Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The 95th birthday of JFK

(For my friend Amy, who is an amazing person and will soon be a mother, and who went with me to see the current president win on that night in Chicago in 2008)

It’s May 29th 2012. Back on May 29th 1917, before the end of World War I, a man of Irish ancestry was born to a family dynasty in Boston, USA.

John F Kennedy, if he were still alive, would be celebrating his 95th birthday today. That’s a strange concept, imagining JFK as a very old man, half a decade off his centenary. Possibly because, after being assassinated nearly half a century ago, there’s no pictures of him at more than early middle age.

My mother and father christened me “John” after JFK. They were admirers of him, his presidency and the way he spoke. Britain was a very different world, then, especially in the way information about current events and politics was obtained. A few TV channels, newspapers more restrained than todays, radio, your peers, and that was about it. Unless you were rich - and my parents certainly were not - going to America was not an option. So they got all of their information, impressions, from those few sources, liked what or who they saw, and named me after him. Which was also possibly a lucky escape, as the other politician they both admired was Winston Churchill.

My father was born just a few years after JFK; I was born nearly five years after the president’s assassination. Consequently, I never saw him “live” on TV, though my earliest memory is of the moon landing, a program he instigated and pushed for several years before ...

... the memory being of being in someone else’s living room, full of adults, and the strange box in the corner showing some moving black and white images. I didn’t have a clue what was going on - I was less than two, but can remember, sharply, the excitement in the room.

As I was growing up, I understood a little more about JFK. The Cuban missile crisis. The election battle with Nixon in 1960. The Cold War. And that politics in America was changing, different in the 60s to other decades, and certainly different to the toxic, hysterical and impossibly bipartisan governance that the country now struggles with.

Those differences come through in the speeches and the soundbites. And, as acknowledged by many, JFK was one of the best presidents, up there with Lincoln, at public speaking. This is one of his most famous lines:

It would be a curiously libertarian statement if made by a mainstream president, or (especially) a presidential candidate, now. They probably wouldn't say it; the risk of it being misinterpreted, or used against him or her. But when it came to speaking, either from a script or off the cuff, JFK had memorable quotes, and he had balls.

And speaking of balls, there was his private life, his alleged private life, his family life, and the like. Jackie. Camelot. The new first family. The first presidency out of the shadow of post World War II reconstruction. And the links with Marilyn Monroe, who, even in black and white footage, is to me the personification of sex and desire. You can kindly keep the modern day pop videos complete with people shaking their 'booty' and wiggling whatever else they choose to wiggle, in an advanced state of undress. This ... this is sexy:

We'll never know how different the world would have been if he had not been assassinated. Or, if he had lost in 1960, and it was close, whether there would still be a world under Nixon's presidency during scary-events-time Cuba. And we'll never be entirely sure why he was assassinated, very nearly half a century ago now.

Somehow, in eleven trips to America, over two years spent there and many experiences, I've never visited any JFK-related sites, with the notable exception of Air Force One, the actual plane which took Kennedy to Dallas and brought his body back.

Maybe I need to rectify that in the future, in America or Ireland. Especially as I come from an English village that had a significant involvement in the American presidency and flag, as well as a lifelong fascination with things America and American politics.

But the thing about JFK that most fascinates me is how much he achieved. Yes, he had the family dynasty to get a good start in life. But, like FDR a few decades before him, he was beset with ill health, to the extent of having a disrupted education and, on one occasion, receiving the last rites. That's not the only time John had a brush with mortality, having been in Germany on September 1st 1939, and having to dash back across to the USA in a deteriorating war situation. But, he still managed to rise and win the presidency, reinvigorate the sluggish US economy, and deal with Cuba, Russia and a number of international situations (though even then, the US was getting bogged down in Iraqi politics) in the space of a few years, plus moving American society on to make it easier for his successor to pass sweeping legislation, before being assassinated at the age of 46.

His legacy? America was never the same again, socially or politically. Communication between rulers and people changed, with television predominating. And those hard things - man landing on the moon, equality, significant social reform - were done or progressed.

7.20.1969 Man on the Moon - Aldrin on Surface after Descending Ladder on LM (2 of 5)

Which is a thing that makes me humble, acutely aware of time. In less than 3 years time, assuming I live that long, I'll be older than JFK was at the time of his death. Barring some completely implausible chain of events, I won't have achieved a small fraction of what he did in his equivalent time on this rock; I am like JFK in first name and gender only.

Though it's often not healthy to compare your "progress" to that of others (especially, perhaps ludicrously, to a president of the USA), when you reach a certain age you become more aware of what you've achieved - and what you haven't. Adventures and experiences, I've clocked up more than most people will in their whole lives, but in terms of conventional achievements, and doing things that slightly change humankind and society for the better, my scorecard is lacking. I'm hoping that the best years and decades are still ahead for me - though perhaps more actual "doing", and less "hoping" and writing about doing, would help them actually happen.

Certainly, JFK didn't slowly build up to a period of "late life achieving", instead becoming president of the USA just before 43 and a half (younger than I am now), and doing it all, when he could, as soon as he could. And he didn't let poor or bad health get in the way (self: take note). It's a good thing that he got so much done, bearing in mind how young his life was cut short. Which is a reminder of what someone I follow on Twitter said in the spring of 2009:

Don't take your potential to the grave.

Final thought: I wish JFK had been alive to see the moon landing.

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