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Twenty Years After Dallas

ISSUE:  Autumn 1983

It will be twenty years on November 22nd since John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas. And yet to most Americans over the age of 30 it seems like only yesterday, so vivid is our recollection of that traumatic Friday afternoon. Ask any of us where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news of the shooting and you’ll get a detailed response. It’s a recollection that will forever be stored in our memory banks for instant retrieval.

Why should this be? Why did this one death have such a profound effect on so many people who had not even met the man? There may be some clues in my own experience.

I was lunching with some UN ambassadors at the New York City home of Marietta Tree, like me a member of the U. S. Delegation to the General Assembly. (I can still remember where I was sitting at the table). Suddenly her young daughter Penelope appeared in the doorway and breathlessly announced, “The president’s been shot—I just heard it on the radio.”

I left the table and went out to find a cab on 79th Street. Some construction workers were clustered around a portable radio, looking stunned. “Is it true?” I asked. One of them nodded. Down at our UN mission, most of the senior staff were assembled in Adlai Stevenson’s office, staring at the television screen: it was true, all right, and there was even a rumor that Lyndon Johnson had had a heart attack. When the official announcement came through that the president was dead, I remember looking over at Stevenson, who was sitting at his desk. For a moment he held his head in his hands; then he began quietly giving instructions on what had to be done and finally reached for a pad and slowly wrote the statement that had to be made.

The delegation walked over to the General Assembly at three for the afternoon session, which was promptly adjourned. The other delegates then crowded around us, stammering out words of sympathy, many of them in tears, especially the Africans.

Later in the day, I met Bill Arthur, the editor of Look, at a Madison Avenue bar. He was stunned, too, but he had a technical problem to cope with: Look had a Christmas issue just going to press with a story about the Kennedys in the White House. It had to be yanked, and could I write a reminiscence by Monday morning to fill the space?

It seemed as good a way as any to occupy the hours of what promised to be a lost weekend, and I started writing it the next afternoon coming back from Washington, where we’d gone with Stevenson to view the casket in the White House. This is what I wrote about that moment: “Jack Kennedy was so much a part of everything we did in Washington that the day after his death, waiting at the State Department before going over to the White House, I still found it hard to believe, impossible really, that he would not be there to greet us in his office. He had been dead, after all, less than 24 hours. It wasn’t until I walked into the darkened East Room and saw the flag-draped casket that I fully realized that we had lost him—and what an unexpectedly personal loss it was for someone like me who had known him so fleetingly.”

It rained all that weekend, and there was nothing on television but the sight of people filing by the casket, most of them, as we had been, in tears. He had reached so many of us in those thousand days. I remember that nearly a year before I had brought back a Christmas present to my 11-year-old daughter from the White House. It was a note from the president in answer to a letter she had written him. She had it framed and kept it on her bedside table. The note is signed, “Your friend, John F. Kennedy.” She never met the president, but she always thought of him as her friend, and she was crying that terrible weekend because her friend was dead. We have become such a different nation that it’s hard to believe now, in 1983, that millions of Americans could feel the way she did—that when our president died we had lost a friend.

And not only Americans. He was mourned all over the world. In Guinea, in West Africa, where I had been serving, the fiery, radical president, Sekou Touré, who had once visited Kennedy in the White House, declared, “I have lost my only true friend in the outside world.” His was the first of many countries to issue a stamp bearing Kennedy’s likeness. Why? I think because Kennedy had the gift of making people feel he cared about them and their problems and that he had an open mind; he was a serious and attentive listener. And in distant lands he symbolized, as no American president has since Roosevelt, those qualities long associated with the American mystique: vitality, compassion, enthusiasm, tolerance, and idealism.

As for those lucky enough to have worked on what was called the New Frontier, we will always remember him, whatever his shortcomings, as a boss who made us feel alive, exhilarated, and prouder to be Americans than we’d ever been before. And this is no small thing. It takes a lot to give you this kind of feeling when you’re past 40, as I was, and have, as they say, been around.

Jack Kennedy’s tone and rhythm were established in the Inaugural Address when, standing bareheaded on that cold, bright January morning, he flung out sentence after sentence that captured the world’s attention: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed. . . .”

And so his gift for speaking in stirring syllables made his death, less than three years later, an all the more emotional event, based as it was on what the man would do rather than on his actual performance.

For under scrutiny, the enduring accomplishments of Kennedy’s thousand days, once you filter out the rhetoric and the emotion, don’t justify more than a few paragraphs of mixed reviews in tomorrow’s history books: the Bay of Pigs (a disaster), the Peace Corps (a noble experiment), the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (a step toward sanity), the Cuban missile crisis (a close call), the start of some civil rights legislation, as well as the start of deeper involvement in the bloody Vietnamese quagmire.

The real legacy of the Kennedy years, for those of us who left our jobs to work on the New Frontier, is a vague sort of inheritance compounded of a sense of adventure, a quickened pulse, a lot of hard work, a renewed pride in our country, a willingness to experiment, a sparkle of memories, a lump in the throat.

And, in retrospect, it all seems a brief but vibrant interlude—vibrant mainly because of the man himself. I became conscious of this quality just a week after the assassination, when Lyndon Johnson came to visit the U. S. Mission at the UN. I recall his coming into the room, a big, solemn, friendly man, shaking hands and leaving not a ripple of excitement or curiosity in his wake. When Kennedy was in a room, you knew it: there was a stir around him, and you’d be aware of a magnetism that was almost palpable. Is that what they call charisma? If so, it’s a singularly uncommon trait. I’ve met every American president from Truman to Reagan, and none had it except Kennedy. Among foreign leaders, I’ve detected it only in Nehru, Chou En-Lai, Fidel Castro, and de Gaulle.

But it wasn’t just a charismatic personality we were mourning 20 Novembers ago, nor was it his exuberance or the faith in ourselves that we have never quite recovered. What many of us have been mourning ever since is the progressive erosion of grace and integrity and courage in our succeeding presidents—in Johnson and Nixon and Ford and Carter and Reagan—all of them, in different ways, flawed or mediocre even when well intentioned. A generation has by now grown up with the lies and blunders of Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran, the prospect of chronic recession, and the obsolete platitudes of a Cold War in the nuclear age believing . . . nothing. Except perhaps that the criteria for making it to the top in American politics are obviously a well-financed mix of showmanship, incompetence, image-making, and deceit.

Kennedy played hardball politics, but he did not scorn or despise his opponents. He could be both tough and forgiving, a combination we are no longer accustomed to; and he had a cool, detached, downbeat style. It was a style that had class in the best sense of the word, and we’re no longer used to that either.

It’s always a tempting, though fruitless, exercise to speculate about what might have been had Kennedy lived and won reelection.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. , and other chroniclers of the era have suggested that Kennedy’s first term, all the thousand days it lasted, was a time of learning and unlearning and that his second term, after he’d trounced Goldwater and the know-nothing right wing once and for all in 1964, would have ushered in a kind of American renaissance at home and abroad.

The premise for such a scenario, and I think it’s valid, is that Kennedy was a fast learner and, during his brief time in office, had already shed many of the assumptions he had brought with him to the presidency. The Bay of Pigs mess led to stricter monitoring of CIA activities, heretofore relatively freewheeling; and as our Vietnam misadventures proliferated without any real success to show for them, Kennedy began finally doubting the euphoria of his own generals and advisers. He had seen Indochina in the early 1950’s and possessed a sense of history; also, diplomats like Averell Harriman, whose contempt for the Pentagon’s political judgment was monumental, had the president’s ear. Kennedy was, moreover, developing second thoughts about traditional friends and foes. After years of plotting to bring down Castro, the White House authorized me in 1963 to begin exploratory talks with the Cubans at the UN with a view toward normalizing relations. (This exercise was aborted by Lyndon Johnson after the assassination. ) Domestically, the president, who did not know what CORE stood for in 1960, was pressing hard for civil rights legislation. Kennedy was indeed a fast learner. And a measure of the change in his thinking can be found in his speech at the American University in June 1963, when, addressing the world but most particularly the leaders of the Soviet Union in words as appropriate today as they were then, he said: “We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle in which suspicion on one side breeds suspicion on the other, and new weapons beget counter weapons.” And he added that both countries had “a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. . . . If we cannot end now all our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the last 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.”

This was the speech that stirred Nikita Khrushchev and led to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. And had Kennedy lived to win the electoral mandate he wanted in 1964, I believe that the momentum toward a resolution of the arms race—about which our diplomats are still dickering at a much higher level of danger—would have been carried forward. Kennedy’s disenchantment with our role in Vietnam had become apparent, at least in private conversation. According to Schlesinger, some of the more hawkish members of his entourage, such as Dean Rusk, were slated for retirement. For Kennedy saw his second term not as an opportunity to save the incumbent Saigon generals but to mobilize America’s resources, energy, and imagination in order to play a leading part in solving the world-wide problems created by what he called “those ancient enemies of man”—poverty, ignorance, disease, and war itself. Perhaps he would have succeeded, perhaps not, but like Franklin D. Roosevelt, who never did lead us all the way out of the Depression, at least in peacetime, the Kennedy years would have been electrified, as was the New Deal, by action and by hope. There would have been no wallowing in the mire of Watergate, no mass disenchantment of the nation’s youth.

Twenty years. Those of us who remember how it was and took some part in the action will never forget what appeared to us to be the dawn of a new political era fashioned by a new generation of leadership. That it lasted only a thousand days seemed like a personal tragedy at the time and can be regarded as a tragedy of historical proportions today, in the light of subsequent events. The world has paid a very high price for Lee Harvey Oswald’s superb marksmanship on that 22nd of November.

Twenty years. . . . A long time, too long really for harking back to how it was or might have been. Better to get on with what needs doing now and recognize the Kennedy years for what they meant to us who lived them—a recollection of style and grace and courage and unfulfilled hope—a poignant memory, yes, but still and all, and essentially, an insubstantial pageant faded and—let’s face it—such stuff as dreams are made on. Or so it seems today.


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