Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald. Last week, a four-hour Kennedy biography appeared on PBS’ American Experience. I relate it to a photo in the sports section of the November 12 New York Post. (My brother-in-law Herb has sent me clippings since Kennedy was president.) Politics and professional sports share much in common.
JFK, written by Mark Zwonitzer, spares us the details of the assassination—ground well covered. It focuses on the man and his brief presidency, appraising Kennedy’s strengths and candidly addressing his weaknesses.
My opinion of Kennedy on that terrible day in 1963—I was a college sophomore—remains basically unchanged. If anything, the documentary reinforced that stasis. I thought Kennedy was bright. I liked his appeal to youth. (What college student doesn’t think that the older generation has made a mess of things and should step aside?) I also appreciated his sense of humor. He was fast with a brilliant quip that could get him out of a tight spot.
But much of Kennedy’s popularity, as JFK points out, reflected well-crafted public relations. Camelot—the attractive couple, wealthy and cultured—struck me as completely overdone. Kennedy appeared at his inauguration without an overcoat, the image of his highly touted vigor. What the public couldn’t see was his silk underwear. The crowd cheered his poetic address. Congress turned its back on his programs.
An ardent Cold Warrior, Kennedy half-heartedly green-lighted the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba inherited from Dwight Eisenhower. Disaster followed. In 1962, he pressured Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to withdraw nuclear missiles from Cuba. Score one for our side. In return, he withdrew American nuclear missiles from Turkey. Score one for theirs. Oh, and the White House hushed up the withdrawal from Turkey. Moreover, Khrushchev may have placed missiles in Cuba in the first place because he found Kennedy, whom he met in Vienna, to be young and inexperienced.
Then there was JFK’s now-legendary womanizing. That was covered up, too. The White House also concealed Kennedy’s serious health problems. Give credit. All those pain-masking drugs would have done in lesser men. But while people speculate on JFK’s potential legacy—including Vietnam—I speculate that stress and drugs might have killed him before he completed eight years in the Oval Office.
Now to the New York Post photo: Several members of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets serve Veteran’s Day meals to troops at Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton. This is no matter of wealthy athletes paying back privately. It’s a photo op. The players wear hats and aprons in the Nets’ black-and-white color scheme complete with team logo. We get a feel-good PR moment for a league in which, to my knowledge, no current American player has served in our military.
Image plays a major role in American life. But image without substance risks little lies morphing into Big Lies. This imperils our democracy.
Still, there’s one image we might wish to cling to: Diogenes, the Greek Cynic philosopher, searching continually for an honest man.
No post on November 29. The next will appear on December 6. And to all who will be lighting candles starting Wednesday night, Happy Chanukah!
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Read the first three chapters of SAN CAFÉ and of SLICK!, named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the 25 Best Indie Novels of 2012, at davidperlstein.com. Order at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com or bn.com.