Monday, May 29, 2017

The JFK Century

Mary Josephine Hannon was born in 1865, just a few months after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  She married John Fitzgerald, who would be the namesake of her grandson, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  She died in 1964, a few months shy of her 99th birthday, and a few months after the assassination of President Kennedy.

John F. Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, one hundred years ago today.  Given his health problems, including the lingering effects of back injuries sustained after his PT boat was cut in two by a Japanese destroyer in World War II, it is unlikely that his natural span of years would have added up to 100.  Even given the longevity of his maternal grandmother.

But noting how her life almost spanned these two assassinations, one in the almost unimaginable era after the Civil War, and the other within living memory of some of us, suggests how long a century can be, and how relative that time span is as well.  For all the changes seen since 1917, the ones that Mary Fitzgerald saw were greater.

one of JFK's memorable poses, answering questions at
a televised press conference
There used to be tabloid stories about JFK being still alive on a protected island somewhere.  This reflected a dream I used to have, and probably many others had.  But we never saw him as an elder.

To even conceive of that is almost impossible in a way that it isn't for almost anyone else.  Because his assassination changed things so profoundly, the shape of our world after 1963--the 60s, the 70s, the 80s etc.-- would have been significantly different.

 As I wrote at the time of that assassination's 50th anniversary, I am completely convinced that JFK would have won a second term, and large numbers of American troops would never have been sent to Vietnam. This is supported by some if not all historians, and is clearly expressed in recent books by Thurston Clarke and Jeff Greenfield.

 Looking back, I can sense and sometimes clearly see various turning points in my life.  But this is one I share with so many others.  My life would have been very different.

 On that 2013 blog post I used a photo that I see in a somewhat different light today.  It is a black and white photo, evidently taken shortly after the assassination outside a church.  Most of the photo shows a number of people, adults (men in dark suits, a woman in a white coat) crowded at the entrance.  But in the lower left corner, a woman sits on the stone step, her head buried in her hands and touching her knees.  You can't see her face but she looks young--perhaps as young as I was on that day.

The photo of course expresses grief.  But today I see more clearly that it also expresses the loneliness of her grief.  Even in the context of a nation grieving together as perhaps it has not done since, her grief was personal.  For me it separated me from everyone else as it separated me from the future, the culture that JFK did not entirely embody but represented as a direction, as a hope.

He was technically of my parents' generation, though a few years older (and of course very different from anyone I knew.)  He was a child when World War I was still a memory, and he came of age as World War II began.  He studied England before the war, and saw Europe during the Marshall Plan years.

As President he made the first significant breakthrough in the Cold War mentality with his American University speech and the Test Ban Treaty, and the most significant breakthrough in obtaining federal recognition of Civil Rights.  He understood and supported space exploration and the arts.

 Among his books were Profiles in Courage, Strategy of Peace and A Nation of Immigrants.  He appointed an early environmentalist to his cabinet, sent Congress the bill that would eventually become Medicare, and from his first day in office saw poverty as unacceptable. Those were to be his 1964 campaign themes--establishing peace, ending poverty.  His perspective and his counsel would be valuable now.

JFK would inspire two future Presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as unknown others who served in different ways, probably many others, who in turn inspire succeeding generations.  So in a way he has lived for a century, and through the young that discover his words and achievements, he will continue to live, if mostly one seeker at a time.

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