Unremarkably, everyone and his favourite pony is commenting on The Death Of JFK. If they are over 50, they invariably inform anyone who cares to listen that he was a saint and changed their lives, and if they are under 50 they inform everyone who cares to listen that he was a saint and would most certainly have changed their lives had they not had the grave misfortune to have been born after 1960.
Then there is the minority who are loath to let pass an opportunity to describe John Boy in the most lurid terms: he was a devil, a drug-taking, adulterous philanderer who, if not actually a mafioso was so in cahoots with The Mob that he liked nothing better when not taking drugs and philandering adulterously than rustling up a mean spag bol while hanging out with others in the family.
According to these apostates, JFK would have been impeached and hounded out of office had he lived and worked several decades later (i.e. now) when our Press and TV weren’t such sycophantic pussycats as in the Sixties. Well, given that everyone and his favourite pony is commenting, whether to sanctify or damn the man, it really would be amiss of me not to join in.
Let me first answer that hoary old question: where were you when you heard that Kennedy had been assassinated? I was in my first year at my boarding school (note I am egalitarian and enlightened enough not to call it ‘my public school’, although naturally not sufficiently egalitarian and enlightened not to slip in the fact obliquely and let you know anyway. Subtle or what?) and we first year boys all lived in a house about a mile away called Junior House.
We had just finished supper and were in the junior changing room underneath the gym at about 7.45pm gathering our gear to make our way to Junior House when a prefect turned up and called us to order. Once we were all quiet, he told us (and I can’t remember him crying uncontrollably or his voice breaking, the insensitive bastard) that Kennedy had been killed. That was it. I can’t remember talking about it with anyone or anyone else discussing it, although we might well have done. It’s just that I can’t remember it.
Of course it was a shock, but not quite for the reason bandied about today. It was a shock because it seemed so unlikely, for, like the Pope and The Beatles, the President of the United States was unique. At any one time there is only one of him (yes, ‘him’ - I doubt we shall be saying ‘her’ for many a year yet). It was a similar shock to hear almost 20 years later that John Lennon had been killed (and, as you ask, I was on my way to work at the Birmingham Evening Mail, just driving away from West Bromwich hospital nurses home after spending the night with my girlfriend. I heard the news on either the 7.30 or 9.30 morning news - shifts started at 8am or 10am). Again, there was nothing special about Lennon, who is now inexplicably regarded as a saint who ‘worked for peace’. The shock was merely because it was so unexpected. But by then we were getting used to prominent figures being bumped off, so used to it, in fact, that when John Paul II got his, we all wondered why it had taken so long.
When someone tried to shoot Ronald Reagan 15 months later, we were already getting used to the idea that if you were in the public eye, having some nutter try to kill you came with the territory. When two months later someone tried to kill Pope John II, it hardly raised an eyebrow. ‘He probably had it coming’ was more or less then general attitude.
As for JFK, I think the sanest and most reasonable view to take is that he was neither particularly bad, nor particularly good. JFK fans conveniently forget that he was the presidend, not Lyndon Johnson, who got the US involved in the Vietnam War to begin with, although at first the poor saps being shipped over there were still euphemistically called ‘military advisors’ (or ‘advisers’ if you work for the Daily Mail, though why I don’t know).
When LBJ was sworn in, he already had the mess to deal with.
JFK most certainly kept his nerve during the ‘Cuban missile crisis’, though here again I’ve heard that it wasn’t quite as straightforward as all history would have us believe (though I’m a tad hazy on the details). It seems there were elements of Kennedy helping the Soviet’s Nikita Krushchev in a power struggle with elements in the Kremlin who were a damn sight more hawkish than he was. (And the Soviets were later desperate to convince the US that they had bugger all to do with JFK’s assassination in Dallas.)
It was also LBJ, not Kennedy who brought in, against huge opposition, the civil rights reforms which set America’s blacks a little freer. I can’t, at this point, resist pointing out that the number of American blacks who are in jail, on death row, unemployed, homeless and drug addicts is still in 2013 vastly disproportionate compared to whites, and I should imagine it is scant consolation that Hispanics run them a close second.
What Kennedy had in his favour was relative youth, good looks, a glamorous wife and the fact that he was voted in when the first post-war generation came of age. He was, to use that cliche, in the right place at the right time. Oh, and unlike Nixon he didn’t sweat in the sweltering heat given out by TV studio spotlights.
Finally, of course, JFK has the distinct advantage over the rest of them because: like Lennon, Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Rupert Brooke, Wilfried Owen, and several more he died young. We never got to see JFK in his dotage. I don’t think a single legend has yet survived the sight of a drooling, half-witted, skeletal and bald old codger in a wheelchair. JFK had the wit to die young, though it has to be said he didn’t have any say in the matter. But let’s, please, forget all this crap of either St John F Kennedy or Kennedy, Evil Personified.
PS I was just hunting down a cartoon piccy of JFK to illustrate this entry. Of all those I found none was in the least bit disrespectful, showing him in some rather ridiculous light or other. That more or less sums the - in my view rather disturbing - sanctification process which has surrounded the man. So far there are no reports that he once walked on water. I suppose we’ll have to wait a few hundred years for that one. It does rather underline the principle which has made Press barons rich these past few hundred years: give the public the truth or a myth and they’ll opt for the myth always. I mean do we really want to be reminded that the Queen is obliged to poo at least once a day like the rest of us?