‘Show Me a Hero and I Will Write You a Tragedy’: Remembering JFK After 50 Years
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.
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.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.