Now that we’ve hit the 50th anniversary, will those who lived it so vividly stop reliving the details of the JFK assassination each time it rolls around?
Several years ago, younger generations started telling Boomers to get over it and stop trotting out their nostalgia every November 22nd. The Boomers did, including some media not ready to detach from that mooring, for a number of years. But this one was a landmark, time to reckon with life and death and a defining moment in history many historians and scholars and media lived through. So it was an altogether called-for recollection. Even if for the last time for a long while.
Peggy Noonan suggested as much in her commentary, Final thoughts on JFK. She said as much in her very first sentence, saying she “wanted to join in on some last JFK thoughts.” And she added of the documentaries and memorials and special edition coverage, “we’ll never do it like this again.”
So if this is to be the last memorial, of what it was like and what it was all about, and what is the lasting legacy of it all, let’s look at a few accounts, staring with Noonan’s.
People debate whether JFK was a liberal or a conservative. He was a politician operating within a party that was starting to go left. He wasn’t that interested in ideology. He was propelled by a belief that of all the available leaders around, he’d be as good as any and better than most. He wanted to win, triumph and rise, and these are not bad things, and he thought that he, along with the best and the brightest he brought into the White House, could handle, with practicality and pragmatism, what came over the transom.
He was curiously passive about his legislative agenda. You always get a sense when you read the histories that he thought he’d always have trouble with those old Neanderthals in the Senate. It took Lyndon Johnson, the least appreciated president of modern times, who had the bad luck to follow Jack Kennedy’s act, to bully JFK’s agenda through. He knew those senators, knew what they needed, as opposed to desired and liked to pose about. He made deals, bent them to his will. Thus came the civil rights laws and Medicare. It is amazing that he gets so little public credit for these things. But he didn’t have dash and he wasn’t a glamorous or romantic figure.
This is interesting analysis for those who weren’t there, who learned only revisionist history, or whose memory is so clouded after all these years that they forgot.
Two small points. It is interesting that JFK was celebrated as the first modern president, the first truly hip president, and yet the parts of him we celebrate most are actually the old virtues. He lied to get into the military, not to get out of it. He was sick, claimed to be well, and served as a naval officer in the war. In the postwar years he was in fairly constant physical pain, but he got up every day and did his demanding jobs. He played hurt. He was from a big, seemingly close family and seemed very much the family man himself. What we liked most about him wasn’t hip.
And he was contained. He operated within his own physical space and was not florid or mawkish or creepily domineering in his physical aspect.
For generations after him politicians imitated him…
If they had to imitate anything I wish it was how distanced, ironic and modest JFK was in the physical sphere. He didn’t hug the other pols on the platform, he didn’t give a big man-hug to the others on the dais, he didn’t kiss everyone and point at the audience and give them a thumbs-up. He didn’t act, he just was. Like a grownup. Like a person with dignity. Like a person with public boundaries who is an actor but not a phony.
Another Catholic commentator who recalls the Kennedy presidency, assassination and legacy with valuable insight is George Weigel. After recounting the details of that school day in 1963 when students were told the stunning news, just as Noonan did in her commentary, Weigel considers the whole thing from the perspective of time and distance.
I remain grateful to John F. Kennedy for inspiring the conviction that public life ought to accommodate both idealism (without illusions, as JFK described his own approach) and elegance. Fifty years after his death, however, I fear that much of the Kennedy mythos is an obstacle to the flowering of Catholic witness in America—and indeed to a proper understanding of modern American history.
The myth of Camelot, for example, misses the truth about the assassination: that John F. Kennedy was a casualty of the Cold War, murdered by a dedicated communist. “Camelot” also demeaned the liberal anti-communist internationalism that Kennedy embodied; that deprecation eventually led Kennedy’s party into the wilderness of neo-isolationist irresponsibility from which it has yet to emerge.
Then there is the mythology surrounding Kennedy’s 1960 speech on church-and-state, delivered to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. No one should doubt that hoary Protestant bigotry was an obstacle the Kennedy campaign had to overcome in 1960. Still, a close reading of the Houston speech suggests that Kennedy neutralized that bigotry, not only by deft rhetorical moves that put bigots on the defensive, but by dramatically privatizing religious conviction and marginalizing its role in orienting a public official’s moral compass. Thus Kennedy became, in effect, a precursor of what Richard John Neuhaus later called the “naked public square”: an American public space in which not merely clerical authoritarianism, but religiously-informed moral conviction, is deemed out-of-bounds.
Finally, there is the phenomenon that might be called the Kennedy Catholic: a public official who wears his or her Catholicism as a kind of ethnic marker, an inherited trait, but whose thinking about public policy is rarely if ever shaped by Catholic social doctrine or settled Catholic moral conviction. The many Kennedy Catholics in our public life are one of the last expressions of urban (or suburban), ethnic, Counter-Reformation Catholicism in America; and as such, they evoke a certain nostalgia. Unfortunately,
(and this is important)
the shallowness of their Catholic formation and the invisibility of Catholic moral understandings in a lot of their judgments make Kennedy Catholics de facto opponents of the Church’s mission in the postmodern world, not protagonists of the culture-reforming Catholicism of the New Evangelization.
At daily Mass in downtown Washington, I often receive Communion while standing on the marble slab in St. Matthew’s Cathedral that marks the place where the president’s casket rested, at the funeral Mass on Nov. 25, 1963. In praying for him there, I also mourn what might have been—and what has been distorted in the half-century since.
Remarkably, whenever I’m in Washington and get to St. Matthew’s Cathedral, I’m struck with the same sentiments. I think of the funeral on that space, one that shook me so profoundly as a little girl, formed by her Irish Catholic heritage and so taken by this president who not only overcame the prejudice against ‘our kind’ to gain that office, but served in it to challenge all Americans to do what they could do for their country, and for each other. I pray for him, for his family who knew such tragedy, for our nation’s leaders, and for our nation.
And so to put a wrap on this remembrance, an important one but now one that will last in the memory and hearts and fibers of those who still recall and to some extent those who immediately inherited that recall and heritage of Irish Catholic public service, KennedyBostonIrishCatholic blogger Joanne McPortland. Who, of course, starts with where she was and what she was doing when the news came just after Kennedy was shot.
This anniversary is shot through with a kind of Catholicism that existed then and hasn’t since, for so many. That instantaneous reaction to bad news, the going for the rosary. The announcement over the intercom of the President’s passing, after which we were marched in bewildered ranks, beanies or Kleenexes popped into hasty place on the girls’ heads, to mourn before the Blessed Sacrament and then released to go home early. The sight of my father in rare tears, clutching the battered pocket prayerbook my mother had given him for Christmas the first year of their marriage. Our Texas Baptist neighbors embracing my mother, condoling her Catholic loss, apologizing that it was Dallas. Watching Walter Cronkite, that secular priest, and talking about where we had been when we heard…
Nobody’s innocence was lost 50 years ago today, no Golden Age dissolved. And it is just the most cynical of ironies that once a year, on this day, the whole hippie libby lump of us suddenly become the most public and unrepentant of reactionaries.
But I miss that morning, when we were a we, before we started believing, like Bedivere, that it was our lot to go forth companionless, with the days darkening round us, and the years. Much of my own reversion to Catholicism (which looks a lot to some like a regression) is driven by this longing, to be back in that place when to be Boston Irish Catholic was a happy thing, and proud, and going for my rosary and taking my troubles to the tabernacle was as natural as breathing.
Nothing need be lost. Whatever we valued in the past and value now is as close as our own thoughts and intentions and actions. We carry out what we intend, and our intentions are formed by our beliefs and convictions. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you‘, but what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.