Friday, May 29, 2015

To Sir, With Love

President Kennedy died on my sixth birthday. That's a tender age, and having my Big Day marred by a national tragedy left its mark. In trying to restore order to my little universe and understand the pervasive agony* all around me, I began reading obsessively the man. And have never stopped.


John F. Kennedy taught me much about life. The biggest lesson is that the way a life looks on the outside isn't necessarily how it feels from the inside. Though he was insulated by wealth, young Jack was plagued by severe, painful medical problems that kept him in the hospital or home convalescing. He missed years of school and had to drop out of Yale because of his fragile health. (And this was as the second son in a family that valued achievement above all else.) His parents had a troubled marriage, and that resulted in a complicated, unsatisfactory relationship with his mother that may have colored his attitude toward women throughout his life. (I've read just as much about his wife, so I'm not unaware of his own failings as a husband.)

So whenever I'm tempted to compare my life to someone else's, whenever I feel envy nipping at my heart, I remember how the world looked at JFK and thought he had it all, while in his heart he always felt rather lonely and isolated.

But look what he accomplished! Cum laude graduate of Harvard, decorated war hero, Pulitzer Prize winner, and the youngest man ever elected to the Presidency. The first Irish Catholic, at a time when people still remembered signs in store windows that said, "Irish need not apply."

Yes, he lucked out being born to one of the country's wealthiest family. But the wit, the intellect, the elegant turn of phrase, the fascinating combination of empathy and detachment he brought to every situation ... those money didn't buy. 

He taught me that if you have imagination, you can visualize your own destiny and if you don't cut yourself too much slack, you can achieve your goals. 

He remains the single biggest influence on my politics. He wrote this before I was born, and it still sums up my view of what my country can be if we listen to our better selves.

If by a "Liberal" they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal", then I'm proud to say I'm a "Liberal.”

That's how I'm honoring him, with gratitude, on his birthday.


*Adults, please hear me. I remember the trauma of 11/22/63 so clearly, remember the riots and assassinations of 1968 so clearly, and I worry about other children when major news events happen. Like children in Boston after the bombing, or St. Louis and Baltimore after the riots. Talk to the kids in your life. They feel the impact without necessarily understanding it, and that can make a painful period even scarier.

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