CRF Blog

Trying to Remember J.F.K.

by Bill Hayes

In Trying to Remember J.F.K., for the New Yorker, Thomas Mallon reflects on the Kennedy presidency and discusses these projects: The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign by Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie; The Afterlife of John Fitzgerald Kennedy: A Biography by Michael J. Hogan; Jackie, a film by Pablo Larrain; and the JFK Presidential Library.

Both my grandfathers had died long before I was born, a reason perhaps, those mailed good wishes notwithstanding, for my never feeling anything personal toward Eisenhower. With Kennedy, politics aside, everything was intimate, aspirant, literally seen from below. From the inaugural ceremony (I was home from school for a snow day) to the assassination (I was absent, with a cold, playing chess with my uncle), I experienced most of the thirty-fifth Presidency lying on our braided living-room rug, head tilted upward to the television.

Rhetorically, the Administration was an aural experience, heard through the radio-style mesh of the TV speaker. Some of its less remembered lines fastened themselves to me more lastingly than the ghostwritten flourishes that have entered historical memory. “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” On October 22, 1962, the syllogistic nature of this sentence seemed to impress me as much as the possibility it discussed. These were the words I reported to my father when he came through the door, arriving home from work past the middle of the speech.

A year later, when Kennedy made his civil-rights address, it was a rhetorical question, one that followed a list of indignities suffered by American Negroes, that registered with me: “then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?” This exercise in empathy had guaranteed appeal for an imagination susceptible to the weekly premises of “The Twilight Zone.” I could try to do this in the same way I had tried to see myself as Henry Bemis, the Burgess Meredith character who breaks his glasses just after realizing he has a lifetime of peaceful post-nuclear-apocalypse reading ahead of him.

My paternally inspired devotion to Nixon remained weirdly keen, but Kennedy was now my leader, and I was ready to put my undersized shoulder to the wheel. Project Mercury (an Eisenhower program, I feel conservatively compelled even now to point out) had found in the new President a leader who looked as if he could himself be one of the seven astronauts in whose progress I took an obsessive interest. I was most comfortable surrendering to Kennedy when he was in the company of those pilots, making postflight calls, pinning on medals, or just being at Cape Canaveral with them, wearing his Ray-Bans. The incipient sexual dimension of all this is obvious to me now. Why should I have been less vulnerable than anyone else to the projection of desire onto Jack and Jackie? Even eleven-year-olds may have realized that this President, his hand always furtively in and out of his jacket pocket, had his own barely kept secrets. [more]