November in Washington is winter’s harbinger and the keeper of the bitter flame for one of the nation’s most haunting and shocking tragedies, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22 in 1963.
When Kennedy was a young senator, his wife and daughter Caroline lived in Georgetown so that the memory of November 22 is keenly felt here, every year, by elder statesmen, by long-timers in the village, by what remains of the tribe of New Frontiersmen along with journalists with vivid memories of the day, memories shared by Americans enthralled by Kennedy’s inspirational rhetoric in the early 1960s. We remember the news, Cronkite’s voice, the headlines, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald on live television, the funeral drums, the heads of state marching on the parade route, John John’s salute, the widow in black. It was — like 9/11 — a sea change event.
Ever since then, people have been writing about that day and the Kennedys — poetry, fiction, stories, biographies, histories, books on conspiracy theories. More than that, though, the event led to a polishing and a continuing retelling of the mystique and stories not only of John F. Kennedy but of the Kennedy family — of the mafia, Monroe, plane crashes and the old man, and tales fraught with so much conspiracy, you could get completely lost. It is an endless roll call of movies, made for television movies, documentaries, music, novels, biographies, essays, musings and histories. Sometimes, the process seems to roll back on itself to the beginning, the place where hero worship and grief still lie waiting. Our imagination and memories are alive with the faces and voices — friends and foes, lovers and wives and children — of the Kennedy clan and the triumphs they achieved, accompanied by a more than equal number of tragedies which befell them. The Irish gods are not just.
Washington journalist and talk show host Chris Matthews just recently came out with a speculative book about JFK called “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero,” which he plugged on two of his Sunday talk shows, on the first of which he argued that Barack Obama was, well, no Jack Kennedy. The book, according to reviews, is generally admiring of JFK on his heroic quality, the PT 109 thing, the Cuban Missile Crisis and his inspiring qualities, the most affecting of which was a kind of fiery detachment.
Only recently, the prolific horror and pop culture master novelist Stephen King came out with a massive fantasy novel called “11/22/63,” in which his hero travels back in time to try to prevent JFK’s assassination. Earlier this year, there was yet another in a long series of television mini-series about the Kennedy’s which featured Tom Cruise’s spouse Katie Holmes as Jackie Kennedy. It never ends—the whole pop culture parade of all things JFK, not the mini-series.
We’ll never stop dreaming about the Kennedys. Lots of presidential wanna-bes were inspired by him—certainly Clinton was and to a degree so was Obama, or to put it in reverse, the media sometimes tries to find Kennedyesque qualities in candidates reaching for the gold ring. Ted Kennedy, who died last year as a lion of the Senate, saw something like that in Obama as did JFK’s daughter Caroline, the only remaining child and star in the Kennedy firmament these days, the keeper of the heritage flame by way of education, schools, trusts and libraries.
At the time, and in retrospect, Jackie Kennedy’s claim that the brief Kennedy era was a kind of modern-day “Camelot” was embraced by many people, and they never quite let go of it. Jackie was thinking of the popular Broadway musical of the time, starring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet as Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. The reality was not quite so charmed, but the idea persists centering around drama, rhetoric, inspiration — and just about the biggest collection of familial romance and tragedy, scandal and lofty ideals you can possibly imagine.
We have come around again, like Matthews, to think of the times and the family in heroic, perhaps Shakespearean and Arthurian terms, in spite of everything. No family ever endured worse scandals, more shattering tragedies and untimely, violent losses than the Kennedys and yet maintained their essential image of political class. The Kennedys were a family full of striding princes and lords, and princesses and brides, a saintly matriarch and perhaps a thwarted king who made it all happen. In this, they did resemble the Arthurian story: think of Arthur, his drugged fling with his cousin that produced an evil offspring, think of the dream of the round table, of Lancelot betraying the king and the spirit of the grail seekers, and yet it happened nonetheless: The lady rose out of the lake and caught the sword, and the quest remained and so did Camelot.
The Kennedys continue to suffer losses, and today resemble nothing less than a gathering of stately trees in our neighborhoods, their brightest foliage stripped, gone with the ongoing wind. Every time a Kennedy suffers a misfortune —Ted’s daughter Kara died relatively young this year; we remember all their misfortunes. In our heads, we remember our “sexiest man alive John F. Kennedy, Jr.,” a plane crashing into the Atlantic, his troubled wife at his side. We remember Robert F. Kennedy facing down angry crowds in Indianapolis on the day Martin Luther King, Jr., died, we remember the brothers together, sad Joan, brittle Ethel, some of the children not surviving the journey, and we remember Marilyn. We remember Ted on his first Senate run, young and green, admitting to a factory worker that he had never worked a day in his life. “You didn’t miss much,” the man told him.
I saw what was left of the New Frontier at a gathering for the funeral of Pierre Salinger in Georgetown at Holy Trinity Church in 2004. Salinger, who had been JFK’s much put-upon press secretary and had even written columns for the Georgetowner, had delivered on his promise to move to France if George W. Bush was elected in the 2000 elections and now, having died there, he was returning home. Ted Kennedy delivered the eulogy, and there was Ben Bradlee, and George McGovern, and JFK’s speech writer Ted Sorenson and they were much older, their ranks thinned and thinning, but still carried history with them like a blank check.
The ranks are thinner still. And thinking of them now, I can understand Matthew’s yearning for a JFK hero, and King’s desire to rescue the present from the past.
Somewhere, maybe, a hand rises out of a lake holding a sword. I expect it’s just a trailer for the next Spielberg movie.