John Fitzgerald Kennedy: 1917-1963

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John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States

by Laura Bergquist, LOOK Senior Editor

From the fizzy early takeoff of the New Frontier to the heartbreaking end, I was a fascinated spectator, who dropped in at the White House off and on in the line of duty to check up on Kennedy happenings.

“Seeing the Tiger?” the White House guard would ask, and that set the tone: admiring, but not reverential.

JFK was the first President I had ever known, and somehow the idea was both stunning and exhilarating. For the first time in my life, the President of the United States was not an Olympian-remote, grandfatherly figure, but a contemporary — brighter, wittier, more sure of his destiny and more disciplined than any of us, but still a superior equal who talked your language, read the books you read, knew the inside jokes. In a world can by old men, he was a leader born in the 20th century, and when they said a new generation had taken over, you realized it was your own. That made you nervous, knowing how fallible we were.

Emotions about him seemed to vary with age: The young adored him, youthful leaders of the turbulent nations aped his style, while old New Dealers in their 50’s often didn’t feel quite comfortable with the cool, dry pragmatism of this New Frontiersman.

I had a critical, proprietary interest in that White House: If he pulled a boner, you argued with him in your head, or sometimes in person; if he did something splendid, you cheered him on with a note; if you ran across a useful bit of information in travels, say in Latin America, you felt he should hear about it. It seemed plain presumptuous, but an aide would urge you on: “Tell the President.”

You beefed when he seemed to move too cautiously, in civil rights, for example, forgetting that Lincoln was also shellacked for wasting time in persuading, temporizing and trying to hold the country together. You wondered if this quizzical, fact-absorbing rationalist had a real-guts understanding of the angry young revolutionists of the world, and not until he died did you realize, shamefaced, he certainly got through to them.

jfk-pensiveHe didn’t seem to rouse your emotions, as much as your mind. Yet you felt proud seeing him cut such a swathe in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and empathized with his wry reaction after the first cold-bath meeting with Khrushchev and the Russians, when he turned to US Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson and said, “Tell me, are they always this way?”

I first began trailing him in 1956, just after he’d lost the nomination for Vice-President; Democratic insiders then pooh-poohed his quest for the Presidency as impossible — he was too rich, too glamorous, had too much father, and he wasn’t Adlai.

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But in Columbia, SC, a conservative bastion, I heard him speak out on civil rights with a ferocious, startling candor. I knew then he was better than the glamour image that dogged and often irked him. Still, who could share the passionate certainty his lieutenant Ted Sorensen voiced on that Southern swing, that here was the next President? Then there he actually was, the first Irish-American intellectual President in history, a man for whom even Greta Garbo would drop by the White House, and a man who didn’t forget us cats who knew him early. He hadn’t changed, though his time for banter grew ever shorter.

Still, for all his informality, a paralysis hit you when you entered that quiet oval office. He had a knack for derailing an interview, switching from the kind of corny personal question he liked least ( “What does it feel like to be President?” “I’m not good at couch talk” ) , to ask, “Do you know about the gold flow? No? Check Sorensen.” He thought you needed educating.

How, he’d muse, do you explain the complex issues of the ’60’s to people: the Common Market, balance of payments? Once, you recommended he read the novel Seven Days in May. Typically, he already had, and had pondered its theme, take-over of the US Government by the military. He could name a couple of Top Brass he thought might hanker to, he added.

If you were off for Cuba, he would give you homework: Read Henry Brandon’s latest dispatch from there in the London Sunday Times.

You might be talking to his secretary when out he’d pop to say, “I read your piece on the Dominican Republic,” and ask, whatever happened to that dwarf who specialized in exotic tortures for Trujillo? Once, set for a noon session with him, I found his office jammed with his whole top echelon — from Secretary Rusk to Maxwell Taylor. I backed out quickly. It turned out big decisions were being made that day: The Russians had renewed nuclear testing. You felt abashed intruding at all, with your minuscule concerns, on days like that — but came to learn that sometimes when pressures were fiercest, he liked to shift gears and talk about the minor things.

An aide of Mrs Kennedy’s once said she knew hell must be breaking loose in the West Wing when she got a barrage of calls from him: What about the fireworks for the King of Afghanistan? How long would they last? Did they have permission from the District of Columbia to fire them off?

John F Kennedy 35th President of the United StatesAlong with the staff, you waited for those JFK “funnies” that livened a dull, time-consuming ceremony in the Rose Garden, or the wit that flashed at a press conference. He clearly relished tangling with Goldwater, whom he liked. It would not be fair, he said when asked by a reporter for a comment on a Goldwater statement, to add to the Senator’s problems. Goldwater, he pointed out, twinkling, had been so busy already that week selling the TVA, giving permission to military commanders to use nuclear weapons, involving himself in the Greek elections.

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Once, after having been closeted for two days with some head of government, he went into the garden to address a religious group. A reporter, troubled by a particularly cloudy JFK sentence, asked Pierre Salinger to find out what he meant. “The President said to tell you he doesn’t know what he meant. He said that is just the way he gets after two days with so-and-so.”

Disbelief still assails me that he isn’t around, the White House seemed so much his natural habitat. He said in the inaugural message his hopes wouldn’t be fulfilled in the first 1,000 days, not even perhaps “in our lifetime on this planet,” and he got just a thousand. Historians must judge him now.

But he brought to that office far more than the style and quality belabored in the eulogies. He brought courage, rationality and spaciousness into American life.

He was the first President since Lincoln to marshal all his authority for the cause of the Negro. World War III was almost taken for granted, until he hammered home the thought that it was unthinkable. You could see him visibly growing in that office and feeling its burdens.

The last time I saw him, there was a somber, sobering quality about him, a dark vein of sadness I had never glimpsed before. So many months after the nightmare of Dallas, why is a sudden glimpse of him in a film enough to move you to tears? Perhaps, as Ted Sorensen found, his assassination affected many people more deeply than the death of their parents; the latter often represented a “loss of the past,” while he was an “incalculable loss of the future.”

Seven months later, his popularity showed no signs of waning. “What I admired especially,” said a young Arab sheik, “was his bravery over Cuba. But more than that, I felt he was of my own generation. He was really our President, too.”

No one would have been more astonished than that complex, fascinating man, who rarely voiced in public the deep passion he felt about events, who worried he wasn’t getting his message across, to find that he was not only admired all over the world, but loved.

The Warren Commission report brought back all the memories of his life and his death. A young girl interviewed in New York summed up our emotions quite simply.

“I’ll never get over it,” she said. Nor will I.

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