In his book, Society without God, sociologist Phil Zukerman quotes a Dane named Jarl who told him, “when we’re dead, we’re dead…I think that’s it.” I couldn't agree more. The idea of an afterlife, a soul that returns to God or a state that reunites us with the predeceased may be comforting but is no more than that. Death as a definite end point means that we better make the most of life because it's our only shot. It also means that whatever "afterlife" we might have is subject to what we've done in life that may impact on others or in the memories of those who have known us. The good news, if there is any, is that our works may endure and ouf life's story may be remembered. The bad news is that after death we will have no real control, especially of that narrative. History, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, is what we chose to remember — we all selectively tell the stories of the dead. Memories may say as much, sometimes more, about us as the remembered.
In a matter of days we will commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's violent death. As with any historical figure, there will be a lot of remembering and it will most surely be selective. JFK's memory is in our hands, not his. As Jill Abrams wrote recently, "An estimated 40,000 books about him have been published since his death...yet to explore [them] is to be struck not by what’s there but by what’s missing." The same can surely be said of Lincoln, our other larger-than-life assassinated and widely written about president, but also of many others. The fact is that there is a limit to what we know about any public figure, not to mention about those we consider our intimates. Kennedy's story lends itself to myth, a myth in which many of us are old enough to have considered ourselves participants. We may not have been around when Lincoln sat in the White House but Jack Kennedy was our president, a player in our lives.
Not everyone is a fan of JFK. Like Obama, the first African American president, he the first (and only) Roman Catholic president was the subject of abject and irrational hatred, merely because he was seen as from the other. Some on the left will never forgive him for the Bay of Pigs or for his role in the early days of Viet Nam. His trip to Dallas on November 22nd was considered a venture into very hostile rightist territory. Other people, myself included, admired him greatly. Regardless of how we felt then or may feel today in retrospect, no one can deny that his assassination was one of those events that we all remember, specifically where we were, or were doing, upon hearing the news. Kennedy — preparing a Friday night sermon that would never be delivered. Marilyn Monroe — driving in my convertible on the way to visiting one of my sisters. 9/11 — running in Central Park.
I first encountered John F. Kennedy while a student "working" the dedication of the Robert Berks sculpture of Justice Brandeis at the university that bore his name. Berks would one day create an iconic bronze sculpture of JFK's head. Chief Justice Earl Warren was the
principal speaker at the convocation, but the young Senator
from Massachusetts was the center of everyone's attention. He was more striking in person than in photos
and equally more charismatic. What stood
out about Kennedy, and what drew so may of us to him was something very elemental. He was youthful when all we knew were
presidents who were (or looked) really old: FDR, Truman and Eisenhower. He would
speak of being part of "a new generation", our generation. He was also the man for whom I cast my first
presidential ballot. As the son of
Hitler refugee naturalized citizens — I was the first American born family
member — voting was of great importance, and voting for a president
|Berks head of JFK|
That brings me back to memory, the history that we control and is often as much a reflection of ourselves as of the remembered. Kennedy's youth with which I, and many others, identified gave him a leg up in the memory department. Being my first presidential vote just magnified that. The idea that we could latch on to a president simply because of his age (Clinton and Obama were young) may seem somewhat superficial, but we had just been through eight years of Eisenhower. Not only did he seem old, he had also suffered a heart attack while in office. Ike may have been a hero of WWII, but beyond being a terrible orator, he and Mamie were kind of boring. In sharp contrast, the Kennedys brought instant excitement, majesty if you will, to the White House. They had young children, a family just like our own (sort of). These were things we all craved and to which most of us responded. Jack and Jackie became the vigorous image of America and consequently of us. We liked what we saw in our national mirror.
Did the assassination color the memory of Kennedy? Of course it did. Would Lincoln loom quite as large as he does absent his assassination? Probably not, but his presidency was far more momentous and consequential that Kennedy's so probably not to the same degree. It's worth noting that we lost two other presidents by the bullet — Garfield and McKinley — but neither has been elevated to comparable mythical heights. Lincoln's death was especially poignant because he was not permitted to enjoy the fruits of what he accomplished; Kennedy's because he was unable to accomplish the fruits that he promised to deliver. Their deaths were unnatural and seemed grossly unfair.
There is another reason that we often link Lincoln and Kennedy. While the first will be forever known for freeing us from slavery (or getting us on the way to doing so), both were actually slow starters and in the same area. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation only when being forced by events to do so and JFK had to be dragged into being a champion of civil rights. Neither of these men were innately rebellious, both preferred measured change and consensus. That obviously doesn't prevent us from remembering them, as we would have wanted them to be. It's the history we chose to remember.
A common violent end links our 16th and 35th presidents, but the second also shares powerful similarities with our 44th. They are both firsts — Catholic and African American — and both are relatively young bringing to the White House model first families. But more important, both Kennedy and Obama were, upon election, the embodiment of great hope. We saw them as vessels of what we wanted to be, sharp contrasts with, first Ike, and then, W. They had to perform against a stratospheric goalpost because, in our imagination, they had already done so. It's no wonder that many of their most loyal supporters and, to a degree, the public at large were sometimes disappointed. Oddly enough, some of that letdown comes not from their deficiency but from the nature of the office. Presidents, regardless of party or ideology, are not full masters of their own destiny. A country requires a large degree of continuity and the world beyond its borders demands no less. Laws are in place and treaties have been signed. We expect our presidents to fall pretty much in line — to uphold the full faith and credit. Society could not function were that not to be the case.
The presidency is said to be the world's most powerful office. Like our claim to exceptionalism, reality lags myth to a considerable degree. Kennedy and his presidency fell victim to the Cold War. This is not to say that he was not ideologically in tune with the anti-Communism of his day, but rather that how to pursue that war was virtually etched in stone long before the raised his hand to take the oath of office. We were already committed on Cuba and to fighting in Viet Nam. The proverbial train had left the station under Eisenhower and Foster Dulles and there was little he could do to stop it. So, too, was Obama stuck with Afghanistan and Iraq. And by the way, the spooks at NSA are just a continuation of an unbroken chain from when Allen Dulles ran the CIA in the 1950s. Why is it hard to remember JFK or any other president with any accuracy? Because whatever we may think or wish, none of them were totally their own men. Presidents, to some degree, are a composite of their office and of their times.
Much of what we chose to remember of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is more image than substance. Because he died so early and was in office for such a relatively short time, we are drawn to the aspiration, what we hope could have been. We attribute to him the hope that he wouldn't have escalated in Viet Nam or would have gotten the civil rights bill though and signed. In truth we don't know and in a sense are abusing our power over the narrative by fantasizing. We do him and us no service. Might he have been a great president? I think he had the makings, the potential, of achieving greatness but again we will never know. What is clear is that for some of us, perhaps even most of us, he had the capacity to inspire and, in doing so, to measurably impact on who we were and where we were headed. My keen interest in current affairs and certainly in politics is in large measure attributable to him. I don't know what might have been, but do know that losing Jack Kennedy on that November day hurt very much. I don't think it's a hurt that ever has left me and that certainly says something.