The JFK Generations 

A half-century has passed since his death, but President Kennedy continues to inspire.

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.

click to enlarge jfk_ipad_cover_port.png

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.

Speaking of...

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Blogs

Politics Beat Blog

Luttrell Endorses Randy Boyd for Governor

Music Blog

Listen Up: Ben Abney

Politics Beat Blog

Cohen Tells It!

Hungry Memphis

Royal's Yvonne Mitchell Cooking Up Hits

News Blog

Memphis Pets of the Week (July 27-August 2)

We Saw You

Blues on the Bluff, Luna, Frank Murtaugh

News Blog

High Ozone Levels Forecasted for Wednesday

Fly On The Wall Blog

Dammit Gannett: "Where's Elvis" Edition

ADVERTISEMENT

More by Frank Murtaugh

Readers also liked…

  • A Letter to the Memphis City Council

    The council gets an “F” for its performance on the Greensward decision.
    • Mar 10, 2016
  • Memphis’ Central Park

    The Memphis Zoo/Overton Park controversy is really about the right of Memphians to craft their environment.
    • Feb 4, 2016
  • Making Tennessee Great Again!

    I'm writing this from the restroom facility at Big Hill Pond State Park in southern McNairy County. On Monday, I commandeered the building, which contains the men's and women's restrooms, some racks of pamphlets, and two vending machines. There's no one here right now, but I plan to stay as long as necessary to protest the fact that the state of Tennessee is run by oppressive know-nothings who wouldn't know small government — or freedom, for that matter — if it bit them on their considerable backsides ...

    • Jan 7, 2016

Flyer Flashback

Six Memphis Characters

Eccentrics, artists, and oddballs — six Memphians who live life their way.

Read Story

ADVERTISEMENT
© 1996-2017

Contemporary Media
460 Tennessee Street, 2nd Floor | Memphis, TN 38103
Visit our other sites: Memphis Magazine | Memphis Parent | Inside Memphis Business
Powered by Foundation