Tuesday, November 22, 2011

JFK, November 22, 1963

He has been gone now longer than he lived—-48 years to 46--and, in these days of Washington impotence, must seem unreal to generations of American born after his time.

A few years after the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy wistfully told me that her husband was being remembered too much for how he died rather than what he had lived for. She was right. It was too soon then for Americans to appreciate what they had lost.

In 1960, I had made an unintentional contribution to Kennedy’s election. After my magazine ran a piece by Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Advice to the Next First Lady,” the “Tonight” show called me to ask Mrs. Roosevelt if she would appear with Jack Paar. To my surprise, she agreed.

On the way to the studio, I asked Mrs. Roosevelt, who had supported Adlai Stevenson and been visibly cool to JFK, what made her decide to take part in a talk show. “I want to help elect Senator Kennedy,” she said.

On the “Tonight” show, she did just that, comparing Kennedy to FDR during his first campaign in 1932, inspiring voters and responding to their enthusiasm, and predicted he would make a fine President. In Kennedy’s hairline victory, her testimonial may well have been significant, and he didn't disappoint her.

John F. Kennedy was the last president in memory still learning while in office. He admitted mistakes and profited from them.

Despite misgivings, he went ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba after being told Americans would be greeted as liberators and withdrew when he realized he had been misled, accepting “sole responsibility” for the fiasco.

As the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he put that lesson to use by overruling “experts” who wanted to bomb or invade Cubs and trusting his own instincts to avoid disaster.

After November 22, 1963 I wrote an editorial attempting to define the deep grief over his shocking death-—that beyond his attractiveness and intelligence, there was the loss of a leader “who was still growing—-in understanding, in skill, in compassion, in commitment."

Today's contenders for the Presidency are, in contrast, overwhelmed by challenges. For all our sakes, we can only hope that whoever wins next year can attain ultimately the stature John F. Kennedy did in the thousand days he spent in the White House.

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