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‘Show Me a Hero and I Will Write You a Tragedy': Remembering JFK After 50 Years

November 22, 2013

jfk hero

If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life . . . it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.

- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

I had just taken my seat in our ninth-grade English class at Roosevelt Junior High School in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Suddenly my friend Bill Schutter burst into the room, agitated and practically breathless. It was the afternoon of November 22, 1963, a day that had started out like any other.

“Kennedy’s been shot!,” Schutter shouted to his stunned classmates. Did we actually hear what we thought we heard?

After half an hour of fitful hope and fear, rumor and speculation (someone said he was shot in the head… no, it wasn’t that serious… why was he driving a car in Texas?), we finally heard our principal, Sherman A. “Spitball” Kelly, announce the grim news over the public address system: Kennedy was dead.

It didn’t seem possible: John F. Kennedy wasn’t the sort of person who could die.  He was too young and bold and full of mirth. Death couldn’t catch a man like JFK. Assassinations were a relic of the distant past, anyway. We were living in the Space Age.

But that weekend, as my family and I huddled around our 13″ black-and-white Admiral TV and watched the flag-draped coffin being carried up the Capitol steps so slowly and somberly, it was clear that the impossible had become real: our youthful president lay inside that box. He belonged to history now, like Lincoln and McKinley and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Jacqueline Kennedy, a beautiful stoic in her grief, was a widow, and two young children had been robbed of their doting father. I can still hear the sound of the drumbeats, muffled but unrelenting, as the funeral procession headed toward that grassy hilltop in Arlington National Cemetery.

I have to confess that I didn’t like JFK at first. During his 1960 campaign against Vice President Richard Nixon, he struck me as cocky, shallow, flashy and flippant (although I didn’t use the word “flippant” back then). Finally his Inaugural Address won me over: as the East Coast lay deep in snow, Kennedy’s words scattered magic through the chilly air. Suddenly he seemed eloquent, presidential, even heroic. He had grown almost overnight.JFK_S_INAUGURATION_17501631

We had no shortage of heroes in those days: Eisenhower was still alive, along with Churchill, de Gaulle, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle. But Kennedy was different; to this day, I can’t remember anyone in public life who seemed so bright, graceful and disarmingly witty, so comfortable in his skin. His press conferences were first-rate entertainment. You could see that the man relished being president, and he glowed as if lit from within by dozens of incandescent bulbs. He was blessed with impish charm as well as statesmanlike gravitas. He was something to behold.

After Kennedy’s death, his widow cultivated the Camelot myth to enshrine his brief, shining presidency in our collective consciousness. It worked for a while, and we venerated his memory. But little by little, as the press lowered its protective shield, we discovered that our martyred president had been a flawed hero — more Gatsby than King Arthur.

Most of us know by now that JFK dallied recklessly with nubile nymphs ranging from receptionists and mafia molls to Marilyn Monroe. He had an almost pathological need to engage in high-risk behavior. He took steroids and amphetamines and lied to cover up his serious health issues. (Kennedy suffered from potentially fatal Addison’s disease, among a dozen other infirmities. Even if he had escaped the bullets that day in Dallas, he probably wouldn’t have survived middle age.) It turned out that his bestselling, Pulitzer-winning Profiles in Courage was ghostwritten for him. Nixon, who had cherished Kennedy’s friendship during their days in the House and Senate, reported being shocked by JFK’s rudeness toward waiters and servants. (And JFK had some choice words for Nixon.) Kennedy seemed to enjoy humiliating friends and associates, even cajoling a favorite White House intern to “service” his old buddy Dave Powers while he watched.

As journalist Richard Reeves put it, “He lived life as a race against boredom.” Maybe Kennedy sensed that his life wouldn’t be a long one. Or maybe it was the drugs.

Like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, JFK was a mesmerizing mixture of warm idealism and sheer illusion. Both men radiated a “romantic readiness” and a “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” They were boyish and playful and attracted glittering crowds to their orbits. Both were, in a sense, self-made men on a heroic scale: poor-boy Gatsby amassed fabulous wealth and staged spectacular parties on moonlit summer nights; rich-boy JFK miraculously fashioned an image of vibrant health and vitality from a sickly, pain-wracked body. Both were lofty idealists with messy and disreputable connections. Both transgressed moral boundaries, and both were shot dead by bitter young men.

Illusions are powerful: they can outlast mere earthly deeds and foibles. Those of us who remember JFK — who were alive and devastated on that awful day fifty years ago — tend to remember his presidency in Fitzgeraldian terms: as “an unbroken series of successful gestures,” more notable for style than substance. And yet, given his tragically abbreviated term in office, Kennedy left us with some substantial accomplishments: he was tough on communism and made the Soviets blink… laid the groundwork for much-needed domestic reforms… set us on course to reach the moon before the decade was out.

JFK was a moderate in liberal garb, a pragmatic idealist. If he had lived, his judicious instincts might have helped us avoid the disastrous excesses of LBJ’s “Great Society” programs and scale back our even more disastrous involvement in Vietnam. Without a wasteful war in Vietnam, America might never have been torn apart by radicalism and rebellion in the late ’60s — a rift that has endured to this day, much to our national detriment.

“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” the ill-starred Fitzgerald penned in one of his notebooks. John F. Kennedy was just possibly the twentieth century’s greatest tragic hero. Transcending his pain and illness and his own moral flaws, he inspired a nation — and the world — with his swashbuckling style and heady optimism. Even with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads, the Kennedy years were among the happiest in modern American memory.

Then, still at the top of his game, riding through the sunny streets of Dallas, Kennedy had his head blown open. For those of us who were young and sheltered, that ghastly moment shattered forever our illusion of a benevolent universe, a place where everything worked out for the best. A vibrant life suddenly stopped, and even the Soviets mourned his loss. We’ll never know how our world would have been different if Kennedy had lived, and that might be the greatest tragedy of all.

JFK_with_Caroline_on_the_Honey_Fitz,_1963

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. November 22, 2013 2:30 pm

    Well said, Rick. You do leave out an important aspect of his life that shaped his character, and greatly distinguished him from our current young, handsome and eloquent president. He served in combat in the Navy during WWII. The PT109 saga, during which that scion of a wealthy family faced death and led his men to safety, was light years beyond anything our current POTUS ever experienced. Kennedy was asked to lead after demonstrating the ability to do it under fire. He became Commander in Chief of a military he understood. The contrasts between the two men are far greater than their superficial similarities. Kennedy was a remarkable man in the ways that mattered.

    • November 22, 2013 5:58 pm

      Right… I never got around to mentioning JFK’s war-hero status. I think his general recklessness helped get PT-109 into that predicament in the first place, but his actions afterward were amazing. I don’t know how a guy with severe back problems personally carried injured men across the water to shore, and he definitely showed he could be a leader.

  2. Ron P permalink
    November 22, 2013 2:31 pm

    Rick, again a wonderful piece on a leader that many beleive to be one of the greatest presidents to date. The only thing that you left out is how Kennedy would be viewed today had he been a current day politician with the same views as he had then. Read his speeches and one will find that he believed in lower taxes to promote jobs and economic growth. His trip to texas was to gather support from southern democrats at a time when southern democrats were against most any equal rights legislation. Were it not for his assassination, more years may have been required to pass that legislation as he did not have the support that Johnson had all due to the “memory” of JFK.

    And he was president when negotiating a compromise to achieve a partial positive outcome was not seen as a sign of weakness, unlike today where nothing can be compromised.

    • November 22, 2013 6:10 pm

      Ron: You have to remember that the maximum tax rates in those days were astronomical — something like 90% at the top levels. I don’t think JFK would have had a problem raising today’s low tax rates a bit to help shrink the deficit.

      I think LBJ, a New Deal Democrat, wanted to leave a “legacy” that would serve as a monument to his humanitarian instincts. And of course, he was a skilled arm-twister who could get anything accomplished in Congress — especially with those stubborn Southern Democrats. JFK was a moderate on social issues; he probably wouldn’t have gone as far as LBJ in moving toward a welfare state.

      And you’re absolutely right about the decline of compromise in our time. That’s an outgrowth of the extreme polarization that has taken place since the Clinton era. The old days were almost like President Monroe’s “Era of Good Feelings” — bipartisan cooperation on most issues that mattered (except for some of those stubborn Southern Democrats).

      • Ron P permalink
        November 23, 2013 12:14 am

        Rick you are right about the 90% tax rate, but then there was not much that could not be written off to lower your taxes to a more reasonable rate. But his point was to lower the amount of taxes incoming to the government, thus the increase in economic growth he had projected.

        And this opens a new topic for discussion. 90% with almost every tax break possible or a flat tax that everyone pays without any deductions with a target rate of 17%-20% total of GNP paid as taxes.

        And another topic that JFK made. Balancing the budget.

  3. November 23, 2013 8:46 am

    Just a wonderful piece, Rick! Amazing how Kennedy’s legend lives on, so many years after his extremely brief presidency! So much has changed (I was struck by your recollection of a 13″ TV – people today carry smartphones that are not that much smaller!) and the world seems an infinitely more dangerous place, at least for Americans of our generation, who in 1963 were living lives of incredible innocence and security, at least from a geopolitical standpoint.

    It’s funny, I can recall a particular moment, a few years earlier, during the election of 1960, that crystallizes, for me, many of the differences between the way we view politics. Sixth grade, Kennedy/Nixon. My teacher, Mrs. Cantlon, took a straw poll- really just a show of hands – to see who would win the presidency, if our class of 20 10-11 year olds were a sample of the voting public. I was very excited to raise my hand for the handsome young JFK, who was married to the most beautiful woman in the world ( I was already an adoring fan, as you can see), and who also was a Irish-American Roman Catholic, just like me. I had been wearing my Kennedy-Johnson campaign button to school every day for a few weeks.

    So, Mrs. C. says “All in favor of Richard M. Nixon, raise your hand.” I was curious to see which of my new friends (I had just moved into town before the start of school) were for each candidate. Every single student, save me, of course, raised his/her hand! Then, looking straight at me, “All in favor of John F. Kennedy (btw, she definitely used the middle initials,lol) raise her hand” I proudly voted for my hopeless, losing candidate. “The winner is Vice President Nixon!”

    We all applauded and went on with our lesson. The day after election day, the other students complimented me on picking the President, as if I had any idea who was going to win, and all talked excitedly about how he was going to be the youngest president. Actually, I think Teddy Roosevelt was younger, by a bit, but we didn’t really know that much.

    No trash talk, no wailing or gnashing of teeth over the fact that their guy had lost….I felt excited and happy, but certainly had no feeling of triumphal victory over the “bad guys.” It just wasn’t like that then. Of course, back in D.C. I’m sure the usual backstabbing political shenanigans were going on, but in suburban NJ, we were all happy to have a new American President.

    Those were the days, my friend…….

    • November 23, 2013 9:12 am

      And, yes, of course I know how pathetically sappy and naïve the above story is, and that there were bad things happening and politics is not bean ball. Also, that the South was still a bastion of segregation and it would be many decades before black 6th graders could raise their hands for a presidential candidate that was like them, or at least seemed to be.

      The day-to-day political atmosphere just seemed so much less poisonous….at least in my corner of the country.

      • November 23, 2013 5:59 pm

        Priscilla: Wow, I’m surprised that you were the only JFK supporter in your 6th grade class. From what I remember, ours was pretty evenly split (and I was for Nixon!).

        No doubt there was plenty of behind-the-scenes political chicanery back then, but we did grow up in more innocent and good-natured times — at least for middle-class white folks. I don’t think we’ve ever really recovered from the political/cultural upheaval of the late ’60s or the “greed is good” mentality that took root in the ’80s. There’s no more sense of community, other than the “boutique” communities of special interests — race, gender, sexuality, one-percenters, 99-percenters, whatever. And now, of course, the internet has created online “amen corners” that help intensify extreme opinions on the right and left. (Not here, of course.)

      • November 23, 2013 6:35 pm

        Multi-culturalism, the holy grail of the left.

  4. Roby L permalink
    November 23, 2013 11:58 am

    Rick, your writing is actually getting, if anything, better. This was just fantastic as a piece of writing, very very interesting. You really should either pick one topic and write a book or, failing that, at least bring all your political essays together in one place and write an overarching introduction. This stuff is too good for just a small number of people to read it.

    • November 23, 2013 6:37 pm

      Thanks, Roby. That means a lot to me. I’ve been writing more historical pieces lately, and I generally put more time and effort into those (sometimes too much). Believe me, I wish I could find some niche that would attract publishers… there are already far too many political pundits out there, and I’m really not enough of a political animal at heart to make a career of it.

      I loved writing personal essays for my old Cynic’s Sanctuary website, but when I tried to have my agent sell a collection of them, I’d get the same response from publishers: good writer, but he has no “platform” (i.e., he’s not already well-known). And collections of essays rarely sell unless they’re written by a celebrity-du-jour (Tina Fey, David Sedaris, Chelsea Handler). Publishers just can’t afford to take chances these days, and I can’t compete with the “name” authors they want. I’ll be self-publishing several essay collections — including “The Best of The New Moderate” — as e-books, so at least they’ll be out there.

      I suppose I could gather up the courage (and maybe the time) to write a full-length book on some special topic. I’m continually amazed by “hyperspecialized” history books that take off: “Devil in the White City,” for example. I guess people just love a good story compellingly told.

      • Roby L permalink
        November 23, 2013 7:47 pm

        How many cases are there where a book that became an immortal classic got panned by 20 publishing companies first? Its a long list. The material is there, you just need to package it with the right title, something to hook the niche of those who are frustrated with the parties and their extremes, that is getting to be no small group, some of them even buy books that are not targeted at liberals and conservatives.

        Make a spectacle of yourself somehow in the name of some moderate cause and that is your platform. You could be the famous guy who hired a tow plane to tow a huge banner that says Politicians Suck: Fire Them All in huge letters above the party conventions, or something like that. Of course that kind of thing may put a cramp on one’s family life, maybe its bad advice? There has to be something one can do to get good and somewhat unique writing published.

        Its good news that you are packaging your essays for self publishing… but your material is more deserving of a space at Barnes and Noble than most of what is there.

  5. November 23, 2013 12:02 pm

    Funny, I was a huge Kennedy supporter and remember carrying his signs on election day. I must have been all of 11? Even after all these years and changes in political perspective, I remember him very fondly. As for his “transgressions” (sexual history) I think we all have a few of those in our closet and by all measure, he was not up to Bill Clinton standards.

    Ghost writing? Barack Obama comes to mind.

    RIP, JFK, I am OK about mythology in this case.

  6. November 23, 2013 7:00 pm

    Well, JFK was, by all accounts, a compulsive womanizer who would make Clinton look like Jimmy Carter. It might have had something to do with the drugs he was taking for his various infirmities, but the overactive libido also seems to run in his family. The press was amazing in its willingness to keep it all secret back then. If JFK had been president after Watergate, his infidelities probably would have been a major scandal.

    But yes, we all thought of him fondly regardless of our political persuasion. Although he considered himself a liberal, he was really more of a moderate once he took office. He didn’t represent just one portion of the electorate. What made him so exceptional, besides his charisma, was that he united us around a call to national greatness. We felt excited to be Americans back then, especially with the manned space program in full swing.

    • November 23, 2013 7:03 pm

      In a way similar to Reagan, one got the impression that JFK really enjoyed being around people, that he had many warm friendships. Again like Reagan, JFK certainly thought of the US as a world leader, exceptional, as it were.

      Perhaps these characteristics that made him somewhat iconic?

  7. November 23, 2013 10:04 pm

    Bill Maher, whose perpetual air of smugness usually irritates me, did a hilarious bit comparing JFK to Reagan (“the Republican JFK”). Of course, Kennedy came off as the cool one (“JFK was James Bond; Reagan was Matlock”). But yes, both men had charm and an easy manner with people.

    • November 23, 2013 11:41 pm

      I sometimes listen to books on CD when I’m driving to work. A friend loaned me “Killing Kennedy” by Bill O’Reilly (I know, I know, but it’s worth a read- or a listen. Lots of interesting trivia and detail about the politics of the Kennedy era) and he mentions the frustration that the Secret Service had over Kennedy’s insistence on wading into crowds to shake hands and have actual contact with real people, as well as with Kennedy’s decision to ride in an open car in the motorcade on the day that he was killed.

      JFK seemed to be genuinely outgoing and desirous of engaging with voters. That is actually pretty rare among politicians, many of whom engage with the hoi polloi on a needs-only basis. I often think that Kennedy style extroversion ( with a Jersey guy twist, of course) is the main political strength of Chris Christie – whether or not you agree with his politics, he seems to have a natural outgoing nature and desire to connect.

      • November 24, 2013 11:15 am

        Well said. Many people can tell fairly quickly whether you are faking it. If you are, they hit the road. JFK seemed to really enjoy the people part of the job.

  8. Allan Freeman permalink
    May 21, 2014 7:37 pm

    The price of fame: unending commentaries.

  9. August 29, 2014 9:37 am

    Thanks designed for sharing such a fastidious thought, paragraph is nice, thats why i have read it completely

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