Kennedy was a lot about image — and a good image it was…

Making a big deal about the anniversary of the President John F. Kennedy assassination — it was 47 years ago on Nov. 22, 1963 — is by now after all these years maybe like making a big deal about the anniversary of the assassinations of President Abraham Lincoln or President James Garfield or William McKinley — it has become old history, so many alive today not even being born yet when Kennedy was shot.

I was a freshman in high school, and I don’t really see it as ancient history, but I am part of the baby boom generation and those who have followed, I am sure, just see it as something in the history books and really cannot relate.

Yes, how quickly we forget or how quickly a new generation with no history of your history comes along.

(Warning I’ve used this allusion before I think) I recall selling newspapers on the front steps of the post office in the little town where I lived when I was a fifth grader. A little old lady bought a paper from me and asked: “son do you know what is special about Dec. 7?”

I didn’t.

That was back in 1959. I was ten years old. Just 18 years previous, but several before I was on this earth, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, a surprise attack on American territory (Hawaii not yet being a state — it became one, interestingly enough, in 1959), plunging the U.S. into World War II, which resulted in a victory that in turn resulted in the U.S. becoming the foremost power on earth.

The old lady told me it was Pearl Harbor Day. I did know about Pearl Harbor, but I had no idea what day it had been on. (Okay, obvious question from you wise guys — was there something in the paper I was selling about it? Don’t know, I was only ten and was selling papers, not reading them so much — although I did a little, even then.)

I suppose for more recent generations 9/11 will or is that singular event where you know where you were and what you were doing when it happened and you know it changed everything, just like the kennedy assassination.

If you’re expecting it, there is probably no major point to this blog post, just thinking about the John F. Kennedy (JFK) assassination.

I actually got a fairly up close live (and that seems an almost insensitive reference ,“live”) look at JFK not long before he became president. During his campaign he made an old-fashioned (even then almost) whistle-stop tour, and stopped in Marysville, Ca. At that time my family lived across the river in the town of Yuba City. We went and saw him speak from the back of a train car (that is he was on the back of the train). I was only a few feet away. He had a lot of red freckles — you did not pick that up on our black and white TV.

Having JFK in the White House was fun. He and his wife were a nice looking and charming couple and they had a little girl and a little boy — kids in the White House for the for the first time in a long time. He of course had that charisma thing. Jackie, his wife, was so sophisticated and cultured. She spoke fluent French and Spanish. When she toured Latin America she could really speak their language and the crowds loved it — her up on a balcony giving speeches like they do down there.

JFK’s Boston-Irish accent was hilarious. Instead of saying Cuba (a nation much in the news at the time), he said “cuber”.

The whole Kennedy clan fascinated the nation. They would play touch football, JFK and his brothers and others. A comedian and impersonator by the name of Vaughn Meader made a career out of impersonating JFK and did records on it. One segment went something like this: JFK saying, “well when we are here we have to play (touch football) by my rules”.  Asked why, he answered, making a stabbing gesture with his finger like JFK used to do in speeches and press conferences, “because it’s my ball”.

To many the Kennedys were our first American royalty. The whole thing of them being in the White House was labeled Camelot.

To be sure, not everyone loved the Kennedys — you can’t please all the people. And the royalty treatment grated on some. Not only did they not like his progressive to liberal politics — the idea of being thought of in royal terms seemed so un-American.

And as popular as he was, JFK failed to get much of his legislative program through congress, such as his proposals on civil rights (mostly aimed at helping disenfranchised “negroes” as they were called at the time — you know, black Americans or African-Americans).

He was largely responsible for heavily involving the U.S. in Vietnam.

But I admire the fact that he inaugurated the Peace Corps. If his administration and its successors had emphasized the Peace Corps more over armed intervention, we all might well have been in a better position today — who knows?

A seemingly fine specimen of physical fitness himself (hidden were some of his debilitating ailments), he urged people to take 40-mile hikes or at least for school children and everyone else to be physically active.

I recall my dad and me going on one of those hikes — dad had always loved to hike anyway. We did not go the whole 40 miles. But we did take a fun hike along the Feather River that separates the twin cities of Marysville and Yuba City, California (off the subject, but a curious fact: Marysville is the county seat of Yuba County, and Yuba City is the county seat of Sutter County). This was not a walk along a specific trail. We just trekked through the riparian jungle, across a railroad trestle (don’t do that) and then through some orchards (to include, possibly, one of the orchards where not very many years later a man by the name of Juan Corona buried many wino, turned farm laborers, in lieu of paying them), and finally out onto a county road. Someone, mom possibly, must have come to pick us up. We did not walk back to town.

Much has been made of the fact that JFK was killed while riding in an open car — they (presidents) still sometimes did that then; they don’t do that now for the obvious reasons.

JFK was killed, his assassin was later gunned down, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated a few years later and right after that JFK’s younger brother Bobby was assassinated while running for president.

The age of innocence, if there ever really was one, was basically over — as in the day the music died — and the age of ugliness had begun.

Most presidents today seem to leave the White House in some form of general disfavor or dishonor or even disgrace.

Nixon resigning in disgrace. Carter in pity. Clinton with the undignified, unpresidential sexual deviant visual, and Bush II with the deer-in-the-headlights lame brain look and the legacy of waging war for false reasons or for no reason, other than to maybe avenge a plot against his daddy by Saddam Hussein, and a support for torture, something heretofore the U.S. stood proudly against as a civilized nation.

JFK may have been spared ignominy, ironically, by being assassinated. I mean if he had served his full term and even a second, well, things go wrong, people change their minds.

And here’s something: In my lifetime so far we have had two presidents who were lady charmers supreme — JFK and Bill Clinton (Obama charmed everyone, for awhile).

JFK reportedly had his dalliances (unfortunately he also had his Dallas, where he was shot). But he was still in that bygone era where there was a kind of gentleman’s agreement in the press — some things were off limits, especially if the subject in question was discreet enough to keep them off limits, out of sight.

JFK’s press conferences were usually, it seemed, really just a showcase for his charm. Once when asked by newswoman Sarah McClendon (or was it Helen Thomas?) what he was going to do for the women (rights), with a grin, he answered, “I don’t think we can ever do enough for the ladies”, to which the mostly good-old boy audience laughed appreciatively, understanding the multiple meaning there.

But combine the fast-paced tell all and then some media world of today and a horny guy who apparently lacked any judgment or caution when it came to sexual escapades not with his wife and while conducting foreign policy or phone conversations with lawmakers, that guy being Bill Clinton — well there goes that reputation thing (I was going to say “legacy” but it sounded too much like some lame double entendre).

Clinton does seem accepted as the elder statesman now among many, but I don’t know what history will say about him.

But really I can’t describe the JFK political mystic. You kind of had to be there.

I do know that I have heard more than one nowadays conservative Republican say he was motivated as a young man by JFK (but then again, Ronald Reagan, darling of the right, was once a Franklin Roosevelt-style liberal Democrat). And yet if JFK were on the scene today he would be vilified by the modern conservatives — actually he was then by right-wing reactionaries especially. And it was in that atmosphere he was taken down in what was then an unfriendly part of the nation for him. I think that’s why he was in Dallas that day, to try to gain political support in the upcoming election in an area weak for him.

But I recall seeing JFK address the nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis. You felt someone strong, sober, and courageous was in charge. It was a comfort.

JFK did not back down from the Soviets, but he was not full of false bravado. He was an actual World War II war hero, even if his famous PT 109 incident may or may not have been enhanced for his political image.

To those who have followed, and to any who might have tried to emulate his style in any way, to borrow a line, I can only say, I knew Jack Kennedy and you are no Jack Kennedy.

P. s.

I cannot name off the top of my head the great accomplishments of JFK. It may be that his presidency was largely an image. But that image, a man of peace (Vietnam an aberration perhaps and a complicated story anyway), but a man willing to stand up to the Soviets and all tyranny — letting others in the world who longed for freedom know someone was on their side — was a great one for our nation.

One more thing: Kennedy went overseas and the crowds loved him. I don’t recall him apologizing for America.

Of course that may be because he and his greatest generation had recently saved the world from catastrophe — you’re welcome.

ADD 1:

I totally left out one major accomplishment of JFK, that is initiating the modern space program. That was back when we as a nation thought we could do something and even thought government could and should play a major role.


Blogger’s note: I wanted to get this posted earlier when I looked at the calendar and realized what day it was, but my real job has its demands too.

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