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Viewpoints: With JFK at 100, America remains a nation in search of meaning

By Kevin Gaughan
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

In autumn 1964, one year after President John F. Kennedy’s death, a memorial edition of his book, “Profiles in Courage,” was published, with a foreword by his brother, Robert Kennedy. In it, Robert noted that on the day the president died, his maternal grandmother was alive, age 98. She’d been born a century before, in 1865, five months after President Abraham Lincoln had been taken from this earth.

This weekend, now a century since the birth of JFK on May 29, 1917, our nation endures searing political divides that beckon us all to ponder who we are, and for what we stand. And historians return yet again to the record of Kennedy, trying to discover the complex, at times inscrutable meaning of the man and his times, in hopes of unearthing past lessons that might illuminate future paths.

Through a lifelong friendship with the Kennedy family, my father’s service in JFK’s administration and a professional life devoted to local reform, I’ve given thought to the nature and purpose of government, what scholar Richard Hofstadter called the alternating eras of conservative and progressive ideas in America, and John and Robert Kennedy’s place in that tradition. And this centennial of JFK’s birth seems perhaps an appropriate time to express those thoughts and describe those experiences.

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“My Mother says that if you were a horse, you’d be a handsome horse,” Caroline Kennedy said to me. It was summer 1973, I was living with my college friend Bobby’s family on Cape Cod and, being a feckless 19-year-old, I didn’t get, didn’t like it and said so.

“No, Kevin, you don’t understand,” Caroline gently assured, “she says that only about people she likes. You should stop by and speak with her.”

That’s how my conversations with Jacqueline Kennedy began. When rainy afternoons precluded my taking the young Kennedy children sailing, I’d sit and chat with then Mrs. Onassis. Sometimes she’d include me on a motorboat ride with pals. Years later, when I was a Wall Street attorney and she an editor at a Manhattan publishing house, I’d bump into her on the street and we’d walk a bit. I didn’t know Jackie nearly as well as I know Bobby’s mother, Ethel – a remarkable woman, whose heroic life defines the ideals that many Americans associate with the Kennedys.

But for several reasons, Jackie and I got along. Chief among them was my interest in the president. In 1973, along with my classmate Bobby, I was a Harvard sophomore studying American history and government. Looking back on it, Jackie’s willingness to answer questions even from a nephew’s pal reflected her determination to ensure that her husband and his administration be understood.

In these talks, along with chats with his mother, Rose, brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy, sisters Eunice and Jean, and sister-in-law, Ethel, I learned about JFK. Nothing approaching the deep research and scholarship rightly devoted to him over the years. But a few stories that perhaps offer a glimpse into those attributes that secure his place in the American imagination.

Among the initial chats I had with Jackie centered on poetry. Like many college students, I kept posters on my wall, including portraits of my then favorite poets, W.B. Yeats and Robert Frost. Poking her head in the living room one day as she crossed the lawn, Jackie noticed Yeats, and asked what I admired about him. Whatever shallow answer I offered gave rise to her explaining that she had less interest in Yeats’ nationalism and more in his mysticism, which she likened to Shakespeare in language.

Recognizing I was over my head, I recited from memory a favorite childhood poem, “My Bed is a Boat,” from Robert Louis Stevenson, and a few lines from Homer’s “Iliad,” which I knew only because I’d just completed a Greek humanities course. We walked awhile and, perhaps bemused by my attempts at literacy, she talked on. I took the opportunity to ask her what Kennedy’s poetry interests were.

In answering, Jackie described the depth of his reading habits – saying something to the effect of, “with him the question wasn’t what he read, but what didn’t he read!” When I asked whether he possessed this trait when they first met, she said that second only to noticing his thin frame, his knowledge of books was what struck her.

Film footage of Kennedy often shows him immersed in reading; snatching a newspaper out of another person’s hand; or pointing out to someone something he’d just read, emphasizing sentences by running his index finger over the text.

Torbert MacDonald, a college roommate, fellow World War II veteran and later congressman, once told me it was difficult to raise a subject with JFK without him replying, “well, have you read ‘so-and-so’ on that topic because he takes an opposing view.” (MacDonald, who had dinner with Kennedy one evening in 1962 after the president had spent that day in Buffalo, confided that when he asked about the visit, JFK replied, “they’re crazy up there … the politicians have at each other so much I couldn’t keep straight who to be nice to and who to ignore.”)

An often infirm boy, Kennedy read endlessly. As a teen, he developed his habit of pouring his thoughts into essays and letters. At 15, he wrote a meditative essay, asking if a purportedly just God randomly permits one child to be born in affluence and another in poverty, how can humans ever expect to achieve justice. And, famously, his college examination of Great Britain’s policies that failed to avert World War II, “Why England Slept,” reflected unusual gravity for a young man.

Sailing with Ethel and her children one day, she relayed the story of how, on Inauguration Day 1960, Kennedy’s car ride to the capital with outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower was silently awkward. To engage him, Kennedy asked if he’d read William Shirer’s World War II history, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” a New York Times best-seller. Eisenhower’s reply that he hadn’t startled Kennedy. So much so that when he arrived at the inaugural platform, Eisenhower’s incuriosity about such an important book was the first thing Kennedy mentioned to Ethel’s husband, Robert.

Hearing these stories, I came to understand that the shared, perhaps defining trait of John and Jackie was their narrative-based approach to life. Each possessed a writer’s mind, observer’s manner and poet’s yearning for the indecipherable aspects of the human condition. Each welcomed the internal magic of experiencing people and places through the written word, and gained a nuanced feel for life that comes from examination of ideas, language and history.

That JFK’s reach for achievement would come to grief is his legend. That his reach was informed by a lifetime of reading, and appreciation for those truths that only elegant prose and heartbreaking poetry reveals, is his greatness. As the centuries unfold, it’s not the grief in Kennedy’s story that will endure, but his greatness.

Kevin Gaughan is a Buffalo attorney and civic leader. His email is kevin@kevingaughan.com.

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