Dreams denied

Editorial Notebook

November 22, 2003|By Karen Hosler

JOHN F. KENNEDY'S family plans to mark this day quietly, privately, as it usually does, visiting his grave at Arlington National Cemetery but otherwise calling no attention to the anniversary of his passing. His loved ones prefer to go public on the 35th president's birthday in May, in hopes of focusing the nation's memories on the man, and his life.

Their challenge is that even 40 years later, JFK is most often viewed in terms of his assassination, and what it meant to everyone else, particularly the generation for whom Nov. 22, 1963, was a defining moment. In other words, the grieving is still less about him than it is about us.

The deluge of commemorative coverage offers new accounts of who was where when they got the news, examinations of conspiracy theories, analyses of how social and political history was altered, and what-ifs about unfulfilled potential.

For those who recall it, JFK's murder had such a profound impact because it was so shocking, so coldly savage. Gunning down a president on a city street makes every citizen feel violated.

Americans weren't exactly innocents. Just a year earlier, even schoolchildren spent two weeks thinking they might get blown to smithereens over missiles in Cuba. But somber Cold War images were a familiar threat; a bloodied pink suit on a sunny Southern day bespoke an unfathomable evil.

The horror was magnified because of what Jack and Jackie symbolized: style, grace, humor, intellect. After Ike and Mamie, the Kennedys seemed so glamorous and full of life. They elevated public service to a high calling and inspired legions of young people whose political views spanned the spectrum to pursue government careers.

Later years have exposed part of the image to be a fraud. John Kennedy was in shockingly poor health, able to function only with the help of powerful drugs, including amphetamines. He also led a reckless private life that put him in compromising positions with women and mobsters.

Yet the idealistic vision survived because, despite the Kennedys' ruthless ambition, it seems real, and touched a chord. The Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress, the space program were founded on a positive appeal to man's better nature. After the assassination, Mrs. Kennedy received tear-stained notes from all over the world, and pennies taped on envelopes from people eager to contribute what little they could to a library in memory of a leader who gave them hope.

President Kennedy was slow to find his footing on racial issues, stumbled badly at first on Cuba and Khrushchev, and sent the first American troops to Vietnam. But by the time of his death, he was negotiating landmark civil rights legislation, had stared down the Kremlin, and was said to be rethinking U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.

Historians say that as JFK's contemporaries, with their self-obsessed perspective, fade from the scene, the man himself will come more clearly into view.

He's already emerging as a sickly rich kid, aptly suited to the playboy life that might have been his but for the World War II death of his older brother, Joe, and pressure from his father to take Joe's place in the Kennedys' drive for the White House.

JFK's abundant personal gifts scarcely disguise that he was propelled into the presidency with neither the preparation nor the maturity required. And yet, by the end of his third year in office, it appears he was hitting his stride, struggling successfully against his shortcomings to make a reality of the dreams others had for him.

As this occasion is marked in the future, perhaps someday we will reach the point when Mr. Kennedy's own dreams become more important.

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