Jack Ohman

Jack Kennedy at 96: The torch is passed...

Jack Kennedy would have been 96 on May 29, and for people over 55 or so, that seems a bit difficult to fathom.

Elected at the astoundingly young age of 43 (even at 47, Obama was at his election older than Kennedy when he died), he seems fixed in historical amber, impossibly young almost fifty years after his death.

For people younger than 55, he is a picture hanging on a classroom wall, a victim of a tragedy replayed almost nightly on some upper cable channel, a caricature of womanizing with Marilyn Monroe, or just another guy who was president. I had one friend, then in her early thirties, who told me that "Kennedy means nothing to me." I was rather taken aback, but I could see that in many ways, he had no resonance for her.

He should and does, of course, for anyone who remembers him, even in the slightest way. 

For example, had Kennedy not been president for the brief period of time he served (two years, ten months, 2 days), this country might not have taken up the wildly improbable mission of going to the moon. Had he not been president, perhaps this country might have made different choices in Cuba in October, 1962, and we wouldn't be reading this. And, indeed, had Kennedy not been president, maybe we would not have had the also nearly inconceivable notion that a black man (with a white mother, no less) named Barack Hussein Obama would be currently sitting in the White House today.

Tom Wicker once wrote an article in Esquire in 1964 entitled "Kennedy Without Tears." Fifty years after his assassination, he still inspires passion on the right and left, and yes, some tears. Today, had he lived, we might have a different view of him. While it is pretty to think otherwise, to paraphrase the words of a Hemingway character, we may well have gotten involved in Vietnam anyway. Indeed, we were involved there prior to his death, people were dying there, and the Kennedy foreign policy team remained largely in place throughout Lyndon Johnson's presidency. Perhaps his affair with a gangster moll (and dozens of others, including a 20 year old intern in the White House) would have been discovered, and the Kennedy legacy would have been anathema instead of an anthem. No one knows. 

The date November 22, 1963 is foreboding on its own, and, in that ruin of a day, chaos theory ruled. Tens of millions of lives were directed in different trajectories, and we cannot run the tape back. 

In viewing photos, videotape (interestingly, there is no color video of him), and film of Kennedy now, he appears to have been Photoshopped into whatever scene he appeared in, like a hologram of Future Man in a sea of gray, bald, heavyset pols, a kind of President Don Draper who jumps out and says the most unlikely, prescient things. Kennedy's peer group is rapidly passing from the scene; his youngest White House staffers are in their late seventies, and his most private thoughts weren't expressed in the myriad ways the way they are in today's culture. His generation acted loudly and spoke softly, and to subject JFK to today's media rules would cheapen his impact and subject much of his idealism to ridicule. 

The historical Kennedy is a marvelous orator and wit. In the smaller doses of media bites of the 1960s, it played well. In a contemporary context, would he be overexposed and, hence, not as interesting? Would Jack Kennedy appear on The View now? Would he say he made mistakes with women? Would he spill his guts about how tens of millions of untraceable dollars were spent on his behalf to secure the presidency? Would he have been a Bill Clinton or a virtual recluse? We don't know. And we won't.

I guess it is yet another baby boomer fantasy to pretend Jack Kennedy had lived, or to have the opportunity to question him now. Some things are best left unsaid. For eternity, there are many, many unsaid things about Jack Kennedy.

Last fall, I went to his grave at Arlington Cemetery with a very good friend, a Canadian artist. It was twilight. Oddly, we were alone. There was a very beautiful shaft of light from the west in the corner of my eye (I know, it sounds corny and literary, but there was). I watched the eternal flame, looked at the dark gray granite that had his name inscribed on it, and had a hard time really visualizing him even though I was right there. I did hear his voice, in a way. But not his face. I just couldn't. I just think of him alive, his hand punching the air, riding in a car patting his hair, or getting off a helicopter. Alive. Not there, under a piece of granite. I picked up an acorn. I still have it here. We walked down the hill to get a cab. I don't think either of us said anything for about five minutes. 

I don't know if I will plant the acorn, or not. In a way, he planted a lot of them, and they are growing around the world, regardless of whether he was a moral exemplar, or just a living, flawed man.

Remembering him as an ideal is best. Because the system we have now isn't letting us idealize anyone now.

That's not good.

As he once said, "life is unfair," and "we are all mortal."