The grief has still not gone away

John Kennedy’s call was for a surge of pride and purpose, not a quest for wealth and power

FRED BRUNING November 28 1988

The grief has still not gone away

John Kennedy’s call was for a surge of pride and purpose, not a quest for wealth and power

FRED BRUNING November 28 1988

The grief has still not gone away

AN AMERICAN VIEW

FRED BRUNING

John Kennedy’s call was for a surge of pride and purpose, not a quest for wealth and power

The election over, it has become great sport to blister poor Michael Dukakis for his failure to retire George Bush from government service. Democrats are in desperate shape, having lost five of the last six presidential elections, and they are looking for excuses to devour their own. One guy says Dukakis didn’t have the right television ads, and another says the ads were okay, Dukakis was a disaster in the second debate. Somebody says Dukakis lacked fire in his belly, and somebody else complains the candidate was too ambitious—that he should have stayed in Massachusetts and known better than to run in the first place.

Meanwhile, George Quay are doing lunch in Washington and preparing for the “kinder, gentler” nation that the vicepresident now foresees, having waged a campaign that was about as kind and gentle as a Mujahedeen raiding party. Republicans are on a roll, excellent news for Wall Street and the manufacturers of Stealth bombers, but not so good if you happen to be old or out of work or if, perchance, you are living in an abandoned car because the rent for a decent apartment has bolted beyond the pull of gravity.

Prospects for a “kinder, gentler” nation dimmed considerably 25 years ago this month, when a deluded little fellow with a mail-order rifle nailed Jack Kennedy as the president drove through downtown Dallas in an open car. Those shots still have heartbreaking resonance for the millions of Americans convinced John F. Kennedy was the last best hope of the republic and that the place hasn’t been quite the same since. “He was great for our country, and who knows what would have happened if he had lived?” said Anne McShane, a 55-year-old government worker in New York. “That’s at the heart of it.” After Kennedy was killed, McShane said, she cried for three days, and a quarter century later, the grief has not entirely been vanquished.

Fred Bruning

People loved him, all right, but Kennedy was no saint. In the view of many historians, he wasn’t much of an administrator either. He had troubles with Congress. He authorized the Bay of Pigs invasion and then failed to follow through. He deployed thousands of “advisers” to Vietnam, expanding our involvement precipitously and setting us up for years of division and chaos and heartache on a scale we hadn’t known since the Civil War.

He took some mighty big risks during the Cuban missile crisis too, and so far as can be told, he didn’t have much of an agenda when he hit the White House, just plenty of Hyannis Port pizzazz. Yes, he was a Cold Warrior, and yes, he could be ruthless, and there were troubling rumors about his choice of friends and his eye for beautiful women. Asked by American Heritage magazine to name the most overrated public figure in U.S. history, author Thomas Fleming was among those who chose JFK. Said Fleming: “I write this with a lump in my throat. But the record shows his public relations approach to the presidency was almost a total disaster for the nation.”

The most devoted keepers of the Kennedy flame countenance no such heresy. They point to the nuclear test ban treaty and the Alliance

for Progress, to the Peace Corps and Food for Peace program and the breakthrough civil rights bill Kennedy sent to Capitol Hill a few months before his death. They say Kennedy steadfastly refused to deploy ground troops in Vietnam and was planning to withdraw all U.S. personnel in 1964, when he expected to be reelected. In the thousand days of Kennedy’s tenure, former White House press secretary Pierre Salinger told U.S. News and World Report, the president “had already laid the groundwork for a world very different from, and very much better than, the one we live in today.”

The debate is certain to continue, but legislative success or the quality of Kennedy’s statesmanship aren’t, in the words of Anne McShane, “at the heart of it.” John Kennedy was a transcendent figure because he seemed instinctively to understand that the American people are ill at ease with themselves, that they are not content simply with exercising their considerable prerogatives, that out of a revolutionary past has evolved a restless nature and yearning for what might be called spiritual fulfilment—although not the pop-up variety marketed these days by smooth-talking swamis and upscale self-realization experts.

We are fat cats now, to be sure, but uneasy with our heft. America the Avaricious? America the Overstocked? America the Indulgent? Is this what we are and all we intend to be? Kennedy argued for something better. His inaugural admonition—“ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”—has been interpreted by some as autocratic and inappropriate, but there is little in his background to suggest the president was masking a hard-line agenda with appeals to selflessness and service. His call was for a surge of pride and purpose, not a quest for wealth and power. “To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe, struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help,” Kennedy said the day he was sworn in. We’ve not heard much like it lately, and may not for some time to come.

Unlike JFK, our current crop of leaders extols American greatness but neglects its implications. The rest of the world is on notice that our strength allows us every advantage and that we intend to keep our edge, no matter at whose expense. To our own people, government is described as a renegade force that threatens freedom rather than as an ally that sustains it. We are told that we aid the weak by denying them services, that we advance democracy by nourishing tyrants, that we keep the peace by posturing for war.

Whatever his flaws, President Kennedy spied something different in the American character, a strength too long ignored. He appealed to the rambunctious, unsettled side of our people. He asked us to be adventurous and openhearted and optimistic and grateful in a world that had far less. Being a “kinder, gentler” nation is the work of citizens, not speech writers. As John Kennedy knew, this country would become a far prouder place if Americans recalled their improbable heritage and, summoning courage, acted accordingly.