I guess childhood heroes can’t stay that way forever.
I just finished reading an article in “The Atlantic” about John Kennedy. It was actually a review of two new books about him, but the review seemed really to be the author’s expression of her extreme disappointment in finding out that John F. Kennedy—as in “Ask not what your country can do for you…” and “Profiles in Courage”—was actually not that great a guy. He was a terrible womanizer, and his marriage was a sham. Or, if not a complete sham, since the couple did seem to love each other on some level, at least a partial sham that doesn’t add up to the rosy picture that Jackie and John presented to the press and the world.
I share the author’s disappointment. It’s hard for me to square in my head my childhood picture of Kennedy and the one that apparently comes out in those two new memoirs. Let’s put it this way: the escapades that John Kennedy had with multiple White House interns make Bill Clinton look like a Boy Scout!
So, it got me to thinking about how political heroes were a huge part of the mythology of my childhood. My mother was an ardent Democrat, and her motto was, basically, if the person was a Democrat, he/she had to be all right. She didn’t really want to know the dirty underbelly of any politician’s life—as long as they thought and believed the way she did. Her great heroes, in descending order: Adlai Stevenson, “the man with the hole in his shoe,” Franklin Roosevelt, the man of “fireside chats” and the kind of courage in the face of fear that had carried her family through the bleakest hours of World War II, Hubert Humphrey, a worker for equality and justice whose own shot at the White House was ruined by the Vietnam War, and, toward the end of her life, Bill Clinton. She liked Lyndon Johnson, and she liked John Kennedy, but they never made it to the same level on her podium as those other four.
But John Kennedy was my hero. He was young and handsome. And he had a glamorous wife. And, most of all, he had Caroline and John-John. And, when he was shot in Dallas, and my 4th-grade teacher collapsed in grief, it seemed natural to me that the whole world stopped turning for a day or so. I just couldn’t see how such a handsome, glamorous man could actually be dead. As we stood in line for hours upon hours to try to walk by his casket in the Rotunda (we never made it to the Capitol building, since the line was too long, and my sisters and I were too cold and hungry, so my mother took mercy on us) or as we shivered in the cold on a Washington street to watch the funeral procession go by, I got it. I was only 10, but I felt caught up in it all. I cried to see the riderless horse. I was already completely enthralled by Jackie, but her long, black funeral veil was the final touch—topped only in tragedy by John-John’s salute. When Kennedy died, and the whole country went into mourning—over lost youth, lost beauty, lost Camelot—I was right there with them.
In my head, JFK became larger than life.