Last summer I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, which is in a beautiful but somewhat out-of-the way part of Boston, for the first time in many years. And what I saw there startled and surprised me, and even gave me hope.
There are still people who know who JFK was, and what he stood for, and what he meant to this nation, in a time which seems sometimes like not that long ago.
This was early on a weekday morning in August, after the high vacation season. To my surprise, the building was fairly crowded with people, some of whom had come from as far away as France and Russia and Nebraska, and others who seemed local.
To my mild astonishment, none seemed to be there to learn gross details about head wounds or the grassy knoll or Judith Campbell Exner. They seemed to be there to remember, and mostly seemed to want to be inspired.
What was so surprising about all that is that for many years, the media have dished out a steady diet of stories designed to blacken Kennedy’s reputation, and consciously or not, blot out the hope and inspiration he was. I thought the media had done a pretty good job. But the people I talked to that day didn’t care about that.
Instead they seemed to be there because, as a famous line from Oliver Stone’s movie about Nixon puts it, “Kennedy made them see themselves as they wished they were.” And their country, he might have added, as they wished it could be.
That’s exactly right. What I remember from my childhood was not what he said — “One man can make a difference, and every man should try” — but that he really made you feel that way. That every American should — and could — make a difference.
Yet I was amazed to see so many young people who knew that too. What I would have guessed was that they mostly knew JFK as a comic book caricature famous for two things: as a sex machine who slept with thousands of women despite having many mysterious illnesses; and as the victim of an even more mysterious murder and a cover-up which involved the Mafia, Lyndon Johnson, the Soviets, the CIA, Sam Giancana, J. Edgar Hoover, Fidel Castro and the Johnny Mann Singers. I have had students who know all about the single bullet theory and nothing about the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But it turns out that I was at least partly wrong. Tucked into a little alcove of the museum was a large-screen television that played, over and over, the famous inaugural address, one of the shortest in history. Once something memorized by schoolchildren, today it is largely ignored. Liberals long ago turned their backs on its sentiments, because some of them seemed too warlike. Conservatives today have little use for the idea of asking not what your country can do for you, let alone helping the poor at home and abroad.
Others have ridiculed its famous cadences:
“… not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are ... let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
But on that day, several dozen stood there, transfixed, seeing something they had clearly never seen before — a politician inspiring them to want to be better than they were and to make this country a better place than it is now.
Imagine any of the so-called presidential class doing that today.
What is most startling is that when you watch the whole speech, it seems more relevant and modern than anything that came out of any politician’s mouth yesterday:
“To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required — not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
Nothing could be more self-evidently true. When I left the museum a few hours later, I walked out with a woman in her early 60s. She looked at me with tears in her eyes, and I had them in mine. They were not tears for what we had lost.
They were tears for ourselves, that we had to go back into the world led by a strutting, smirking, arrogant chimp, inserted into an office he didn’t understand so that he could do the bidding of his father’s servants and a few large corporations.
Thanks to the priorities of our national information services, there are millions who think the smug little man with the pale blue ties is morally superior to JFK, who probably did sleep with too many women, too recklessly. Yes, and though Rupert Murdoch may not get it, the whole of a man is more than some of his parts.
“We love our country, not for what it was, not for what it is, but for what it someday can and, through the efforts of us all, someday will be,” JFK also said.
Kennedy also knew that this was one world. He would not have been greatly surprised, I think, by the rise of medieval fundamentalism, given the way we have often behaved toward what Halliburton & Co. like to call the developing world.
Whatever mistakes he made, he knew that the one you can’t make is despair. What needed to be done would not be finished in his administration, he said, or “even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
And so now let us remember hope, and look for leaders who will help us to begin anew.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]