Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Time To Dry Our Tears

Tomorrow is the forty-ninth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I was walking across my college campus when I heard the news. I don’t remember if I heard it called out from a dorm window or in sobs under a gothic arch, but in an instant it was the only sound, the only thought.

Our country was reborn in the fires of World War II. After the prosperity of the fifties, JFK was elected by a nation brimming with adolescent vitality. Then, in the sixties, we lost our new-found innocence.

I was fifteen at the dawn of the decade, struggling to break out of the confinement of my Dead Poet’s Society high school, where the goal was to make me a “gentleman, scholar, athlete” at a time when it seemed like “none of the above” was a better choice for me. By the end of the sixties I was twenty-five and married with two children.

The day Kennedy died I was in the process of a sort of metaphorical dying myself. The torpor that had hold of me induced an academic sleepwalk from which I woke, dazed, in academic rehab, cold sweats and all, with stops along the way to register for the draft, walk down the aisle and, twice, pace the floor of the new fathers' waiting room (as close as they let men get in those days). It’s hard to imagine now how much happened to me and the country during that decade.

Meg and I are in Mystic, CT now, waiting for our sons, Chris and Nick, and my first son, Cord, and his family to join us for Thanksgiving. On our way here, we spent a few days on Cape Cod, including a visit to Hyannis Port, where the “Kennedy compound” is located. We walked down a little lane near the water and there it was, white clapboard and shingle sprawled along the shore just the way we’ve all seen it in so many photos and newsreels. One of the adjacent houses said “Kennedy” over the front door.

All around Hyannis there are poster-size photographs of Kennedy and his family, often sailing. That lost smile. That lost promise. In the oldest wing of the Hyannis Public Library, dating from before we were a nation, a small portrait of Kennedy hangs on the wall. It’s a photograph of a painting done by Jamie Wyeth in 1967 at the request of the Kennedy family, some of whom are said to have disliked it because of what they saw as doubt or indecision in Kennedy’s expression. I’ve read that Wyeth tried to portray the young president early in his term, when the burdens of office were new and heavy.

I don’t see the doubt others do, but it’s not the big smile we all remember. Kennedy seems pensive, perhaps even brooding. Something in his expression reminds me of myself. Something in it also reminds me of my father, who was close to Kennedy’s age. I can see the appraising look my father sometimes gave me in those moments of quiet in his stormy life, a look that was somewhere between judgment and acceptance. I see my own uncertainty as I stood before him, wondering what he was seeing in me, wondering sometimes whether there was anything there to see at all.

I was born just after Victory in Europe Day, a few weeks before we vaporized Nagasaki and Hiroshima, giving birth to another creature of life and death that has now grown old and dangerously senile. The fifties were our childhood, the nation’s and mine. We grew strong and confident. Our cars grew flashy tail fins. We smoked and drank. We were invincible.

The voice of the country that elected Kennedy was the voice inside me. The old generals were stepping aside. A new hope, a new humanity was rising. Kennedy started the Peace Corps. He brought Martin Luther King to the oval office. He said we would go to the moon. Bob Dylan sang “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and no one sang along louder than I. I even journeyed to the Bitter End CafĂ© in New York to look for him. That was just a few days after Kennedy was shot.

I don’t think Kennedy’s assassination had anything to do with my personal decline that followed, but you couldn’t help feeling that something more terrible had happened than just the murder of a president. MLK and then Bobby were soon dead too. Vietnam raged. Lyndon Johnson’s plan for a Great Society was shelved. We entered the seventies chastened, as if we had been scolded for being foolish dreamers.

In the decades that followed, the nation and I put our heads down and put one foot in front of the other. There were periods of peace and prosperity, but they were just decades. There was never another sixties. There was never again, for me anyway, that sublime moment of hope and optimism.

The old wing at the Hyannis Public Library needs a little TLC. The outside paint has all but peeled off the windows and the foundation is rotting. I have no idea whether Jack and the other Kennedy boys lurked there under the stern gaze of the librarian of their youth, Ora Adams Hinckley, but I like to imagine they did. And I like to think that if they were alive today they would give money to refurbish the old place, or maybe even come by with a bucket of paint themselves.

The Hyannis library is missing the Kennedys, and so is the country. Barack Obama wants to give us hope, but for some reason it seems harder for him to deliver than it was for Jack Kennedy. Blame it on Obama’s diffidence. Blame it on the Republicans. Whatever, it’s not the same. Maybe it is we who have changed. Maybe we are too old now to be inspired. Too cynical to be hopeful. Too jaded to dream.

When I was in that old library wing, looking at JFK gazing out at me in that pensive, slightly troubled way, I wondered what he might see today. I wondered what he might say to us. What moon he might exhort us to travel to. What duty to our fellow man or to our country he might invoke.

We all cried on that day forty-nine years ago. For a man. For a dream. Perhaps now, remembering the young president who urged that nothing was beyond our reach, it is time to dry those tears and come together to patch up that old library and the nation that houses it.


  1. Very nice piece Mac. You paint a great picture of that period with your words....well done.
    Do you remember that Kennedy and a democrat congress reduced the top tax rate from 91% to 70%? Those who objected said (even then) he would be giving a tax cut to the rich. His response was that it was a tax cut for the economy. Too bad today's republicans aren't as quick on their feet!

  2. Thank you, David. I do remember that 91% tax rate, and I remember Dad saying he got more after taxes from the country hams some of his poorer patients paid him with. He bitched about taxes, but he never seemed to begrudge helping others. I think today he would be the kind of moderate, compassionate Republican we are all longing for.

  3. I think you're right about Dad. Interestingly, the republicans were the one's doing most of the complaining about the cuts. It was as true then as it is today; we place more weight on the messenger than the message.

  4. PS- Some years our attic looked like a smokehouse, didn't it?

  5. One more thing. I think the term "compassionate republican" is redundant That is, if you're defining compassion as incresed entitlement spending, You have to admit, Bush made Clinton look downright miserly by comparison. Hell,I'd even be willing to go back to the Clinton tax rates if we could have the Clinton era spending on entitlements. How about you?