As a young boy, I did not want to grow up to be president of the United States. On a beach vacation when I was 6 or 7, my parents gave me a children's biography of John F. Kennedy. Along with a similar volume about Abraham Lincoln. Each story had its inspiring moments, of course, but neither ended well. Especially in the mind of a child.
I've since become an amateur presidential historian, and, now enjoying middle age, I still don't want to grow up to be president of the United States. That said, few people outside my family have had an impact on me the way our 35th president has. Considering I was born six years after JFK's dreadful, history-changing ride through downtown Dallas, that impact speaks volumes on the importance Jack Kennedy continues to hold in the way Americans shape their values and the way we steer our lives. The calendar never hits November 22nd without making me pause.
Frankly, President Kennedy belongs as much to mythology as he does to history. And this is a component of his legacy that must be accepted every bit as much as his policy decisions, the Peace Corps, or "Ich bin ein Berliner." He had — still has — a charisma that, before him, could hardly be categorized as presidential. Just picture the men who directly preceded and followed JFK in the White House. Dwight Eisenhower was an American legend before he even considered a presidential campaign. Lyndon Johnson made the Senate his personal playground (and made a more direct impact on the way Americans live than did Kennedy). But neither looked especially dashing in a tux. Neither made women swoon. And neither married Jackie.
Kennedy was polarizing before and during his presidency, and he remains so today. Millions remain inspired by the hope (and yes, glamour) JFK personified, while just as many are repulsed by his womanizing, his manipulative father, and the proverbial silver spoon he had in his pocket on inauguration day in 1961. He may have been a war hero for his efforts in saving members of his PT-109 crew, but Kennedy had blood on his hands for the Bay of Pigs atrocity. Which Kennedy do we choose to remember?
It's only since I began learning of JFK's flaws that I've felt his influence closer to my own life, more in human terms. Who among us would have handled the life presented to Jack Kennedy better than he did himself? An older brother idolized, only to be taken in a fiery plane crash, a loss that thrust a young man onto a stage he may or may not have welcomed without that legendary fatherly shove. Factoring in his own experience in battle, his debilitating back pain (which forced him to wear a brace that factored into the tragedy of November 22, 1963), and a struggle with Addison's disease, Kennedy had a sense of mortality most of us keep safely in another compartment of our minds. In succumbing to the lure of women outside his marriage, Kennedy displayed an immaturity in the only form he was ever allowed. No excuse, but a sad truth.
Was Kennedy a great president? Having not completed a term, he belongs in a different category of evaluation. For me, his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 was the stuff of greatness. Diplomacy begins in a room with your friends, your supporters. Kennedy helped avoid World War III by negotiating a policy, first with a divided cabinet and only then with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Did Kennedy save the world? That might be a stretch, but it's in the conversation.
I've been to Dealey Plaza twice. For anyone who's seen footage of JFK's last moments, such a visit swallows your thoughts, freezes your tongue, and squeezes your heart. What was once the Texas School Book Depository — now the Dallas County Administration Building, with a museum on the sixth floor — is just brick and mortar. With windows. Such was the platform for a murder that changed the world? I've never been able to process this reality, not since first reading that children's book almost 40 years ago.
I've also been to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. Just as Dealey Plaza haunts, the library inspires, a reminder of how very alive its namesake remains. I never knew John F. Kennedy, but I feel like he knew men like me. Indeed, I breathe the same air. I cherish my children's future. And I, too, am mortal.
Frank Murtaugh is a Flyer sports columnist and managing editor of Memphis magazine.