John F. Kennedy – Maverick President (1917-1963)
Privileged son of a New England tycoon, Kennedy was an unlikely person to survive to adulthood, much less become the youngest president in American history. In his landmark JFK and the Unspeakable, author James W. Douglass summarized the many infirmities that beset Kennedy:
“He saw death approach repeatedly—from scarlet fever when he was two and three years old, from a succession of childhood and teen illnesses, from a chronic blood condition in boarding school, from what doctors thought was a combination of colitis and ulcers, from intestinal ailments during his years at Harvard, from osteoporosis and crippling back problems intensified by war injuries that plagued him the rest of his life, from the adrenal insufficiency of Addison’s disease.”
Though his powerful father arranged a desk job for him during World War II, Kennedy enlisted in the Navy. He rose to command of PT-109, a lethal fast attack craft that the Japanese called “devil boats.”
Kennedy’s legend began to grow when an enemy destroyer tore his boat in half in a Solomon Islands night battle. Some crewmen died and Kennedy led the survivors to the closest island. He saved his bloodied engineer by swimming for four hours, gripping a strap from the man’s life preserver in his teeth to tug his body. He nearly died in swimming and canoeing attempts into the sea for help before rescue came.
Kennedy won election to Congress in 1946. His main objective: preventing another war. He entered the presidency in 1961 during the most dangerous period in American history. The Cold War with the nuclear-stoked Soviet Union raged. When the Central Intelligence Agency orchestrated a disastrous 1961 invasion of Communist Cuba, Kennedy earned their lasting enmity by refusing to allow the United States to invade the nation, which could have prompted nuclear war with the Soviets. He vowed “To splinter the C.I.A. in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.”
In 1962, America faced its closest brush with devastation in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Not only did JFK face down the U.S.S.R. in that epic confrontation, but Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev soon announced replacement of Soviet global offensive efforts with an enhanced investment in their domestic programs.
As his presidency progressed, Kennedy demonstrated a rare phenomenon for a national leader: the ability not only to learn, but to change and grow in both his job and life. This brought him into mortal conflict with much of the entrenched government power structure. Knowing that trying to build an edifying relationship with Cuba, pulling the thousands of American boys out of Vietnam who were already there as “advisers,” ending the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, and defending blacks’ constitutional rights could imperil his own life, but trying to do so anyway is a lasting profile in courage.
Rendezvous with Death
Kennedy’s piteous sexual addiction is well chronicled. Not so much is the profound impact on both he and his wife Jackie of the death of their newborn son Patrick, only a few months before JFK’s murder. Also, how it strengthened their relationship. Weeks before the President’s death, Jackie startled him by expressing her enthusiasm to go with him to Texas—her “first real political trip.” She worried, though, about the ominous rumors they had heard regarding what might await him there.
“Jackie,” he told her their last night in Washington, D.C., “if somebody wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?"
The last morning of Kennedy’s life, Jackie told him she would go anywhere with him.
Two years before, as nuclear dangers gathered, JFK had prepared to embark on his unprecedented, back channel peace outreach to Khruschev. He privately recorded the words that Abraham Lincoln wrote on the eve of the Civil War: “I know there is a God—and I see a storm coming; if he has a place for me, I believe that I am ready.”
Recognizing that “victory” in a nuclear war was no victory at all, Kennedy made no secret of why nothing could stop his pursuit of peace: “I keep thinking of the children, not my kids or yours, but the children all over the world.” Upon signing the nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets, he declared:
“This treaty is…particularly for our children and our grandchildren, and they have no lobby here in Washington…children and grandchildren (whom nuclear war would victimize) with cancer in their bones, with leukemia in their blood, or with poison in their lungs….The malformation of even one baby—who may be born long after we are gone—should be of concern to us all.”
No child in his life was more precious to John Kennedy than his little daughter Caroline. A few weeks before his death, as he met with his National Security Council in the White House Rose Garden, she suddenly appeared next to him and announced she wanted to tell him something. He tried to divert her as the high level meeting continued, but she would not be deterred. Finally, he smiled, turned to her, and told her to go ahead.
As the NSC watched, Caroline looked up into her father’s eyes and recited in its multi-versed entirety his favorite poem, Rendezvous. Alan Seeger, a fellow Harvard graduate and war hero, wrote it prior to his death in World War I. JFK’s advisers sat stupefied following Caroline’s recitation. One of them later declared that the bond between father and four-year-old daughter was such that “it was as if there was an ‘inner music’ he was trying to teach her.’”
God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
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Statehood - 2020s
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