Saturday, November 22, 2003

November 22, 1963

I was in room 207, my home room at Greensburg Central Catholic High School, when the voice of the principal, Father Sheridan, came over the school p.a. But this wasn't his usual late afternoon litany of announcements. He said that shots had been fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas, and it was believed that the President had been injured. I think he put on a brief radio news report, before it was time to change classes.

I went to my gym class, where at first we talked about the fact that they said only that Kennedy was shot, not dead. I don't remember what we did---I have a vague recollection of running sprints outside, which isolated us from further announcements, and for the last part of the period it was possible to forget what we'd heard, and the world was still normal. When we came into the shower room none of the coaches were around. After we dressed, I remember walking up the stairs and looking hopefully into the face of the first boy I saw heading down to the locker room. He just slowly shook his head.

The next period never really started, and everybody was sent back to their home rooms. The news of Kennedy's death was on every face, and blared from radios in several room, a few tiny TV sets. The next thing I remember was being alone in the dark empty first floor hall and looking out beyond the parking lot to the National Guard Armory, the only other building near our campus a few miles outside of town. I saw the American flag flying at full staff and for some reason this infuriated me. I actually called the Armory from a pay phone and asked why the flag wasn't flying at half mast. The polite male voice who answered didn't seem to know what I was talking about, and I did not want to be the one to tell him, so I hung up.

I walked home with my two best friends: Clayton, who I walked with most days (most students took buses, but I lived close enough to walk, and he walked to his grandmother's house to be picked up later) and Mike, who was also my debate partner. Though he lived some distance away, we'd planned to work on our debate case at my house after school. Another friend of ours, Johnny, may also have been with us that day-he lived a block or so from me, so he was a neighborhood pal. All I remember of what we talked about was that it was all up to Bobby now. Nobody would take Lyndon Johnson seriously as President. He could take over for now, but Bobby Kennedy was the one who should run in '64. This was November 22 of my senior year of high school.

While the television droned through the wall from the living room, Mike and I sat in my room, our debate materials scattered and forgotten, as we talked about how Kennedy's death might affect the world and our particular lives.

It was clear to me---in fact, it was probably clear to everyone who knew me---that Kennedy's death would deeply affect me and my life.

John F. Kennedy came along at a perfect time to define my life. Beginning high school as he began his presidency, I was beginning to enter the world, and excited that I had an entry to the whole world. I felt kinship with Kennedy partly because he was Catholic and ethnic Irish, two groups that had never been permitted into open national legitimacy, just as I was Catholic and ethnic Italian and Polish. Yet Kennedy was wealthy and educated with style and presence. Kennedy's success and example slayed several of the dragons I was only dimly aware of but powerfully affected by, both in the world and from my unconscious: religion and class (closely related in this case.)

And he was young. At 43, the youngest man ever to be elected President, and even though Nixon was only three years older (they'd both entered Congress the year of my birth, and had once traveled together by train to a joint appearance in a western Pa. town not far from mine) he and the Republicans made an issue of Kennedy's youth. But his youth and his aura of youthfulness was another liberation for me. Even the young could participate, and could lead.

His program accented youth and the new. He spoke of boldness, effort, leadership, challenges---all bracing and exciting and inspiring to a young heart. He had written intelligently about courage, and he had exhibited courage in his life. In his nomination acceptance speech in Los Angeles (which I taped with our bulky reel-to-reel, the microphone pointed at the TV set as I tried not to react audibly) he called his vision the New Frontier. (His longtime speech writer Ted Sorenson claimed in his biography that the New Frontier was Kennedy's own idea, although recently I came across one of Peter Drucker's early books, published in 1959, called "Landmarks of Tomorrow" which extensively applies the phrase New Frontiers to the American socioeconomic and political future. For example, in Kennedyesque phrases---which also describes Kennedy's view that the New Frontier is not a program but a reality---Drucker writes: "These areas of challenge, threat and opportunity to our post-modern world will be described in the next chapters...So far we have asked: 'What is the new reality?' Now we shall ask: 'And what does it demand of us?'" )

I worked in my first political campaign on Kennedy's behalf in 1960, organizing some of my classmates into a "Junior Teen Dems for Kennedy" club. We leafleted on a few occasions, and participated in what turned out to be the last traditional election eve political parade for a long time in my town. I stayed up all night watching the returns---it wasn't until morning that California's votes gave him the victory. I must have fallen asleep for a few hours, but I remember his statement that morning, which ended with "Now we prepare for a new administration---and a new baby." That baby would be John, born on November 22, 1960.

With some initiative and my mother's quietly excited connivance, I got myself invited to visit some of her relatives I barely remember ever seeing for the Inaugural in Washington. I took the bus to Washington, probably a six hour trip normally, but there was a titanic snowstorm. So I rode eight or ten hours alone through the darkness and the snow, and arrived in a city normally couldn't cope with a dusting but now had a foot or so on the ground. My relatives, an excited young couple, were at the station to meet me. The military cleared the parade route, and by Inauguration Day it was clear and dry. The parade was all I saw, freezing on an outdoor bleacher stand, accompanied by my relatives and a friend of theirs, who carried an ingenious flask shaped like binoculars, with warm whiskey inside, to augment the thermos of hot tea my relatives brought.

Back in Pa. (which it was then, sometimes abbreviated as Penna., for zip codes weren't invented yet) my father tape recorded the Inaugural Address (audio only, of course, though I saw the whole ceremony broadcast several times on TV that evening and that week.)

We did the usual Washington sight-seeing the next day, which included my first bowl of clam chowder (a Kennedy favorite, although I later discovered that I'd had the Manhattan version, not New England) in the cafeteria of the National Gallery. On Sunday I persuaded my relatives that the new President might be going to Mass at St. Mathew's in Georgetown, which is where he lived (on G Street.) So that's where we went. But no JFK. However, after the Mass we attended we exited to see a crowd held back by ropes, and Secret Service men all around. We simply turned around and went back into the church. The Kennedy contingent sat a half dozen rows ahead of us, about a third of the way back from the altar. After Mass, the new President walked smiling down the outside aisle and shook outstretched hands of people towards the end of the aisle. I held mine up and out, and as he approached, my mind and body froze almost entirely. I could see dimly that he was shaking my relative's hand next to me and I was sure he would be moving on, but then he reached back to grab my hand and shake it firmly. I shook the hand of my hero. I was one of the first non-celebrity Americans to shake hands with JFK since he'd become President some forty-eight hours before.

Back home after I'd described this to my parents, my mother disappeared into her bedroom and I could hear her on the phone. The next morning, there was a front page story about all this in the local newspaper, written by a reporter she knew and had called. This not only made me famous for a day in high school, it cemented the impression I already had as a kind of Kennedy continuation-a local manifestation, a New Frontiersman in embryo.

For the next three years, Kennedy was the center of my education and my activities. As he faced the issues of the day, so did I, reading several magazines regularly (Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, New Republic, Nation, Progressive, the Reporter, the New Yorker, etc.) and books on the issues (Michael Harrington's book on poverty, James Baldwins' essays) and on the presidency (Emmet Hughes, Richard Newstadt and JFK's own Ted Sorenson) as well as books by and about Kennedy and his administration (including an early call for confronting environmental issues, "The Quiet Crisis" by JFK's Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall; he's 85 or so now, and was just interviewed by Bill Moyers...) In the late 80s I managed to somewhat impress former Kennedy aide , then Pennsylvania Secretary of Labor and Industry and future U.S Senator Harris Wofford by recalling the colors of the cover on "The Point of the Lance," a book on the Peace Corps ostensibly authored by Sargent Shriver but mostly written by Wofford.)

I wrote a world affairs column for my high school newspaper, and during my brief tenure as editor I wrote a story about John Glenn's orbital flight, including a photo clipped and cropped from Life magazine of the three U.S. astronauts who to that point had been in space. I sent a copy of this issue to each of these three. I got a letter from Glenn, and a note from Gus Grissom, who also sent back the copy of the newspaper. I was a little insulted by this until I took a second look and noticed that he had autographed the picture, and had evidently gotten Glenn and Shepard to autograph it as well. (This is probably the most valuable piece of memorabilia that got lost somehow over the years.)

How serious was I about all this? Let me recite to you the first Kennedy cabinet from memory: Sec of State Dean Rusk, Sec of Defense Robert MacNamara, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Sec of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, Sec of Commerce Luther Hodges, Sec of Health, Education and Welfare Abraham Ribicoff, (later Anthony Celebreze), Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg, Sec of Interior Stewart Udall, Postmaster General Edward Day, UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson.

The only similar list I can still produce would be the starting lineup of the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates. (Plus the pitching staff. I used to be able to do it in batting order, together with a reasonable facsimile of each batting stance.)

Of course I went way overboard in my enthusiasm. I began to acquire Kennedy gestures and vocal inflections in my extemp speeches for speech club tournaments. But I swear my back injury and subsequent back brace were authentic.

But Kennedy was the center of my education in other much more personal ways. He combined detailed knowledge and logic with wit and style. There didn't have to be this divide between being intellectual, or even as we deride people today, a "policy wonk" or a dweeb, and a funny, charming, sociable and attractive person. (In these same years, Steve Allen was combining a certain seriousness and hip musical/ artistic quality with humor that was wildly inventive, both verbal and slapstick physical. So it was okay to combine these things in one's own life.)

Kennedy was my prime model for how an ethnic Catholic could be comfortable in the big world. That his family was rich did not mean to me that my family had to be rich for me to learn from what I saw of him. Suddenly, Harvard didn't seem so remote.

His wit was playful, smart and could be gentle and courtly. He made literary allusions and championed the arts. This was very important to me, because the big conflict in my dreams for myself was between politics and literature.

There were certain encouragements to my delusions of being part of the Kennedy administration. For one thing, these were still the days when people in the government answered mail. I would write letters to the President stating my position on various matters, and I would get a letter back from, say, Ralph Dungan, special assistant to the president, who would pass on the president's appreciation for my thoughtful comments, which he had passed on to the State Department. And then I'd get a letter from somebody in the state department, about how they appreciated the opportunity to consider my views. I didn't for a moment believe that anybody was really paying any attention to what I wrote, but they were showing me respect anyway. It was a ruse I realized was designed to make me feel loyal to them, at the same time as it did make me feel loyal to them.

So now in my cache of memorabilia that has survived is a letter dated December 11, 1963 from a (Miss) Barbara Burns, Special Assistant to the Chairman of the National Cultural Center, thanking me for my letter suggesting that the center be named after John F. Kennedy. The letter does not look mass-produced, though it would have to be, since thousands wrote with the same suggestion, and so now we have the Kennedy Center. (The engraved reply which Jacqueline Kennedy sent to every American who wrote to her after the assassination has disappeared.)

During the mid-term elections of 1962, in that fateful October but before the Cuban Missile Crisis began, Kennedy campaigned in Pittsburgh. Thanks to my campaign work and my new Democratic Party and labor union connections, I was invited to be an usher for the event where he would speak. So that's when I saw him speak, with enormous passion and energy, so committed that his arms seemed to extend over the top of the podium as he gestured, coming out at you and pulling you in.

My friend Clayton was there, too (his father was there as a union rep; he brought us sandwiches because once inside we couldn't leave), as was a relative on my mother's side, Jimmy Falcon, who would later become a judge. He shook hands with Kennedy that day. Our duties as ushers were minimal, but we were introduced to several Secret Service men, told how to identify them, and instructed that if we saw anything suspicious, we should alert them immediately. This duty weighed on me so much that I had trouble concentrating on the speech. I turned in at least one man for putting his hand inside his jacket one too many times.

* * *

After Mike left Friday night, the feelings really began to hit me. First, the fact of his death, the finality of it. Everyone commented that he was so young, and more than that, a symbol of youth. I hadn't yet experienced the death of anyone close to me. Kennedy's was the first significant death in my life.

I turned to a poem about the sudden death of a young man, to Shelley's elegy for Keats, "Adonais." At that age especially I felt a kinship with the Romantic poets, and I turned to them. I found this poem in a college literature survey I found in a trunk in my grandmother's attic, a trove of mostly my uncle Carl's college books (and science fiction anthologies) with a few of my Aunt Toni's. I still have this book, dated 1951, and I'm looking at it now. I'm sure lines like these jumped out at me:

And thou, sad Hour, selected from all the years
To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers,
And teach them thine own sorrow, say: "With me
Died Adonais; till the Future dares
Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light unto eternity!"

Apart from the death itself, but wound around it, was the shock and absurdity of it. It was as nightmarish as anything I've experienced, and it is that quality that remains with us in the obsessions over conspiracies and the details of the assassination. Forty years later, the consensus of experts seems to be coming around to what we believed that weekend: that one man had shot the President, through a combination of planning and accident (that he happened to be working in a building on the parade route, etc. It now seems likely that he hadn't decided to really try doing it until very close to the moment he raised the rifle.) It could have just as easily not happened. In fact, it could have more easily not happened. Then why had it happened? Why couldn't it not happen?

Vonnegut, Beckett, Ieonesco, Joseph Heller---they'd all lived through the obscene absurdities of World War II in Europe. But it was my generation's experience of the Kennedy assassination, I believe, that helped us understand their sense of absurdity and their gallows humor when all became highly popular in the mid 1960s.

As for what might have happened had Kennedy lived, again I believe we had the feeling then that we'd seen the best we would ever see---though it was a feeling we did not want to be any more accurate than we wanted the assassination itself to be real. I am sure the world would be a much better place, and the United States a much, much better country, had Kennedy lived.

I've read the critiques, I've heard the dour second thoughts: he wouldn't even have been re-elected, he would have done in Vietnam what Johnson did, etc. etc. It's all nonsense. Kennedy in 1963 had come into his own: the historic Civil Rights speech and bill, one day after his historic American University speech which led to the test ban treaty, which broke the back of the Cold War. The test ban treaty was wildly popular, in the U.S. and around the world. The South would hold for him enough to win, even though he knew that eventually Civil Rights would erode and perhaps doom the Democratic party there. Who was going to defeat him? Goldwater?

As for Vietnam, check out James Galbraith's meticulous exposition in the Boston Review which shows that Kennedy had already decided---and given the order-to withdraw American forces from Vietnam. (

Even without this evidence, it seems utterly implausible to me that Kennedy would not have seen what so many intelligent observers saw by 1965 and 1966. There is simply no way that Kennedy would have escalated the war as Johnson and Nixon did. He just wasn't that dumb: not just in sheer rational intelligence, but in humanity, public morality and his understanding of human behavior and emotion. The man who managed the Cuban Missile Crisis would not have escalated the Vietnam war. His brother Bobby knew that. And he ran for President to stop that war.

Many poets, writers, artists and intellectuals were among the first to oppose the Vietnam war, and they were demonized for it. A month before his assassination, Kennedy eulogized Robert Frost. Part of what he said was this: "If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth."

If JFK had lived, we might live in a country with guaranteed medical care and probably a guaranteed annual income. A country that respected the arts and the intellect, that has become more sophisticated in exploring the real and present complexities, rather than having become more moronic each year. We would have made mistakes, but we would have realized them faster and fixed them. Eight years could have helped define this country for the next two generations. We had another chance to do that in 1968, and yet another absurd assassination robbed us again.

That night in 1963, Mike and I were supposed to be preparing to debate the issue of health care. One of Kennedy's first battles was to pass medical care for the aged, which became Medicare. The very program the current President is trying to dismantle, on this fortieth anniversary day. And still leading to preserve that program is Senator Edward Kennedy, Teddy, the last Kennedy brother, and the one thought least likely to succeed. I saw him on TV last night, with a firmer grasp of the issues, and a better presence and ability to communicate the issue, than any other advocate on either side.

Kennedy's death also changed my life personally. Although I remained politically active and interested, electoral politics was not the option it once might have been.

The Kennedy years were the first--- and would turn out to be the only-- time that I felt in alignment with people and institutions in my home town, those institutions being the local Democratic party and the labor unions. In my small but energetic efforts in the 1960 campaign, I caught the attention of a few people in the party and the union political committee. My father was a Democratic committeeman, and Clayton's father was a union member and a friend of the energetic young chair of the union coordinating committee. He really took a liking to me, and even a few years later---first in the LBJ campaign, and then when Johnson was starting the Great Society programs but before Vietnam heated up---he was offering me absurdly high positions for somebody not yet 20. Like becoming head of the local poverty program. I was a college sophomore at the time, going to school 800 miles away.

For a few years I was really connected with the up and coming younger people in local Democratic politics. In 1962 I worked on the successful campaign of a state rep who eventually became quite a powerful senior member of the state legislature and of the local party. Had Vietnam not upset the applecart, I might have had a real political future there. I was not as smart, or perhaps as calculating as Bill Clinton to keep myself in the game while opposing the war. (I'm clearly not as smart in any case.) I burned my bridges, inside as well as outside.

Beyond that, there is all that happened that probably wouldn't have in the country and the world, that forced the decisions that formed my life. It seems likely to me that had Kennedy still been President when I was in college, I would have graduated and gone onto further education and some kind of real career (although it's always possible I would have blown it all to be a rebel poet anyway). I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have spent my graduation day not graduating, and watching Robert Kennedy's funeral on television in the student union. Nor would my life have become so deflected and deformed by Vietnam and the draft, in the country that Nixon would soon bludgeon into shape for the zeitgeist presided over by Reagan and the Bushes to ruin beyond recognition. Maybe I didn't respond to all that very well. But it's hard for me to believe that my life wouldn't have been better, along with the world's, if all that had been avoided.

Forty years after his sudden death, JFK has mostly been reduced to a series of clich├ęs and cynical gossip. The same line from his Inaugural is repeated endlessly by our media automatons, altered only to further shrink it into a kind of meaningless brand name slogan, so just as Martin Luther King has been reduced to "I have a dream today," just about all an entire generation has heard coming out of Kennedy's mouth is "Ask not."

His presidency is a sentimental soap opera called Camelot, or a lurid melodrama of sex with mob molls and movie stars. This anniversary of his assassination has become an almost pornographic festival of virtual reenactments. Some of this may be a healthy adjustment to the often uncomfortable complexities of reality. But mostly it's evidence of our descent into displacement, consumerist obsession, self-satisfied vulgarity coupled with self-righteous ignorance.

Kennedy symbolized the ascent of intelligence in American life. The Best and the Brightest suggested the price of arrogance, but real intelligence is not arrogant, or at least not for long. Our society no longer aspires to intelligence, and it hasn't for forty years. We're happy with the arrogance of ignorance. We don't even have to be ironic about it anymore.

The next day, Saturday, I became mesmerized by the nonstop television coverage. I took a break from it to go with my father up to the Singer store on Main Street, where he was the manager. He borrowed one of my JFK portraits I'd brought back from the Inaugural or extracted from Life magazine, and we made a memorial display in the window. Most places did. No stores were open for business. The entire country had shut down.

I was still watching Sunday, excused from going to Mass with my family, watching Lee Harvey Oswald being marched passed a crowd of press through police headquarters-I jumped when I saw a gun pointed at him, but relaxed when I realized it was a microphone. A moment later there was a shot, and I saw Oswald crumple on live TV.

Then the funeral, and the images that have haunted America for forty years-Jackie and Bobby, the casket and the riderless horse bucking its black mane, Jackie and Caroline and three year old John-John, and his salute to the flag draped casket.

Back at school Monday, the sisters were organizing a memorial assembly. I was among the students invited to speak. I remember sitting in the office of-I kid you not-the Prefect of Discipline, explaining that I didn't want to give a speech about Kennedy, there had been enough of them. I wanted to read from his speeches, so people wouldn't forget what we had been given and what we had lost, and what we should remember. She wouldn't let me do it. Miffed, she relented to let me play a small excerpt of one of his speeches at the beginning of the assembly, from off-stage. She also borrowed the largest of my JFK portraits, a now rare one of him with Jackie. It was mounted high on the black curtains behind the speakers on the stage. Much as I had feared, the speeches were largely sentimental, several mentioning brave little John-John. My fellow students wondered why I wasn't up there, why I was hidden in the wings, running a tape recorder. They thought I was in the doghouse again, and they were right. The next day I went back to the Prefect's office to get my portrait but she impatiently said she didn't know what happened to it, and dismissed me. I never saw it again.

After I'd sorted out my feelings enough to express something, I did write a piece for the school newspaper. I'm reproducing it in its entirety here below. Looking at it now, I see that I did something a little interesting with the central metaphor. I didn't use "Adonais" but instead the more familiar John Donne lines that we had just been reading in English lit class, and the "for whom the bell tolls" which was familiar from Hemingway. I didn't analyze it this way at the time, but I started with the bells tolling to mark a death, and ended with the suggestion that the bells toll for others as a clarion call, a kind of "and now the trumpet summons us again" (JFK Inaugural), a summons to confront life (political life specifically), in a way that makes Donne's "no man is an island" theme subsidiary to a call to replace the fallen hero--- perhaps more appropriate for JFK, and especially for the adolescent writing it.

* * *

titled (by the editor) John Fitzgerald Kennedy..."Now he belongs to the Ages."

The slow cadence of the muffled drums reflected the mournful heartbeat of Washington. The bells of St. Matthew's were echoed across the nation. The world heard them, and knew for whom they tolled. They tolled for the departed President, John F. Kennedy.

When a man and the Presidency meet, profound changes are worked upon both. John Kennedy brought to his office an immense intellect, a dashing style, a will to serve, a ready wit, an enormous potential, and a courage based on trust in God.

He gave the Presidency heightened prestige, grace and dignity, a foundation of leadership, and a position of strength.

This man who had been described by his queenly wife as "an idealist without illusions" came to the White House with a view that did not permit him to stand and watch the world march by, but demanded that he take an active part in determining its route and its final goals.

He was, as a British commentator described him, "a man so utterly right for the job." He molded the presidency as a citadel of power in the Cuban crisis and the steel situation. He provided moral leadership in civil rights and the nuclear test ban treaty. He set a new intellectual tone for the nation, and dedicated us to the adventure of conquering space. He showed through action his conviction that "if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

His work was not done in the first one hundred days, nor in his lifetime. But he began.

He will be more than a footnote in history. His spirit will live on, especially in the Peace Corps that he founded.

In his last public speech, he pointed out that the New Frontier of which he had so often spoken was not a political program, but an existing reality. For the first time in history, man has the material power to abolish many forms of human suffering and want. The challenge is to apply our knowledge and resources to the problem.

John Kennedy's message was repeated over and over: "There is great unfinished business in this country."

His death brought an end to his efforts, but not to the problems themselves. There are still forty-two million Americans---a fourth of the nation---with levels of income, health, housing, and food below standards tolerated by society at large. There are still millions of unemployed, lacking the skill and education to support their families. There is still a large segment of our population who are insidiously denied their basic rights because of color. There are still the old people who suffer sickness three times as often, yet earn half as much, as younger Americans. There is still one third of a world rocked with poverty, hunger, and disease.

The death of John Kennedy does not discharge us from our obligations. It rededicates us.

"Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."