still a kid, but I had not gotten a sense of that from President Eisenhower, whose photo was on the wall of the Big Brother Bob Emery Show on TV (“A toast to the president”). Cue the “Hail to the Chief” music. Can you imagine a children’s TV show today with a segment called “A toast to the president” as kids in the studio and at home raise a glass of milk out of respect to Barack Obama? And President Kennedy gave us the astronauts, the Space Race, the excitement of aiming for a moon landing. The future seemed to be opening up at the same time that the turmoil over Civil Rights forced everyone to face the reality of racism. Things were moving fast. Mrs. Kennedy was setting cultural styles. The White House projected a sense of being high-minded.
You look back on it now and JFK and Jackie seem to be such an aberration, followed by Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. It’s as if the mainstream pulled the culture back toward a kind of muddling middle rather than leave it out there in the fast lane. Of course, now we know JFK was reckless in ways that we don’t admire. His team, not surprisingly, was flawed. Still, the larger package of ambition, energy, openness, “new frontier” caught the imagination of so many of us. The torch in the hand of a new generation. American society maybe could not stand the cultural disturbance that Kennedy represented. Johnson and Nixon were of the same WWII generation but they seemed 20 years older in their ideas and style. You sense some of the same tension today with the Obamas. Who was thrown up against them?—McCain and Romney, who both come across as if they could be Barack’s father or grandfather. And now President Obama has stumbled badly in trying to implement new health-care policy. The words, “See, we told you so,” are rising in the affronted chorus. With justification. There’s little margin for error when you push for transformation. Reaching beyond the grasp is risky. A lot of people are pulling for failure. Damage has been done. Much of it self-inflicted. Kennedy had his public failures, too. He had to own it and move forward. There is always more of the people’s work to do. Now, 50 years since Dallas, we reconcile the good and bad and still try to make sense of that violent act.