Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A dream that became a nightmare

The murder of John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this month is probably the most traumatic event of my life, in part because I was young and impressionable when I heard the news. Kennedy was the embodiment of all I wanted to be at the age of 21: smart, successful, glamorous, witty, cool.

The news of his death came to me in my first year of teaching as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, and the voice of Walter Cronkite on that occasion still sends chills down my spine: "The President died today at 1 p.m."  I cannot watch videos of his Dallas trip, even now.

Death had never entered my life until then, and it was unthinkable that violence could take out the President of the United States, especially a man of such promise. I had heard his brother, Robert, campaign for then-Senator Kennedy in 1960 at St. Louis University, but was too young to vote for him. I was always proud that the first Catholic president was so classy.

I didn't know, of course, of the dark side. What I have learned over the years of this complex character still cannot erase the promise of idealism that he presented to the world and to my generation. His brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, director of the Peace Corps, was our commencement speaker in St. Louis in 1962. It was the best of times. How could it all go so wrong?

We will never know what was taken from us: that is the tragedy that still gnaws at those who loved Kennedy, even if we had questions about his decisions and inexperience, his lies and affairs.

It seems from what I have read that he grew from a cold warrior to a peacemaker in the last year of his life. As James K. Galbraith of the Univ. of Texas writes in the NYTimes, JFK moved in Oct. 1963 to end the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which, I am convinced, would not have been escalated if he had lived. His 1963 speech at American University, which led to the nuclear test ban treaty, his beginning work on civil rights, and his handling of the Cuban missile crisis showed the emergence of a real leader.

I don't understand his infidelities, his recklessness and selfishness except for the context of the constant pain he endured--without complaining. He had a lifelong sense, I think, that his health problems would not give him a full life. Much--too much--has been written about the Kennedy family and Greek tragedy. Much that followed his administration in the decades after his death has always seemed to me a downward spiral into more and more violence.

Suffice it to say that he was not shallow, as often perceived, but a serious student of history who mastered the art of language. And he was becoming a true leader who could have changed the history of the late 20th century. For those of us who loved him as the embodiment of our youthful ideals, he remains unique and forever young.

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