I am just barely old enough to be considered a baby boomer —still I'm not quite old enough to be one of those people who remembers where they were on November 22, 1963. I might have some sketchy fragments of watching the funeral I recall, but I am not even sure. Memory can be deceptive. What I do recall growing up —in an Irish Catholic family in the Boston area— was a common reverence for the man and a sense of identity with him. I saw the same memorial portrait of him —a pullout from the newspaper— framed and on the wall in both my grandparents homes, cousins houses too. For all he was a wealthy privileged man of power he was also somehow one of us. The grim fact of his murder, the majestic ceremony of mourning, they hung there on the wall, or upon our hearts, with moment not unlike the images of Saints and the Crucified Christ.
The first day of my education was at The John F. Kennedy Memorial Elementary School in Franklin, Mass. I came of age hearing his speeches telling me to "ask not" what my country could do for me, but what I should do —sending the word forth about torches passed forward to new generations. Those speeches —that voice and call— were a huge part of what formed my understanding of being an American. We landed on the moon remembering he'd sent us.
With time of course the worship wore off. The contrasting portrait of the womanizing rich kid whose dad bought him elections came along, courtesy of the iconoclasts. I learned of things like the Bay of Pigs fiasco. I heard the arguments back and forth about flaws and virtues. He was weak or he was clever in dealing with Kruschev —at Vienna —over Cuba —the Berlin Wall. He caused Vietnam. He would have ended it. He was a civil rights champion or a foot dragging, cautious and opportunistic politician.
Over time I've come to believe and accept a little of both narratives. JFK was a flawed man, both measured and inspired, craven and noble —a bit of both. He was one of us. And it strikes me that it was the terrible fact of his death that allowed us to love him, to allow his better angel a voice and hear him in a way we seldom listen these days —in our modern oh so skeptical state of mind.
"For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Those are the words that come to mind for me just now. From a speech he gave to college students, about the challenge, the promise, the possibility of peace. I woke this morning hearing that speech in my mind — I've heard those words all my life, tried in my own flawed way to remember them, words so very well said.