By Tim Hayes
My parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents gathered in the modest home that Friday evening – ostensibly to celebrate a cousins’ second birthday, but really just to be together after such a shattering day. November 22, 1963.
John F. Kennedy was murdered just after I had turned three. Obviously, I have no personal recollection of him, his presidency, his assassination, or the national grief it caused. JFK Jr. had turned three the very day he so famously saluted his father’s casket as it processed to the cemetery, and said later in life that he couldn’t really remember those shocking and devastating days either.
As I get older, the fascination with Jack Kennedy has only increased and deepened. When we travel to Boston to visit with one of our children who relocated there, typically something Kennedy-related gets included in the itinerary. I could spend days inside the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, a beautiful venue on Boston Harbor with so much history and perspective.
The last time we were up there, we toured JFK’s childhood home in Brookline. Climbing up and down the stairs where Jack and his siblings ran, seeing his actual bassinet, imagining him reading about King Arthur in his boyhood bed – just fantastic. The U.S. Park Service maintains the house, its rangers provide the tours, and they do a marvelous job, especially during this year’s 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth.
A bust of Jack Kennedy graces my work desk. Photos of Jack adorn my office walls. Stickers and magnets and even a bobblehead of Jack holding a copy of “Profiles in Courage” can be spotted in and around my workspace, too. I’ve read every biography and have collected videotapes covering the full spectrum of his life. I can’t get enough of Jack Kennedy.
And why? It might be that I’m an Irish Catholic, like he was. It might be that his time in history was so packed with monumental questions of fairness, liberty, excitement, even nuclear survival. It might be that between Jack and Jackie, the U.S. has rarely been so taken with beauty, glamour, and a youthful energy. Talk about a full plate. But, while all of those elements contribute to the powerful magnetic pull, I believe it comes down to something else. Something more.
Jack Kennedy knew how to respect, elevate, craft, refine, and convey language to a degree that no one has been able to match in more than a half-century.
JFK: “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”
Go onto YouTube and search “JFK speeches.” I dare you to listen to any one of them and not get bowled over by the careful phrasing, the powerful cadence, the undeniable elegance.
JFK: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.”
Nixon scolded, Carter apologized, Reagan kept it folksy, Bush (both of them) kept it awkward, Clinton empathized. Obama might have come the closest to Jack’s unique oratorical gifts, but could not surpass them. And the current occupant of the White House? Well…
JFK: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
As this Kennedy preoccupation of mine continues unabated, one question clouds everything else: Why did they kill him? Imagine the domino effect of a two-term JFK presidency. Perhaps Vietnam would not have sunk into the death spiral it became. Bobby survives and maybe succeeds Jack. No Nixon or Watergate. No Carter in reaction to Nixon, and Ford’s pardon of him. No Reagan in reaction to Carter. It’s a fool’s errand, I know, but a riveting mental exercise nonetheless.
JFK: “Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
Jack Kennedy was no saint. Nobody is. And I know that he had enormous help from his speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, another hero of mine. Don’t worry, my admiration of JFK remains grounded in a realistic, factual view. But, having said that, even with his idiosyncrasies, there’s no other leader I would most liked to have known than Jack Kennedy.
JFK: “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”
Wow, he was great.
Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes