May 22, 2017
Trying to Remember J.F.K.
On the centenary of his birth, seeking the man behind the myth.
By Thomas Mallon
On November 8, 1960, I voted for Richard Nixon. I had turned nine the week before. According to my fourth-grade report card, from that September, I stood four feet one and a quarter inches tall and weighed fifty-five pounds: small enough to be permitted entry into the curtained voting booth in the Stewart Manor School, on Long Island, where my father let me pull the lever for Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge. It was a reach: during Nelson Rockefeller’s long Albany reign, the Republican ticket occupied the top row on New York State’s mechanical ballot.
John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism cut little ice with many of the Irish ex-New Dealers who lived on our street. Their liking of Ike proved to be more than a fling, and by 1960 they were beginning to feel permanently at home in the Republican Party. Affection for my wry, sweet-tempered father, meanwhile, left me immune to much of J.F.K.’s chivalric glamour. My father always called him Ke-NAH-dy, a pronunciation meant to sound haut Wasp, which from his point of view this rich, educated New Englander might as well have been. But he also viewed Kennedy with an easygoing detachment, rather as Kennedy tended to view himself; he laughed along with the affectionate Vaughn Meader impersonations and the Mad magazine spoofs of J.F.K. that I added to his reading of the New York World-Telegram, a middlebrow broadsheet unaware that, along with men’s hats and women’s cotton gloves, it was on the brink of death.
I recall how Phyllis Mindell, the twenty-three-year-old teacher who had notated my height and weight, assigned our class to watch the first Kennedy-Nixon debate. As Kennedy’s inaugural arrived, Mrs. Mindell gave us a letter-writing exercise: we could send our congratulations to the incoming President, or offer the outgoing one our thanks. I loyally chose Eisenhower, and duly received an acknowledgment postmarked February 6, 1961, from Washington. The card inside was headed “Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.” Eisenhower’s bold printed signature (not dissimilar to John F. Kennedy’s) sat where a stamp should have been—my introduction to the franking privilege—and as I look at the envelope more than five decades on I’m arrested by its little bits of archaism. There is no Zip Code, and the addressee, “Master Thomas Mallon,” might as well be Penrod Schofield.
The following June, in her last set of report-card comments, Mrs. Mindell observed that “Tommy has expressed great interest in being a politician someday.” The excitement of the election had clearly lingered.
Kennedy would have been a hundred years old on May 29th. His centenary brings with it new books, the most notable of which is probably “The Road to Camelot” (Simon & Schuster), a wearyingly titled but provocative reconstruction of his “five-year campaign” for the White House. The authors, Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie, both veterans of the Boston Globe, locate the effort’s origin in a “cardiac double-header” from the summer of 1955, when President Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, then Senate Majority Leader, suffered serious heart attacks. Joseph P. Kennedy, confident of Johnson’s recovery but not of Ike’s, suggested to L.B.J. that he consider a race for President in ’56, with Kennedy’s son, the junior senator from Massachusetts, as a running mate.
Johnson wasn’t amenable to the idea, but J.F.K.’s Vice-Presidential prospects were nearly fulfilled when Adlai Stevenson, trying to jump-start his second doomed campaign against Eisenhower, told delegates at the Democratic Convention to make their own choice for the bottom of the ticket. Out in Chicago, Jack Kennedy made a fast, strenuous grab at the nomination, and posted a respectable loss to the Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver. Months before, Kennedy’s young aide Theodore Sorensen had run an extensive set of numbers showing how a Catholic on the Democratic ticket could stem recent defections to the Republican Party by groups like those newly suburbanized Irish Catholics on Dover Parkway in Stewart Manor. Sorensen’s report held that Al Smith’s crushing defeat in 1928 had resulted from his stance against Prohibition, not his religion; Smith would have done worse still had he not been Catholic.
Kennedy spent the fall of ’56 campaigning for Stevenson but picked his own venues, ones that could redound to his benefit four years later. A decision to try for the Presidency in 1960 was made weeks after Stevenson’s defeat, at Thanksgiving dinner in Hyannis Port. Joe Kennedy had already pledged “whatever it takes” from his own fortune. Oliphant and Wilkie suggest that the actual rationale for Kennedy’s candidacy lay in his understanding of “celebrity,” as well as a confession he made to a group at Washington’s Metropolitan Club: “It’s not that I have some burning thing to take to the nation. It’s just, ‘Why not me?’ ”
This is the Kennedy now frozen in Isabel McIlvain’s statue outside the Massachusetts State House: a youthful figure, regal and a little aloof, whose high, straight-ahead gaze isn’t so much visionary as unapproachable. According to “The Road to Camelot,” Kennedy was regarded by some Senate colleagues as “an indifferent Democrat with occasionally independent tendencies,” and he needed to do more than the usual amount of broken-field running to please the Democratic Party’s sturdy but mad coalition of segregation and social justice. Between 1956 and 1958, looking southward, he hinted at disagreement with Eisenhower’s decision to send troops to Little Rock; offered campaign help to George C. Wallace, a candidate for the Alabama governorship; and put a Confederate legislator into “Profiles in Courage.”
Still, he had more work to do with the Party’s left than with its right. Kennedy took a forthright stance against French colonialism in Algeria, previewing his Peace Corps-style competition with the Soviets in the newly independent Third World. The columnist Joseph Alsop thought that Kennedy had potential to become “a Stevenson with balls,” though the Senator’s principal intraparty antagonist, Eleanor Roosevelt, still longed for Stevenson himself. Unforgiving of Kennedy’s softness toward Senator Joseph McCarthy, Mrs. Roosevelt is believed to have been the first to recommend that J.F.K. show “less profile and more courage.” The former First Lady was “brutally brusque” to him during the ’56 Convention. When she finally endorsed him, well into the 1960 campaign, she conceded in conversation that Stevenson might not have made such a good President after all. “I almost peed in my pants,” Kennedy told a crony who had heard the admission.
Oliphant and Wilkie occasionally get tough with their young subject—the coverup of his health problems, his “feckless” behavior with his wife—though they exhibit a lingering Boston tendency to sentimentalize the Kennedys. “Profiles in Courage” is described as a “genuine collaboration” between Kennedy and Sorensen, an odd description for a book officially attributed to the single author who took a Pulitzer Prize for it. Political dirty tricks that would be otherwise deemed reprehensible are just colorful displays of feistiness when executed on Jack’s behalf. Of one Kennedy operative, who, in “an attempt at reverse psychology,” likely mailed thousands of crude anti-Catholic pamphlets to Catholic voters, we’re given the amused judgment of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.: “He took cheerful delight in causing trouble and in reorganizing the truth.”
“The Road to Camelot” is replete with antique names and strategies, and not all readers will want to follow it into the weeds of bygone political science. Nonetheless, the best and most robust part of the book is an early chapter that has Kennedy, at a brawl of a meeting in Boston’s Hotel Bradford, establishing dominance over the Massachusetts Democratic Party by ousting the state chairman and putting in his own man. Jack was willing to countenance and supply whatever it took: trickery, muscle, even the shaking of hands.
Both my grandfathers had died long before I was born, a reason perhaps, those mailed good wishes notwithstanding, for my never feeling anything personal toward Eisenhower. With Kennedy, politics aside, everything was intimate, aspirant, literally seen from below. From the inaugural ceremony (I was home from school for a snow day) to the assassination (I was absent, with a cold, playing chess with my uncle), I experienced most of the thirty-fifth Presidency lying on our braided living-room rug, head tilted upward to the television.
Rhetorically, the Administration was an aural experience, heard through the radio-style mesh of the TV speaker. Some of its less remembered lines fastened themselves to me more lastingly than the ghostwritten flourishes that have entered historical memory. “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” On October 22, 1962, the syllogistic nature of this sentence seemed to impress me as much as the possibility it discussed. These were the words I reported to my father when he came through the door, arriving home from work past the middle of the speech.
A year later, when Kennedy made his civil-rights address, it was a rhetorical question, one that followed a list of indignities suffered by American Negroes, that registered with me: “then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?” This exercise in empathy had guaranteed appeal for an imagination susceptible to the weekly premises of “The Twilight Zone.” I could try to do this in the same way I had tried to see myself as Henry Bemis, the Burgess Meredith character who breaks his glasses just after realizing he has a lifetime of peaceful post-nuclear-apocalypse reading ahead of him.
My paternally inspired devotion to Nixon remained weirdly keen, but Kennedy was now my leader, and I was ready to put my undersized shoulder to the wheel. Project Mercury (an Eisenhower program, I feel conservatively compelled even now to point out) had found in the new President a leader who looked as if he could himself be one of the seven astronauts in whose progress I took an obsessive interest. I was most comfortable surrendering to Kennedy when he was in the company of those pilots, making postflight calls, pinning on medals, or just being at Cape Canaveral with them, wearing his Ray-Bans. The incipient sexual dimension of all this is obvious to me now. Why should I have been less vulnerable than anyone else to the projection of desire onto Jack and Jackie? Even eleven-year-olds may have realized that this President, his hand always furtively in and out of his jacket pocket, had his own barely kept secrets.
The Administration was a family story, part drama—the loss of two-day-old Patrick Kennedy during its last summer—and part raucous sitcom: the pool parties at the home of J.F.K.’s kid brother Bobby, the high-strung Beaver to his Wally. The patriarch interested my own father, who always called him Papa Joe and admired him, however grudgingly, as a roguish son of a bitch whose interest in his children was evident and intense. Oliphant and Wilkie insist that Jack Kennedy was more, and earlier, independent of the old man than is generally believed. The ambitions fuelled by Papa Joe’s dubiously made money were J.F.K.’s own.
After December, 1961, Joseph Kennedy, mostly mute and occasionally moaning, sat trapped inside the effects of a stroke—another sort of “Twilight Zone” scenario that I began to ponder with phobic regularity. The most emotionally striking, and uncharacteristic, photographs of the President show him kissing his helpless father on the top of his head, pictures I may have contemplated with some premonition of the illness that would one day cross our cheerful family doorstep and prematurely ravage my own father.
We are now as far from John Kennedy’s time as his was from Theodore Roosevelt’s. Available living memories are growing scarce. Here in Washington, the Kennedy Center, visible from my study window, feels as much an established marble fact as the Lincoln Memorial, a few blocks away. Only one of Kennedy’s eight siblings survives, his eighty-nine-year-old sister, Jean, who visits a son in the Watergate, more or less next door to the Kennedy Center. As I write, a single buckeye sits on my desk, a souvenir from John Glenn’s Ohio funeral, brought to me by the daughter of his successor in orbit, Scott Carpenter, the subject of an early novel of mine. He, too, is gone, like the rest of the Original Seven.
It is all by now a story whose retellings are remembered more than the story itself. But those reiterations continue to be made, in peculiar and unstable forms. Pablo Larraín’s recent film “Jackie” presents a surprisingly heartless version of the First Lady in the week following the assassination. She plans a funeral for her husband that is based on Lincoln’s, and stage-manages the famous “Camelot” interview with Life. Woe betide anyone who won’t march to her exact tune behind the casket. The film’s smallest pieces of set decoration and costuming are slavishly accurate, while bigger things are off. Peter Sarsgaard is a strangely irresolute Bobby, with no suggestion of a Boston accent. The production ends up being more historical porn than historical fiction, with its version of the fatal Frame 313 of the Zapruder film being held off until late in the picture: the money shot.
Jacqueline Kennedy is also the central figure in Michael J. Hogan’s new study, “The Afterlife of John Fitzgerald Kennedy” (Cambridge). She co-stars in an Administration that Hogan views as a thirty-four-month-long “performance.” Mrs. Kennedy, from the Lincolnesque funeral onward, remained in charge of her husband’s image for the next thirty years, operating sometimes with taste and sometimes with grandiosity, occasionally deploying the vindictive manipulations that “Jackie” regards as her essence. She drove hard bargains with Roger Stevens, the first head of the Kennedy Center, threatening to take her husband’s name off the building if she didn’t have a voice on the board; “blasted” even Schlesinger, the President’s most enduring apologist, when he wouldn’t further perfume his J.F.K. history, “A Thousand Days”; and helped drive an exhausted William Manchester, the family-appointed chronicler of the assassination, into a hospital.
Hogan’s thoroughly researched book is aware of the bullying that accompanied the family’s memorialization of the President (“a relentless war against countermemories or alternative narratives”), but he tends to beat a guilty retreat from any barrage of irony or skepticism as soon as he’s launched it. The spell that Mrs. Kennedy casts at the funeral (“the very personification of strength and grace under pressure, of dignity, nobility, and majesty, of gallantry and composure, of duty and self-sacrifice”) never breaks for long, and no threnody goes unsounded: “In Bolivia, people everywhere wept openly.”
John F. Kennedy with his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
The most useful portion of this “Afterlife” is Hogan’s sine-curving of three historical waves that have carried Kennedy’s memory through the past fifty-four years. Jackie-sanctioned reverence remained “largely intact for most of the decade” after Dallas, giving rise to everything from Schlesinger’s and Sorensen’s reverent reconstructions to “Clare Barnes’s lovely book on Kennedy’s scrimshaw collection.” Then came the revisionists, with pertinent questions about Kennedy’s foreign-policy failures, domestic hesitations, and private morals. Hogan doesn’t deny the legitimacy of their work but does cluck over the way they “seemed to sprout like mushrooms from the dank soil of American politics.” (From what ground did the hagiographic lilies spring?)
If revisionism had, by 1990, “nearly shattered the idealized image” of Kennedy, both it and a third wave of “post-revisionism” ended up being, to a great extent, beside the point. As polls made clear, public opinion “remained largely indifferent to what scholars and pundits had to say.” Even revelations of the President’s Olympian infidelities were assimilated into the legend, infusing it with a priapic, pop-cultural vigor.
Among the ideological waverings of Kennedy’s reputation, one finds a conservative regard first being test-driven in speeches by Ronald Reagan, who focussed on J.F.K.’s Cold Warring, while Reaganite supply-siders viewed Kennedy as a tax-cutting confrère. Ted Cruz, as Hogan points out, got on board this train of thought in 2013. I suspect that my father would have remained cheerfully impervious to it, whereas I find myself making use of the argument from time to time, not just to win a political point but to feel further ensnared by those seductions of Camelot that a half century before I covertly craved and loyally resisted.
To reconnect with Kennedy at this long temporal remove, one still needs to go to Boston, from which his image was first projected, and where, even now, it receives its most active and serious freshenings. The chief monument to J.F.K., more important than all those built or renamed in the first decade of family-directed fealty—the myriad schools, the space center, the airport, the performing-arts center—is his Presidential Library and Museum. After a period of surprising resistance by the residents of already overbuilt Cambridge, the library eventually opened in Columbia Point, in the Dorchester section of Boston, in 1979. The I. M. Pei design, jutting toward the ocean, dominates the coastline, and even in sunny weather winds tear across a plaza near the visitors’ entrance. On the April morning I visited, the entire place was lashed with rain.
Inside, Stacey Bredhoff, the museum’s curator, led me into a room where some of the one hundred objects for a centenary exhibition were being prepared. It seemed a sort of Pointillist, inductive assemblage, some of the items political and others personal, including an assortment of J.F.K.’s neckties and pieces of the scrimshaw that brought forth a whole book. If the gathering conveys a different impression of Kennedy from the one made by the museum’s permanent display, it’s perhaps, Bredhoff said, “a sense of his ambition.” The leather, unwheeled suitcase he used on his pre-Presidential travels lay on a table next to a flag from PT-109. A spokesperson for the Kennedy Library Foundation, in the room with me and Bredhoff, said that knowledge of the President among the museum’s youngest visitors sometimes consists of little more than “that he was young and that he died young.”
I had come to the library to reconnect with a small piece of personal history, the missing half of an epistolary exchange. At home, for fifty-five years, I’ve kept a letter sent to me, in the summer of 1962, with a four-cent Project Mercury stamp, by the Kennedy White House. It was signed by Special Assistant to the President Ralph A. Dungan, the man, in Hogan’s “Afterlife,” whose White House office became the spot from which Kennedy’s family and aides worked “red-eyed through the nights in order to plan all aspects of the president’s funeral.” On July 20, 1962, Dungan assured me that Kennedy was “always appreciative of the interest of those boys and girls who write to him,” and enclosed a partial transcript of the President’s recent press conference, to “clarify [my] understanding of the President’s position.”
I had evidently complained about Kennedy’s urging Americans to “support the Supreme Court decisions even when we might not agree with them.” The decision in question was Engel v. Vitale. On June 25th, the Court had ruled the New York State Regents’ prayer—which public-school students recited “voluntarily,” generally after the Pledge of Allegiance—to be an impermissible intrusion of church upon state. At his press conference, the President dodged the issue of constitutional amendments that might overturn the Court’s ruling, but suggested that Americans pray more at home and in church: “That power is very much open to us.”
The library has an Engel v. Vitale subject file of citizen mail whose contents generally range from the icy (“I hate to think that you are acting like Pontuis Pilot”) to the venomous: “Your support of the Supreme Court in putting God out of our public Schools, and putting the Niger in our schools, is truly the most disgusting thing I have heard yet.” My own handwritten letter has survived, improbably enough, in Box 1709 of an alphabetical Name File, inside a folder marked “MALLO,” where far-flung Mallons variously praise the President on Cuba, urge the impeachment of Earl Warren, and excoriate the proposed wheat sale to the Soviet Union: “Our mortal enemy is in dire trouble so we prop him up. How idiotic!” Only the context they provide makes me look less belligerent:
111 Dover Parkway
Stewart Manor, L.I.
June 28, 1962
I was very disappointed when at your news conference (June 27) you talked in favor of abolishing the prayer we say in our fifth grade class every morning.
I feel that the Supreme Court made a very grave mistake abolishing this prayer and that you made a very bad error supporting them.
If the country can’t pray in public how come In God We Trust is written on our money which circulates openly, and daily.
This is your administration’s most terrible mistake.
Not even “Dear” Mr. President! The dudgeon and scolding are such that, had my pen not reached the bottom-right corner of the page, I no doubt would have added “yet” after “most terrible mistake.” The Glenn and Carpenter space flights, epochal events for me, had both occurred in the past few months, but I was cutting Kennedy no slack on their account. The whole little screed, based on a misapprehension (Kennedy was not supporting the Court’s decision per se), shows a stiff anger.
Did the nuns—the ones who gave public-school pupils like me “religious instruction” each Wednesday afternoon—put us up to this protest? I doubt it. They would not have felt much fervor for the anodyne haste of the Regents’ prayer. (Here it is, in its entirety: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”) For another thing, the letter’s date, June 28th, indicates that we were already free of the nuns: Kennedy’s televised press conference occurred during the first week of my summer vacation. I had nothing but rug-rat leisure to watch the afternoon broadcast all on my own.
The author’s 1962 letter to President Kennedy regarding the Supreme Court’s decision in Engel v. Vitale. Photograph courtesy White House Public Opinion Mail / John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
Even the local aspect of Engel v. Vitale—the plaintiffs and the defendant were from New Hyde Park, right on the other side of Stewart Manor’s main street—seems unlikely to have impelled my letter. What I hear in it, actually, is my father’s extollings of Barry Goldwater, who by that point had (temporarily) replaced Nixon in his political affections. “The Conscience of a Conservative” was on a shelf in our house, perhaps even next to “John Fitzgerald Kennedy: Youngest President,” which I had bought at the school book fair, its title no doubt appealing to my nascent political careerism. I don’t think my father had much interest in the Regents’ prayer, but I was already accustomed to his inveighings against the Supreme Court, absorbing them in the course of our sunny and secure filial romance.
I do, however, have to reckon with my use of “Yours truly,” a closing that, I remember being taught, was less formal and businesslike than “Sincerely.” And while I didn’t go so far as to call myself “Tommy,” I didn’t use “Thomas,” either. As if employing a secret double password, I believe I was signalling to the President that, despite my indignation—and even at the risk of betraying my father—we were friends. Underneath all that fustian, I can in fact find something attributable to John F. Kennedy, to a climactic line of his Convention acceptance speech: “I am saying to you that my decisions on every public policy will be my own, as an American, as a Democrat, and as a free man.”
I recall the words as a thrilling rhetorical experience of parallelism, triad, and crescendo, no matter that I didn’t yet know those terms. A latter-day parse leaves the sentence looking slightly off—surely, to preserve the ascent in importance, “Democrat” should precede “American”—but it lives in my memory as the single most resonant piece of Kennedy oratory, beyond the syllogism of the missile-crisis speech or the empathetic exercise proposed in the civil-rights address. Here I am, lambasting the President as a fifth grader, an unregistered Republican, and a free man, a sense of myself that even now, after decades of identity politics and bitter political disappointment, feels ineradicable. And I know that it came, in some measure, from the Boston-accented voice my father used to mock.
Before the nine-thirty school bell rang on April 12, 1961, Phyllis Mindell called me up to her desk to ask if I knew “what happened today.” I said that Franklin Roosevelt had died sixteen years ago. That this was the fact I answered with—rather than the hundredth anniversary of the firing upon Fort Sumter, then being commemorated in newspapers and magazines—indicates to me that she was right about my political ambitions: Presidents were more important than events.
“No,” Mrs. Mindell replied, with excitement. “I mean what happened today—this morning. The Soviet Union put a man into space.”
The World-Telegram was an evening paper, and I hadn’t heard the news about Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight. “Oh?” was, I believe, all I said. Could she really be seeing this as good news? To me, the space race was more about the Cold War than about wonder, and I was immeasurably distressed by what I took to be a definitive American defeat. I walked back to my desk as if I were having one of my Khrushchev dreams; he sometimes made personal appearances, angry and accusatory, during my slumbers.
On April 12th of this year—a week after my trip to Boston and fifty-six years to the day after she gave me the news about the Soviets’ leap into orbit—I have lunch with Phyllis Mindell, now eighty, an active and accomplished widow with thick, stylish white hair, if no longer the Jackie Kennedy clothes she jokes about once having favored. We talk about the vagaries of memory and wonder if she did not, after all, assign her students to watch the Kennedy-Nixon debates, since she and her husband did not own a television, a decision whose cultural pretentiousness she now laughs at.
We also talk about a letter that she wrote, in 1963, to John F. Kennedy, one that I was able to find through an archivist’s search of the Name File at the J.F.K. library. In it, she thanks the President for being “a sane man,” before noting that “the yet unborn children of the world will remember you as one who helped to eliminate the evil of the atomic bomb.” She does not remember writing the letter—is astonished that it’s turned up—but the circumstances of its composition remain vivid. It was occasioned by Kennedy’s having reached an agreement on the limited nuclear-test-ban treaty with the Soviets, on July 25th.
At the time, Phyllis was twenty-six and had been married to Marvin Mindell, an engineer, for almost five years. She had once miscarried, and the couple were reluctant to bring children into a world that seemed on the brink of nuclear extinction. But the late summer of ’63 appeared to be the beginning of a more promising time, with the test-ban treaty and the March on Washington. They made a small contribution to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that season, and Phyllis now tends to think of the whole period as being more the “King era.” But her memories of Kennedy remain warm, if unblinkered. “You can be a sane man and have feet of clay,” she says. In the end, “that’s our problem, and we have to figure out how to sort that out.”
Newly hopeful, Phyllis again became pregnant late in October, 1963, on a trip that she and Marvin took to Rome. Back on Long Island, she miscarried the baby on the morning of November 22nd. She learned of Kennedy’s assassination later that day, from the weeping woman who had come to take care of her and had heard the news on the radio.
By 1966, Phyllis had given birth to two sons. One of them, David Mindell, an M.I.T. professor, is an important theorist of space exploration and a leading scholar of the Apollo lunar-landing program. The political victory that that effort provided will eventually be a paltry thing compared with the actual human transcendence that it initiated, however fitfully so far. Project Apollo seems to me, even at this remove—and surely in the fullness of time—what mattered most about John F. Kennedy’s life. It was he who committed us to it, six weeks after Professor Mindell’s mother made me look to the sky with a stiff upper lip. ♦
Thomas Mallon, a novelist, an essayist, and a critic, is the author of, most recently, “Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years.”
This article appears in other versions of the May 22, 2017, issue, with the headline “Jack Be Nimble.”