I’m off this week but wanted to join in on some last JFK thoughts. I write just a few minutes before the 50th anniversary of that moment the shots rang out.
The television coverage has been excessive, and some have found it grating. Fair enough, but we’ll never do it like this again. There won’t be any such attention paid to the 60th and 70th; those who were there will be gone, as will be many of those who were not there but remember.
People keep doing “Where I was when I heard.” It is obnoxious, but it’s an understandably human impulse to want to locate yourself in time and space and tell someone where you were when you heard big news. Our parents did it with Dec. 7, 1941. “I was at a football game and the announcer came on and asked all military personnel to return to their bases . . .”
I was in seventh grade at John P. McKenna junior high school in Massapequa Park, Long Island. We were in the halls on our way to seventh period. My friend Karen Strazzeri walked up to me wide-eyed. “Did you hear? The president was shot.” That was too strange to be true. I told her it was probably a rumor but if it was true we’d find out soon. A few minutes later, in what I remember as social studies class, the teacher said the president had been shot. Then the principal came on the public address system and said the president was dead. We were all very quiet. Thn one boy, out of nervousness or idiocy, laughed. The teacher yelled at him, harshly: How could you so insensitive? That poor boy is probably still in therapy.
I remember that night or the next sitting on the lawn and looking up and thinking, “Isn’t it funny JFK is dead and the moon is still there and everything looks the same?”
I watched it all on TV, like everyone else. Later I worked in the CBS Newsroom on West 57th Street in Manhattan, and wound up working with the men and women who’d covered the assassination 15 years before. One of them, Marion Glick, told me what it was like. They all worked double shifts. The writers and producers and technicians, the secretaries and on-air talent, all of them felt they were performing a public service. They had a heightened sense of responsibility, like soldiers. Others felt this too. The second day, local restaurants and diners started sending over full dinners and lunches for the CBS staff, all on the house.
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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.
You can’t ignore the sheer glamour in the Kennedy story. Yes it was the first fully televised White House, and yes his friends in the press splashed pictures of the family all over their magazines, but people wanted to look at them—there was a market for them—because they were beautiful and young and sun-splashed. They were like movie stars. The Nixons were not, Hubert Humphrey was not. They were at a disadvantage.
Anyway it’s foolish not to remember that glamour was part of the story.
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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—his mannerisms, his look, his hair. Before JFK hair was not a political virtue. After him it was. I remember a candidate for the U.S. Senate in New York who was the first candidate to blow-dry his hair. He had a big swoop of it. That guy ran on his hair. It was his platform. I remember a local New York City political figure who wore a kind of JFK wig, a big strange shock of hair that looked twice as big as his head. And he went pretty far.
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.