'...The saddest are these: 'It might have been!"
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been."
--John Greenleaf Whittier
Fifty years, two hours and seven minutes ago, I was sitting at my desk in Mr. Williams' Eighth Grade class at Grace Lutheran School in Chicago. My teacher was also the principal, and the closet that served as his office was only steps away from the classroom.
The telephone rang. Mr. Williams left the room to answer it. A moment later, he returned.
"Huh," he said. "Somebody just called and said that President Kennedy had been shot and killed."
It wasn't that we thought that the notion of President Kennedy being assassinated was funny. It's just that, in our innocence (having no idea of what the 'Sixties yet had in store for us, and for the nation), we found the very idea ridiculous. Presidential assassinations might have happened back in the days of the Civil War, or the Jurassic era, when Garfield and McKinley were president. But ours was a more civilized age. Presidents just didn't get shot any more. We were beyond all that now. More civilized, and all that.
A few minutes later, the telephone rang again. A few minutes later, Mr. Williams returned to the classroom once more. "I guess it's true," he said. The second caller had been the mother of one of the students.
In many ways, that was the moment when we lost a large part of our innocence. That was the moment that the safe, prosperous, comfortable world of kids who had grown up in the 'Fifties changed forever, and we learned what a savage and insane world we truly lived in. It was a message that would be reinforced over and over again in coming years as our involvement in Vietnam grew like a cancer on America's soul, and first Martin Luther King and then Bobby Kennedy were murdered in their turns. And history is still rubbing that lesson in our faces today.
True, in many ways John Fitzgerald Kennedy embodied a special kind of hope, optimism, and- one of his favorite words (or at least one of those he was most lampooned for using)- vigor that filled the nation with the spirit of Shaw's words, which he and, later, his brother Bobby, often quoted: "Some men see things as they are, and ask, 'Why?' I dream things that never were, and ask, 'Why not?'"
Great line. No fan of the Kennedys myself, it always struck me as strange that nobody ever seems to realize that the character who speaks it in Act I of Shaw's play Back to Methuselah is Satan, while in the process of seducing Eve into sin. But it's still a great line, and fairly sums up what first Jack and then Bobby meant to the nation.
JFK inspired a nation, and a generation. Adlai Stevenson- one of the most celebrated orators of his time, and twice Kennedy's predecessor as Democratic presidential candidate, introduced the new nominee to the Los Angeles convention in 1960 with the words, "Do you remember that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, 'How well he spoke!' But when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, "Let us march!"
Jack Kennedy set America the ludicrous goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth- and of doing so in less than thirteen years after the orbiting of the first Earth satellite. And he inspired us to accomplish that goal. All honor to him for that. We could use a man with the eloquence and the courage to challenge us (and stimulate the economy) that way to day. Mars is waiting, the aerospace industry was one of the hardest hit by the Great Recession- in fact, was reeling even before it- and the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs both grew the economy enormously, and generated additional tax revenues which paid for the moon program many times over.
Kennedy was a liberal, as things were judged in those days. But he was a tough, hard-headed one who never would have fallen (their fantasies to the contrary) into the hand-wringing self-flagellation which has characterized his party ever since 1968. He was a nation-builder before nation-building wasn't cool. Just ask President Diem of South Vietnam at your next séance. But he was an economic conservative who would have laughed at Barack Obama's program for the economy. He was the first to raise revenues by cutting taxes, the very thing Democrats have been telling us is impossible almost ever since.
He handled arguably the most dangerous two weeks in the history of the world- the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the world came the closest it ever has to thermonuclear war- about as well as it could have been handled. Of course, it's likely that many of the presidents since would have handled it just as well- (Bush the Elder and- as tough a pill as this may be to swallow for Kennedy's admirers- Dick Nixon come to mind). But he, in fact as well as in theory, actually did so.
You can't say that about many of the things for which JFK is celebrated today. It's mostly about what might have been.
He was president for a very short time- and, during that short time, he did pretty well. He didn't have time to do better than that. But in the time he had, he embodied the very qualities America leaded at the time, and still needs today.
But you can only go so far on style, on elegance, on eloquence, and on the ability to inspire. Barack Obama, too, has his one achievement: a decision to go ahead with the plan to kill Osama bin Laden once the opportunity finally presented itself. It was a decision almost any president would have made, of course, just as others would probably have handled the Cuban Missile Crisis as well as JFK did. But Obama did make that decision, just as Kennedy did lead us through those terrible thirteen days in 1962.
As Obama's healthcare initiative collapses around his ears, though, it only serves as a reminder that Kennedy's handling of the Bay of Pigs disaster made Bush the Younger's actions in Iraq look like a triumph by comparison.
Jack Kennedy might have accomplished a great deal more. On one level, I can understand the fuss over the fiftieth anniversary of his tragic death as a means to recall what he might have accomplished.
But he didn't. And given that fact, it all seems a bit excessive.
He never had a chance, they say. And that's true. Of course, neither did, say, James Garfield- a brilliant man born into grinding poverty who was president of a college at age 26, commanded the Federal forces at the Battle of Middle Creek (which saved Kentucky for the Union), and never actively sought nomination for political office (he was drafted to run for the Ohio State Senate, the U.S. Congress, and the White House- and fought desperately to avoid the last, considering it his duty to accept when he was drafted by the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago). But it was his own fault; he, like Kennedy, was eloquent- and Garfield wrote his own speeches.
Or sometimes didn't write them. Natural eloquence was the greatest of his many gifts; his intellect was such, for example, that he could simultaneously write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other. He was, in short, a great deal smarter than JFK was.
But it was his eloquence that was his undoing. His extemporaneous nominating speech for an obscure fellow Ohioan so spellbound the delegates that when, in summation, he rhetorically asked, "What do we want?," the call went out, "We want Garfield!" And after the longest balloting in party history, during which time he lobbied frantically behind the scenes to avoid being nominated, he was chosen over the favorites to run against his fellow Civil War hero, Winfield Scott Hancock.
Garfield won. He wasn't president for JFK's "thousand days," but only for two hundred. During that time he re-asserted the prerogatives of the president with regard to Executive appointments, made several brilliant appointments to the courts and to the diplomatic service, did far more for the civil rights of African-Americans than Jack Kennedy ever did, and initiated the legislation which would eventually thoroughly reform civil service. But on July 2, 1881, Garfield- like Kennedy- was shot by a madman.
He might have lived, but medical incompetence sealed his fate. He died on September 19 of bad doctoring for a gunshot would he would have survived if he had simply not been treated for it. He was a brilliant, talented, and humble man who might have accomplished at least as much as Jack Kennedy did. But in 2031, nobody well celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Garfield's death with nearly so much obsequious fawning. And he had a lot of potential, too. But potential isn't accomplishment, and it surely isn't history.
Every newspaper has had features all week on the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. PBS and the commercial networks have run documentary after documentary. It is altogether fitting and proper, as another president once said, that they should do this.
But they're going overboard. Way, way overboard.
Somehow, a goodly percentage of Americans think that Jack Kennedy was one of our greatest presidents. But he wasn't. He wasn't even among the better ones. Maybe he would have been, given time. Maybe not. But it's hard to escape the conclusion that, as events actually happened, all the fuss and bother over this anniversary is much ado about very much less than the fawning media seem to realize.
They noted on "Inside Edition" the other day that Jeff Greenfield and Stephen King had both written books based on the premise that JFK has survived Dallas. A great deal of time was spent on the glowing- though highly debatable- vision Greenfield presented of what might have been.
Nobody even mentioned King's perhaps somewhat exaggerated, but on the whole probably more realistic, dystopic alternate America in which the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the measures of the Great Society were never passed, because there was a limit to what charisma could accomplish, and because charm and a telegenic smile proved a poor substitute for Lyndon Johnson's skill in working with a balky and largely reactionary Congress.
Hope is important. But hope can curdle. Langston Hughes asked what happens when a dream is deferred. And he answered his own question.
King, in 11/22/63, gives essentially the same answer to the question of what would likely have happened had a man better at inspiring dreams than at making them reality had not died and made way for one who knew how to create legislative reality as few presidents ever have. His narrative rings true to me. And Stephen King is a liberal Democrat, and an admirer of JFK.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy deserves to be remembered. But not idolized and lionized as he has been these past few weeks, and- when you get down to it- for the past fifty years. We do neither history nor his memory a service when we do to him what his brother, Teddy, said at Bobby's funeral ought not be done to the second Kennedy to die at the hands of an assassin: "My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life."
What goes for Bobby ought also to go for Jack. We should remember him this day. But not as if we were mourning anything other than what might have been. And surely not in the obsessive, maudlin and wholly excessive way the nation is commemorating him, and always has. It is enough, as his brother Teddy said of Bobby, that he saw suffering and tried to end it. That in itself is no small legacy.
But for at best a middle-of-the-pack president whose actual accomplishments were very few, it is unseemly for him to be accorded the same sort of morning we gave Abraham Lincoln or even, say, either of the Roosevelts, no matter what his potential may have been.
"What he was in life" simply doesn't measure up.
Another man died on the same day Kennedy did. C.S. Lewis, who inspired and comforted and strengthened at least as many souls as JFK did, is somehow forgotten. A pity.
Both men offered hope. But when all is said and done, Lewis offered more than merely hope. His admirers do not seek to make him anything but what he was. In the last analysis, there is nothing more or greater than the Hope he offered a world that needed to hear an intelligent word of hope in the face of despair- a hope that does not disappoint.
That will suffice- even if the newspapers don't do special editions about Lewis today, and the networks don't do documentaries.