Fifty Novembers after that gruesome event in Dallas, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy continues to maintain an extraordinary hold on the American imagination and an extraordinary place in the American heart. This continues despite endless revelations of his serial womanizing, cover-ups of his physical problems, and dependence on pharmaceuticals, among other very human vices. This continues to be true despite his early Cold War bombast, his ordering of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and early tardiness, if not near hostility, toward the Civil Rights Movement and more. This hold continues, largely, because in his all too brief if tumultuous presidency, this same man, in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis where in the words of Jim Douglass JFK risked “committing the greatest crime in history,starting a nuclear war, ” to call for a banishment of nuclear weapons.
And this at the height of the Cold War.
In short order Kennedy then went on national television to declare to the American people that civil rights were a “a moral issue, as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American constitution,” and to put forth, at the risk of his re-election, the blue print for the Civil Right’s bill that LBJ would push through by congress in the wake of Kennedy’s death.
He was, that is, a soul who, like the best of us — or us at our best – was a work in progress. The late, great Phil Berrigan once said to me, “What made the Kennedy’s different than most politicians was that they could learn.”
And learn they did.
It is nothing short of remarkable to think that the same man who bombastically declared in his inaugural speech that America “shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty, “ would deliver the following words at American University just three years later.
“I have, therefore, chosen this time and place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth too rarely perceived – and that is the most important topic on earth: peace.
What kind of a peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace – the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living – the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children – not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women – not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.”
We can deduce and infer and divine what JFK would have accomplished had he lived and served as our president for another five years but it is impossible to know.
What I do know is this: as with his brother Robert and as with Martin Luther King, I cannot hear an audio, see a film clip or even a glimpse a photo of this man and not feel in the deepest part of my being an enormous sense of sadness and of loss, of stolen potential, shattered possibilities
that never seem to diminish with time. And that is impossible to ignore. Like longing, like love, like life itself, such feelings are not rational but they are very, very real. And I know,too,I am not the only one who feels this. Such feelings are partly formed by Kennedy’s repeated call for Americans to move beyond mere self interest ( “Selfhood,” wrote William Blake, “is Satan.” ) and strive for the public good, his lived ethic that public service was, in itself, a noble and necessary pursuit.
And it makes me wonder what else we buried in that still unquiet grave in Arlington Cemetery that chilly day in November of 1963 and, more vitally, how do we resurrect it ?