Clinging to a memory that still 'tingles'
Except for three presidential icons — Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — no president has been analyzed, interpreted and reinterpreted more than John Kennedy. Obviously, that dreadful day 50 years ago still smolders in the hearts of most baby boom Americans who can tell anyone who will listen what they were doing when they heard the news of his death.
Little new information has been added to the mountains of published material and videos about JFK's life, his presidency and his death. Nevertheless, I would like to add a small pebble to that imposing mountain.
Unlike Lincoln, Kennedy won no great war. Unlike Washington, he was not the key founder of the nation, and unlike Jefferson he was not this democracy's intellectual giant. Yet, we want to know every tidbit we can about our 35th president, for no other reason than we simply want to know. Why?
A quick overview of his life shows Jack Kennedy as a privileged son of a powerful family, a true war hero, a somewhat average U.S. representative and senator, and the possessor of that magic political trait, "charisma."
JFK's 1960 presidential victory gave America its first and only Catholic president. He represented ethnic urban America's coming of age. Despite his wealth and lifestyle, ordinary folks — especially the Irish — hung his picture in their homes with pride. Like the many African-Americans who today support President Barack Obama no matter the issue, there are millions of JFK die-hards who, despite all the reports of his moral flaws, cling to his memory as a special time.
View again his 1961 inaugural address on a freezing January day in Washington, D.C. Notice the dignitaries behind him heavily clothed and huddled together fighting off the cold. Then comes Kennedy. No coat, not a hair out of place, steam coming from his mouth as he delivers a speech with countless memorable lines. Perhaps one can overdramatize the event, but I challenge every reader to repeat two lines from any other presidential inaugural speech since 1960.
Or think back to his June 1963 speech on the steps of the Rathaus (city hall) in then-West Berlin, Germany, in front of nearly half a million people. Much has been written about his use of the phrase "Ich bin ein Berliner," but seldom do people look at what Kennedy said just prior to this closing line. "All free men," he said, "wherever they may live are citizens of Berlin, and therefore as a free man I take pride in the words, Ich bin ein Berliner." Look at the video of that speech — amazing!
Then there was the family: a beautiful wife, two adorable children, a large and robust group of siblings all filled with life and energy. And suddenly it was all over. Gone.
Scholars, reporters and others have dissected Kennedy's 1,000 days in the White House. Whether they praise him for his handling of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis or criticize him for the botched 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, whether they argue he was not liberal enough on social issues or too conservative on tax issues or too much a cold war warrior, for many Americans of a certain age it simply does not matter. He was JFK!
Some folks may criticize my assessment of Kennedy by arguing that the huge interest in him is a generational thing. It is fueled by baby boomers thinking back to their youth when all things were possible, and through him they remember their hopes and dreams. There is probably some truth to such an analysis, and readers of my recent Daily Herald column on Kennedy's late 1960 Chicago campaign appearance may remember my use of the word "tingle."
But logic and insight really are not part of this overview. Why? In short, John F. Kennedy captured the moment with his wit, personality, style and substance, and no research, pro or con, about his life will alter the memory of this man who still gives millions of Americans the "tingle" when they think about him and his presidency.
• Paul Green is director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago and Schaumburg.
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