Saturday, November 22, 2003

Forty years ago...

...I was in the third grade. We had just come in from recess. Our teacher, Mrs Gilligan, was late getting back to us. Suddenly she comes rushing in to tell us that President Kennedy had just been shot while he was in Dallas. The teachers were all watching the news on the television in the faculty room, and she didn't know much more than that. She told us she was going back to find out more.

We were left, astonished, to deal with it on our own. But let's back up a bit...

It helps to appreciate the fact that, whatever you thought of Jack Kennedy, his being a Catholic was a really big thing. In those days, depending on where you lived, you knew you were different. I lived in a town founded by the Methodist, inundated by Baptists, among others, and knew what it was to be called a "Catlicker," although most of the kids left it alone. Still, when Mom sat us kids down in those days to warn us about not talking to strangers, she tagged on another warning about discussing religion with our non-Catholic playmates.

Of course, that Kennedy was Catholic did not impress my parents much. Seeing them coming through the hall from the gym, at the public school where I attended kindergarten, I asked them who they voted for. Nixon, they told me. You didn't vote for Kennedy? But, he's... Catholic, and Nixon's not!

And yet, in our house, I would learn the low-down soon enough. To be a "Taft Republican" (as opposed to the Ivy League variety) was to believe that it was the War, not Roosevelt, who got us out of the Depression, and that Hoover would have enacted many of the ideas that became part of the "New Deal," were it not for a Democratic-controlled Congress blocking his way.

Not only that, as I was to learn later, Jack Kennedy was already known for leading a life that was less than exemplary. Even as a married man, he still had a way with the ladies. Like father, like son, they would say. He had also been quick to disavow his Catholicism as an overriding influence in policymaking. So the precedent was set, where character values could be put aside if you were Catholic, if it meant getting elected. Go figure...

In the weeks that followed his death, we mourned with the rest of the Nation. We saw the funeral, and our Protestant neighbors got to see an authentic Catholic ritual -- the one we called "the Mass" -- right on television. Jack Kennedy was hailed as a "President and Marytr," and a brother Knight of Columbus.

Years later, when I lived in Georgetown in the early 1990s, people still talked of how Senator Jack would walk from his home at 3308 N Street, down to Martin's Tavern at the corner of N and Wisconson, and meet a different blond every night. Seems he had a thing for blondes. (Duh!) Amidst the conspiracy theories and the tumult that followed in the 1960s, one wonders what the world would have been like had he lived.

In all likelihood, the war in Vietnam would have been escalated just the same, and with Jack's reelection assured, the forces in society and popular culture would have tainted him no less than they did the less dashing and charismatic Lyndon Johnson. History has not always been kind to the memory of President Kennedy, but had he lived, it is my opinion that the decisions that made Johnson so unpopular would have had a similar effect on him.

Still, Jack Kennedy changed the face of American politics. His campaign was one more step toward style at the expense of substance, as anyone comparing the effects of the televised debates with those on the radio would have discerned. His brother Bobby would be assassinated as well, only adding to the legacy of tragedy that plauged this family. His other brother Edward would change the way indiscretions of public figures were reported, or not. People in other countries are astonished at the significance we place upon occasional misbehavior by our Nation's leaders, whether it be in matters of sex, or blind ambition. But before Edward, there were no dead bodies to cover up. And so, Vince Foster notwithstanding, no American politician today is safe from the glare of the media spotlight. (Well, almost none.)

We may never see another Kennedy in the White House. But those of us who are old enough to remember where we were on this day in 1963, will continue to look at the world in terms of before -- and after.

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