Saturday, July 21, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Remembering John F. Kennedy and what might have been

Time has a funny way of slipping by unnoticed.

So I had to stop the other day in mild amazement when I realized this month marks the 100th birthday of John F. Kennedy. With the passage of time, history has not always been kind to Kennedy's unfinished legacy, cut all too short in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, at the age of 46. We now know about his problems with marital fidelity. We know his secret litany of debilitating health issues, and a reliance on a range of drugs to treat and control his numerous ailments suggests he might not have lived through a second term.

And we know all the swooning over "Camelot" was a masterstroke of political myth-making. I know. I know. I believed in it, too. And to a certain extent, I still do.

I was 11 years old when Kennedy was elected president. As a young boy, I was captivated by the political conventions and the debates between Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. Consider this the germination of a future political junkie. As a son who idolized his father's combat experiences in World War II, JFK's PT-109 heroics to save his crew were the stuff of legend.

He was handsome, funny, elegant. Beautiful wife. Beautiful children. He was the president from central casting. My Republican parents hated him. I silently rooted for him. I still had to live under the same roof.

It is a cautionary tale not to fall too much in love with our presidents, regardless of political party. They will always find a way to disappoint us. They are all too human. We often are all too wanting.

Kennedy represented the ideal of the presidency, an urbane public figure who projected American strength abroad and populist compassion for the body politic at home. And he imbued the office — at least outwardly — as a place of trust.

There's a story. In 1962 as the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding, JFK sent an emissary to Paris to brief French President Charles de Gaulle. As the diplomat began to detail the buildup of Soviet offensive weapons 90 miles from the United States, he offered to show intelligence documents and photos of the missiles to de Gaulle. The French president waved him off, noting the word of the American president was more than enough.

Imagine that happening today.

We have no way of knowing for sure if Kennedy had lived and served a second term what might have been. Would he have increased the American military presence in Vietnam? What would have been the fate of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act? Take your best guess.

That is the nagging thing about the Kennedy era. We don't know. All we have is a 1,000 days of woulda, coulda, shoulda. He is a cypher of potential, an unfinished novel leaving it to his admirers and detractors to write their own self-serving, imagined ending.

Ultimately, all we are left with is imagery. And perhaps one more thing.

From time to time a beloved reader annoyed with something I have written, perhaps lampooning President Donald Trump, will dash off an angry email accusing me of being a (wait for it) "liberal" as if they were hurling a profane epithet.

I suppose they believe my feelings will be hurt. But they're not. I will readily plead guilty to being a JFK liberal.

In 1960, at the height of the presidential campaign, the Cold Warrior Kennedy delivered a speech in which he openly embraced his liberal bona fides. Not only was the Democratic presidential candidate about to utter something that could be construed as campaign suicide in today's polarized political climate, he was also rather prescient.

He said this: "But, if by being a 'liberal' they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties — someone who believes that we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by 'liberal,' then I'm proud to say I'm a 'liberal.' "

Me, too.

I am not Pollyannish. I am abundantly aware of JFK's dark side, his failings, his misjudgments. All true.

But when John Kennedy implored the nation: "Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country," an 11-year-old boy believed him.

And I still do.

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