Like most baby boomers, I suspect, I remember John F. Kennedy’s assassination much more vividly than I do his presidency.
The shocking announcement in school. The stunned daze everybody seemed to be in afterwards. Watching Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on live TV after coming back from Mass on Sunday morning. The non-stop coverage on television, ending with that unbearably sad funeral.
Most of us were too young, of course, to have really known much about Kennedy at the time, not to speak of having any opinions about how he handled, say, the Cuban Missile Crisis.
As adults, however, it turns out we can’t get enough of the man and his less than three years in office. Around 40,000 thousand books have been written about John F. Kennedy, his family, his affairs and, of course, conspiracy theories surrounding his assassination. Then there are the movies, including Oliver Stone’s notorious “JFK” and now “Parkland,” Hollywood’s latest take on the assassination, as well as TV specials and mini-series, and countless newspaper, magazine and Internet articles.
And, as we approach the 50th anniversary of that dark day in Dallas, the floodgates have opened again. Just scan your local newsstand — nearly every magazine has a special issue devoted to Kennedy. More books have been published, perhaps the best being Thurston Clarke’s “JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President” (more on that later).
For those wondering what might have happened if Kennedy lived, Jeff Greenfield’s “If Kennedy Lived: An Alternate History” offers well-researched “counter-factual” speculation. Kennedy’s appeal also cuts across the political divide, as demonstrated by the best-selling success of Chris Matthews’ warm and fuzzy biography “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero” and Bill O’Reilly’s overwrought “Killing Kennedy.”
While the still-mysterious and traumatizing assassination is the catalyst for our unrelenting obsession with Kennedy, there’s clearly more to it than that, especially for boomers.
Sure, a lot of it is the time and place. It was the '60s and we were young — and so was he. JFK really did represent a new generation — he could have been Dwight Eisenhower’s son. He was athletic and vigorous. He was handsome. He had a beautiful wife and young kids. He had big, bold ideas — he said we should go the moon! He started the Peace Corps. He wanted black Americans to have the same rights as white Americans.
Jack Kennedy was also a really, really interesting — and complicated — guy. His family was rich, but not boring, old money rich. They were Irish immigrants from working-class Boston who worked their way up. His father was a brilliant businessman with a slightly shady history who became an ambassador to Great Britain. Jack was a sickly kid who spent a lot of time in hospitals and almost died.
But Kennedy insisted on enlisting in World War II and became a war hero. John Kennedy, who had a bad back, saved a man’s life by swimming for miles holding onto the guy at night in the Pacific Ocean, after Japanese battleships destroyed his boat and were trying to kill the survivors. When Kennedy finally reached an island after swimming for hours with another man on his back, he got up and cut his feet on coral reefs, looking for locals who could help them.
After the war, Kennedy could have been a rich kid who didn’t really have to do much of anything. Instead, he worked his ass off to become a congressman and then a senator, and wrote a book called “Profiles in Courage” about politicians willing to risk their careers for principle, which won him a Pulitzer Prize. He kept his cool and made Richard Nixon sweat in a famous series of debates that probably won him the election, becoming the first Roman Catholic — and youngest elected — president in United States history.
Plus Jack Kennedy was really smart, charming and witty. Don’t take my word for it. Check out his press conferences on YouTube. The guy held a press conference nearly every other week, made reporters laugh and gave as good as he got. No other president has even come close in that department.
And there were the women. John F. Kennedy made Don Draper look like a monk. He fucked around whenever he could. He screwed 20-year-old interns and a 50-something Marlene Dietrich. That famous clip of Marilyn Monroe practically having an orgasm while singing “Happy Birthday” to Kennedy in a skintight dress (with his wife looking on) says it all.
According to Clarke, Kennedy claimed if he didn’t have intercourse every day he would get a headache. It was not his finest quality. It was stupid and reckless, not to speak of being awful to his long-suffering wife. But that libidinous energy and sex appeal was a big part of who he was and his success. When he went out into crowds while campaigning, women literally tried to tear his clothes off.
Clarke’s book is particularly good because of its framing device. He describes the last 100 days of Kennedy’s life in as much detail as he can, giving the reader a fresh insight into his presidency, his personal life and what might have been if he had lived.
Although not a full-fledged biography, “JFK’s Last Hundred Days” does weave in Kennedy’s life story around logical jumping-off points in the narrative, providing readers with new details and anecdotes, and fresh insights into what made the man tick.
While Clarke doesn’t overdo the sex stuff, the combination of daily detail and historical background paints a vivid picture of how central sex was to Kennedy’s psychological makeup. Whether his behavior came from his father’s womanizing example, the amphetamines or other drugs he took for various ailments or from a desire to compensate for his chronic illnesses and near-death experiences, Jack Kennedy was, by all accounts, determined to have sex as often as he could.
What’s really incredible, as Clarke makes clear in his diary-like format, is the consistent and substantial risks that Kennedy took, while President of the United States, just to get laid. Yes, it was easier to get away with things then, but if he had gotten caught just once, he would have lost everything.
It’s even weirder to fathom because Kennedy clearly loved being President. He loved politics, was a passionate student of history and really did believe in public service and making the country – and the world – a better place.
Historians can debate how successful Kennedy was, but Clarke argues that he was, at the least, a good president who was in the process of becoming a great one. He cites evidence (selective, to be sure) that Kennedy was becoming disillusioned with American military involvement in Vietnam, and probably wouldn’t have escalated the war.
Before he died, Kennedy was also making progress in working with the Soviet Union to begin a process to slow down the arms race and reduce nuclear weapons. He was also clearly committed to strengthening civil rights for African-Americans, although he was stymied by domestic politics — white Southern Democrats in his own party, to be exact.
In fact, one of the great paradoxes of American history is that Kennedy’s assassination provided the catalyst for that master of congressional politics and procedure, Lyndon Johnson, to finally push past the racist resistance of his southern colleagues and pass landmark civil rights legislation.
The assassination, of course, hangs over “Last Hundred Days” like an ominous gray winter cloud. No matter how well Kennedy does in those final days, no matter what he accomplishes, you know Friday, November 22, inevitably, remorselessly, is drawing near.
Perhaps the most haunting part of the book is the foreboding that Kennedy and others had about Dallas, which became more pronounced as the date drew closer.
On October 3, Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas urged Kennedy to skip Dallas. Fulbright’s liberal positions on foreign affairs earned him the wrath of wealthy local conservatives and the Dallas Morning News called him “a red louse.”
Dallas was “a very dangerous place,” he told Kennedy. “I wouldn’t go there … Don’t you go.”
On November 4, citing the activities of General Edwin Walker, a Dallas resident who had been forced to resign from the Army for disseminating right-wing propaganda to troops under his command, a prominent local Democratic National Committeeman wrote Robert Kennedy that he was “worried about President Kennedy’s proposed trip to Dallas … I would feel better if the President’s itinerary did not include Dallas.”
Ten days later, at the Carlyle Hotel in New York, former Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, who had been accosted when he visited Dallas earlier in the year, tried to convince Kennedy not to go. Yes, Stevenson was a northern liberal, but even lifelong Texan Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird had been attacked by an angry crowd in Dallas during the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy was reminded.
But Kennedy was determined to go to Dallas and demonstrate his popularity as a show of strength for the following year’s presidential campaign — and to prove to wealthy potential donors that they should loosen their purse strings.
Indeed, the crowds that greeted him on November 22 were large and friendly. There was also an ad in the Dallas Morning News bordered in black like an obituary notice, headlined "WELCOME MR. KENNEDY TO DALLAS” accompanied by indignant accusations questioning his patriotism, like, “Why have you scrapped the Monroe Doctrine in favor of the ‘Spirit of Moscow'?”
Kennedy handed the paper to his wife. “Oh you know we’re heading into nut country today,” he said. “But, Jackie, if somebody wanted to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?”
There was a final twist of fate.
Texas Governor John Connelly wanted the President to speak at an invitation-only lunch at the Dallas Trade Mart. The White House preferred that he speak at a larger and less exclusive event at the State Fairgrounds. Connelly insisted on the Trade Mart, where Kennedy was headed as his motorcade slowly drove through Dealy Plaza.
If Kennedy had gone instead from the airport to the Fairgrounds, he would have taken a different route — and been traveling faster when he passed the Texas Book Depository.
But he didn't.