After writing my Friday blog (11/22/13) about the day that President Kennedy was killed fifty years ago (November 22, 1963), and the impact this had on my life since that fateful day, I have continued to reflect on a myriad of public responses to the assassination. In fact, I have been processing these kinds of responses ever since my college years in the late 1960s.
Over the last few weeks I have heard more interesting opinion, and endured more nonsense, than I can recall. Perhaps all of this is because of the fiftieth anniversary of the president’s assassination in Dallas. This has led me to form a few personal reflections which I hope explain something of the times then (1963), as well our times now (2013). In writing these personal reflections I seek to understand what this momentous event meant then, and what it means for us today.
First, numerous popularizers continue to lionize Kennedy, almost beyond belief. Some of this is to be expected, given the way in which he tragically died. Some of it is pure nonsense, given what he actually accomplished as the president in less than three years in the White House. Even more of it fits with the Camelot image that has been attached to JFK, as very popular political myth, since his tragic death.
Second, some have referred to angry whites who rejoiced at JFK’s death in 1963. I lived in the deep South in those days. My parents did not vote for Kennedy. In fact, my pastor warned us to not vote for a Catholic. (I refer to this fact very negatively in my book, Your Church Is Too Small.) I recall complete grief, not laughter or celebration, when Kennedy died. I am quite sure some right-wing bigots cheered. Yet if this had been Ronald Reagan, who was also shot and nearly died, some on the extreme left would have been quite pleased I’m sure. There are always “nuts” in every time and place. I was deeply moved and filled with sadness when President Kennedy died. So were my very conservative parents. So was everyone that I remember in my very conservative church family and small-town Southern community.
Third, John F. Kennedy has been portrayed as the great “peacemaker” of his era. Some anti-nuke writers from the Cold War era have gone to great lengths to make a case for this reading of JFK. I was reminded of this last week, especially by the cover story in America, a Jesuit magazine that I often enjoy reading.
James W. Douglass, author of the book JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters (republished by Touchstone, 2010), contributed an article to America (November 18, 2013) with the provocative title: “A President for Peace.” Douglass, a cofounder with his wife of Mary’s House Catholic Work in Birmingham, Alabama, tells of personally writing the Catholic saint Dorothy Day regarding Kennedy’s death. Day wrote back telling Douglass to read a profile that she highly recommended. This profile said that in the context of “continuing violence, she would pray to John F. Kennedy (her emphasis).” Day then connected this thought to Romans 8:28. Amazingly, a recognized Catholic saint virtually made the deceased president into a saint, at least in her own heart.
According to Douglass, John Kennedy risked his life by the words that he spoke in a commencement address given at American University on June 10, 1963. This was true, he argues, precisely because JFK sought peace with the Communists through a nuclear freeze. Douglass decided to follow Dorothy Day’s counsel as well as those of the famous Thomas Merton who had given what Douglass calls “a contingent prophecy” about Kennedy breaking through to embrace peace, a prophecy which he said would likely lead to his assassination. Douglass followed this counsel in doing the research to write his book, a book that Merton says “sees the redemptive light of Dallas that Dorothy sensed in November 1963 through her love of God.”
Now, who am I to question Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton? These are beloved figures from that mid-century era of great social and political upheaval. Douglass argues that Kennedy was learning to see his enemies through the Gospel story thus he was learning to see things through the eyes of his Communist adversaries. Douglass then tells a story about the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 that proves, he believes, that JFK was in sync with the pope’s teaching about global peace. In the end, if Douglass is to be believed, we have what amounts to a modern day saint in the White House. (Given many of Kennedy’s personal actions in the White House this is a very odd claim even from a liberal Catholic writer!)
Please do not get me wrong. This is all far more complicated than politics and personalities. Some of this I simply do not think we know for sure. But I am personally convinced that Douglass knows far less than he lets on. It is true that Kennedy does appear to have become increasingly distrustful of military options but I remind anyone who wishes to argue for this narrative (on the whole) that he did approve both our approach to Cuba and to Vietnam. In so doing he was setting into effect the plans LBJ followed that escalated the war in Southeast Asia. There just is not enough adequate evidence that JFK was the peacemaker who would have ended Vietnam and halted the Cold War due to his being the great peace leader of the time.
In Douglass’s telling both Kennedy and Khrushchev turned toward peace and had JFK not have died history would have been very, very different. Now I do not doubt that history would have been different had JFK lived but we have no idea how or why. Douglass even quotes a Khrushchev statement about building “mutual trust” and then connects this quote to Pope John XXIII’s encyclical on peace. The end result is that JFK was a great peacemaker and so was Nikita Khrushchev!
It is true that there is an N.S.A. Memorandum from May 6, 1963, in which Kennedy ordered his government, after the Cuban missile crisis, to pursue a policy of “general and complete disarmament.” But the devil, as always, is in the details. This mandate is a far cry from the political reality of how this would have been done, or even if it could have been done by a presidential mandate. (This begs the question of whether or not JFK would have been re-elected had he pursued this course openly!)
Columnist Ross Douthat, in a New York Times editorial published on November 26, 2011, argued that there is an enduring cult of Kennedy. He concludes his bracing and (I think) insightful critique, with these words:
This last example suggests why the J.F.K. cult matters — because its myths [namely that JFK was killed because of the extreme right wing movements of the time] still shape how we interpret politics today. We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement. We find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame. And we imagine that the worst evils can be blamed exclusively on subterranean demons, rather than on the follies that often flow from fine words and high ideals.
Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, took what I think was a more realistic view of the “Camelot” vision of President Kennedy when he wrote last Friday:
I still feel, or want to feel, the aura of the Camelot era. Why? There lies deep in the human soul a longing to be in a society characterized by innocence, idealism, beauty, and hope. When it comes to ultimate things, this yearning is right and good—God given, in fact. But when this yearning falsifies our history and politics, it creates more problems than it solves.
Americans have had, and always will have until my generation is gone, a unique fascination with John F. Kennedy. While historians generally conclude that his presidency accomplished very little, and he made a number of serious mistakes, the generation that remembers his death still wants to make of him a great saint. In the end I think this has led us to look for a new Camelot for fifty years. To say the least we have not found one. We never will. The realm of politics is far more realistic, and hard nosed, than the story of Camelot and the myths that still surround JFK.
I have concluded, out of what I think is just hard core historical realism, that David Von Drehle, (TIME, November 25, 2013) is spot on when he says: “To close the book on his murder feels, in some way, like letting that open-ended promise slip away into the past. And that’s something we do not wish to do.”