Time erodes memory, but JF K's appeal lingers in history

Paul Greenberg

November 27, 1990|By Paul Greenberg

THE DATE no longer stand out on the calendar, time has done its work. This year its old significance was obscured by Thanksgiving. The shock has worn away, together with many of the concerns that occupied and preoccupied the Republic that sunny day in Dallas almost three decades ago, a day so bright and clear that the bubble top of the presidential limousine would be down, and PaulGreenbergLee Harvey Oswald could take fatal aim.

The Cold War was formally declared over last week; a different conflict now takes shape in the deserts of Arabia. There was much to be thankful for this calm Thanksgiving day, even as the world waited for the storm. The old pain of November 22 had become something softer. Yet something is still frozen at the heart of the day that no sunlight can thaw. Emily Dickinson knew about it:

There's a certain slant of light,

On winter afternoons,

That oppresses, like the weight

Of cathedral tunes.

At a time of conclusion, when the crises of the 1960s are passed, and whole new ones loom, that slant of light brings back the fragility, the shock waiting to happen, the knowledge of how quickly the fates of men and republics may be decided.



Time still speeds on, and the news no longer comes clattering over a teletype. The shock is gone, and has become something else -- history. But some things do not change even in death: memory, gallantry, humor, grace. Jack Kennedy had them all, and bequeathed them all. Yet his favorite appeal was to vigor. He worked the word into what seemed every campaign speech, every rallying cry.

He was not the only politician to use the word, or to invoke it. At a time when new voices divorced from the past urge a little appeasement in a volatile part of the world, a "diplomatic solution," a prudent retreat, negotiation . . . Winston Churchill's sober and almost solitary warning after the Munich Agreement still resounds:

"Do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor we arise again and take our stand . . ."

Supreme recovery. Moral health. Vigor. The old words would not have been unfamiliar to Jack Kennedy, who as an undergraduate had done his thesis on how Britain was caught unprepared by the rise of a shrewd fanatic. "While England Slept," he called it.

It's wrong, they say, to compare today's danger out of Baghdad to that from Berlin in the turbulent 1930s: Saddam Hussein is no Adolf Hitler. They forget that Adolf Hitler was no Adolf Hitler until the world let him be. He was just another demagogue feeding off the grievances of a decadent time until he managed to poison a whole people. He was no great threat until he began to demonstrate how easily evil can triumph if good men do nothing.

If only he had been stopped early -- after his occupation of the Rhineland, or his annexation of Austria, or before Munich . . . he might be only a name in a long list of forgotten German chancellors. But he was not defeated at the first opportunity, and when he had to be, the toll was terrible.

A certain slant of light can make things clearer. It brings back not just endings but beginnings. Like the picture of a young president on his inaugural day, his breath visible in the cold, and his words taking shape. He spoke about a torch having been passed that January day, and about letting "every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe . . ."

Many a crisis has passed since John F. Kennedy spoke those words, many a defeat and victory sustained. But this ever-young president never pretended that the race was a short sprint. He was in for the distance -- like the American Republic itself.

And for just a moment every November 22, memory floods. And when it recedes, and the world takes up again, there is left behind a strength renewed. Call it vigor.

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