11/25/2013 02:55 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

A Post-Mortem Messiah: The Confusing and Elusive JFK

Was John Kennedy a good president? Not very. On God knows how many pills, he skillfully navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis (his previous signs of weakness to the Soviets may have gotten us into it) and after considerable hesitation (for political reasons), gave a good assist to the Civil Rights Movement. But with that and most other major reforms of the mid-1960s, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, deserves most of the credit.

Because of the Kennedy promotion machine, because JFK was handsome, charming, witty and self-assured and because of how he exited life, he has received credit for more than he deserves. If Johnson hadn't bogged us down in the Vietnam War, which Kennedy was getting us into when he was murdered, and if LBJ had been better-looking, smoother and more charming, Johnson's reputation would be much higher now than Kennedy's among our increasingly historically illiterate population. (Consider George Clooney's saying on an assassination TV show last week that Kennedy's killing was the biggest story of the 20th Century! Perhaps Noel Coward was right: "Many actors are idiots.")

The Kennedy family, with its ruthlessness and self-absorption, inspired little confidence in my family or most of my friends -- most of whom then were moderate Republicans. The Kennedys were pals of demagogue Joseph McCarthy, the president's father had seemed almost pro-Hitler in the early days of World War II, when Joseph Kennedy was U.S. ambassador to Britain, the very rich, good-looking and big-toothed clan seemed (at least up to 1960) to have few discernible ideals other than the power-and-wealth advancement of its members, and JFK's congressional career was notable for its lack of achievement.

That JFK was very unhealthy and that, rather than being the loyal husband and family man he presented himself as, engaged in innumerable quick extramarital sexual episodes (possibly endangering national security), with a cast of dozens or hundreds, came out later. (Oddly, except for these quick couplings, JFK was notable for his physical distancing -- part of his immense, glamorous reserve. He hated crowds -- of course, with good reason -- while expertly playing them like a grand piano.)

Whatever, the assassination was a kick in the stomach for most of us. The sense of sudden violence lurking, of loss of control and of cut-off potential has haunted those who remember the drama of November 1963. How much healthier America would be if JFK had lived and been judged in a content-rich 1964 presidential campaign. If only politics had been allowed to take its normal course.

My own memories of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, are vivid. I was a 16-year-old doing something with dead rats soaked in formaldehyde in a Connecticut boarding-school biology lab when someone came in to announce the "some [John] Bircher shot Kennedy." (A few hours later we learned that the shooter was a sociopathic quasi-Communist, not some anti-fluoridation right-wing nut.) My lab mate and I went to a "common room" in another building, where the TV (which we were usually banned from viewing, along with listening to transistor radios) was on. There we saw Walter Cronkite announce the president's death.

The rest of that sad weekend included watching Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald, the presumed JFK assassin -- on television! -- generalized religious pronouncements and studying. It rained. The hills were brown and gray.

Monday, the state-funeral day, was golden and crisp. We watched the rites on TV. Thus ended the longest period of TV watching in our school careers. I most remember the Navy hymn ("Eternal father, strong to save ..."), and though I am not a believer, it still makes me mist up and reminds me of how much and how little time has elapsed since 1963.

I think of my own wasted years, and of my father, born, like JFK (and Cronkite) in 1917, and like Kennedy, a naval officer. And I think of how much energy and hopefulness Kennedy evoked, whatever his relative lack of permanent accomplishment. There was a spring in the steps of many Americans after Kennedy was very narrowly elected (albeit possibly through electoral fraud). The nation's young demographics then, along with post-World War II prosperity and that more people had faith in public institutions than now, help explain it. And, yes, Kennedy charisma.

I am also reminded of how important newspapers and magazines were: The genius of nostalgia -- Norman Rockwell's Dec. 14, 1963, Saturday Evening Post (also RIP) cover illustration of Kennedy was scooped up as a collector's piece. (Rockwell's personal life was, like JFK's, far different than the image.)

Now my father, Cronkite and just about everyone else in Kennedy's "new generation" is dead, and my own is keeling over at a rapidly accelerating clip. The only unassailable lesson I can think of is a phrase from another tear-jerking hymn: "Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away" -- often without proper warning.

Robert Whitcomb ( or is a Providence-based editor and writer and a former editor of The Providence Journal's editorial pages. He is also a former editor at The Wall Street Journal and International Herald Tribune. He blogs here ( and at

Cross-posted from New England Diary