Remembering our JFK
It is difficult fully to recapture the trauma in Ireland of John F Kennedy’s assassination, the shock and public grief over the loss of “one of our own”, and even the fear it engendered. That day, 50 years ago today, the car speeding off and the scrambling Secret Service agent, Jackie’s pink dress, the grassy knoll, the shocked crowds, the hospital, and then, days later, the small boy, ramrod-stiff, saluting his father’s coffin, are still vivid for an older generation. And the man, or the myth, still holds us in his sway – a visiting US journalist observed recently with surprise that JFK’s picture is still to be found in many homes, shops and pubs.
Kennedy was Irish, had recently visited us, Catholic, young – at 43 the first US president born in the 20th century – sexy, charismatic, the epitome of the optimism of the ’60s, and his success expressed all the hopes of those who left this country for the US.
History, and the 40,000 books his life and death have generated, are not as kind, but as New York Times editor Jill Abramson noted recently, and it is certainly true of Ireland too, “his martyrdom – for a generation of Americans still the most traumatic public event of their lives, 9/11 notwithstanding – has obscured much about the man and his accomplishments.” There is still, despite the forests felled in his name, no great biography and his character remains to a surprising degree enigmatic.
Theories about his assassination continue to abound – among the potential culprits, Lee Harvey Oswald (with/without help), the KGB, Cuba, the CIA, the Mafia ... even Joe di Maggio, supposedly in revenge for JFK’s dalliance with ex-wife Marilyn Monroe. Adding fuel to the rumour mill, even in recent days Secretary of State John Kerry has entered the fray by suggesting Oswald did not act alone.
Kennedy is remembered to a great extent first as a communicator: the first TV celebrity president, and for his wonderful, soaring speeches – “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country...” But what of the substance? A great president? Or a potentially-great president? His legacy, a great “might-have-been”? Do his womanising and secret illness detract? On both counts, he was not the first, and will not be the last.
Arguably Lyndon Johnson deserves the kudos for major legislation on civil rights and poverty, although Kennedy created the climate for it. While Kennedy deserved credit for his steady hand during the Cuban missile crisis and his nuclear test ban treaty, there remain serious black marks against him on the international stage. Not least over his authorisation of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, his escalation of US involvement in Vietnam, and acceleration of the international arms race.
A recent poll ranked him fourth of the great US presidents. But, rightly or wrongly, he’ll probably remain our No 1.