I don’t remember much about the afternoon of the announcement of Kennedy’s death other than the antics of one of my senior year classmates. While most of us sat dumbstruck, Ray Graffia, he of the double-jointed elbow, comically contorted his arm once again, apparently his nervous response to the newsflash. I also remember going to the gym for track practice and being disappointed; it was off limits because they were setting it up for an all-school assembly the next day. The self-centeredness of a seventeen year old.
When Kennedy summoned a new generation for the “long twilight struggle” in his inaugural address, he wasn’t talking to me. After all, Kennedy was born a year after my father. It would take 32 years before members of my “early Boomer” cohort would occupy the highest office in the land. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the Chang and Eng of Baby Boomer politicians, entered the world in the same year as I did.
As a Catholic altar boy, I should have responded as enthusiastically as my Irish father did to the first Catholic president, but I was preoccupied with the White Sox, who in the year before the 1960 election took the American League pennant and, in the fall of 1960, were surpassed by the Yankees, once again, as Nixon was by Kennedy. Maybe it was my German side that explains my coolness; even Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech barely penetrated my consciousness. I wouldn’t go as far as my brother who says that our mother’s lineage –her maiden name was Oswald — played a role in my evaluation.
It would take me a few years before I began to work seriously on my resistance to the chimera of Camelot that was being spun by the Kennedy clan biographers, Ted Sorenson and Arthur Schlesinger. It was with some measure of satisfaction that I read, almost two decades after the assassination, Garry Wills’ 1982 The Kennedy Imprisonment, which Joe McGinness (The Boys on the Bus) thought stomped on Camelot. Wills, one of the most astute historians I know, made the case for the perils of charisma and documented the ways in which Kennedy’s propagation of democracy and belief in “the domino theory” escalated the Cold War. (See my blog post on The Brothers.) His call to “pay any price and bear any burden” in the defense of liberty is misguided if not reckless. Wills also wrote about the ways in which his sexual appetite compromised his leadership powers. Although I’ve read many reviews of other Kennedy biographies since, Wills has always been enough for me. The well-documented lives of the extended Kennedy tribe — accounts of activities noble and sordid — are about as interesting to me as the profiles of other dysfunctional families like the Kardashians, or, of late, the Cheneys, and best read in People while waiting for a haircut. When I recently saw the picture of newly appointed Ambassador Caroline Kennedy greeting the emperor of Japan in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, my first reaction was to think that the Kennedy dynasty should have disappeared a long time ago. Or kept around like the Japanese and British royal families for essentially ceremonial duties. I suffer from a bad case of Kennedy fatigue.
I thought about Kennedy as I watch live the Medal of Freedom Awards on the TV attached to the stationary bike at my health club. Kennedy started the awards 50 years ago, so this was a special ceremony. The 16 diverse Americans included Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, publisher Ben Bradlee, feminist Gloria Steinem, musician Loretta Lynn, and, posthumously, civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin. Had Kennedy lived, he would have been a recipient of this award as other presidents have been. Although most presidential historians today place him in the middle pack, he still has his place in the pantheon of distinguished and iconic Americans, all prodigiously talented but all humanly flawed.