by Joe Shea
Nov. 22, 2013
IT'S NEVER TOO LATE
BRADENTON, Fla., Nov. 22, 2013 -- The tears came Monday, 50 years late. I was watching the familiar video of President John F. Kennedy's final hours, and it was in the faces of the people outside where I found my grief.
Those faces, those eyes, hurt so much they wept, men and boys and women alike. I started to weep with them, not expecting the deep, racking sobs that came from 50 years away, way down in my soul.
I was in Mr. Carvel's fifth-period biology class when the principal, Mr. Duncan, turned on the radio in the office and said just a few words before we began to listen to the fevered reporting from Dallas.
When I heard the words "Secret Service," I knew instantly what might be happening. It was the President. Someone had made an attempt on his life. It was just a few minutes before we were told, "The President is dead." I asked permission to leave the class and got it.
I walked out and down the hall like a person who has just seen a fortune in gold dust swept out of his hands by the wind. There were no tears, because I was too old - too young, in retrospect - to cry. I knew tht we had all lost something, but my thoughts were for myself. What had I lost?
All this time later, the shining moment of the Kennedy Administration for me is an oddment of history: the celebrated call for Amkericans to join the Kennedy family and tens of thousands of iothers in taking 50-mile walks.
It seems like a strange thing to remember, and the last few days have brought up more appropriate stuff: the "vigah," charm and grace of the young President who had lifted us in a way none other has since.
I lost that lift, too, and when I was turned down for the Peace Corps (mostly due to my very bad grades, I think), there was a sense that the last vestiges of the magic that was JFK had also slipped away. I was not at all inconsolable; with the incredible resilience of youth I took it in stride and soon forgot all about it; I just remembered the effort this week.
Later, I would read some of his speeches out loud from a makeshift podium at my bungalow in Hollywood. I didn't ty to imitate his memorable voice o Boston accent, but to feel his passion and the extrordinjary gracew ith which those speeches were delivered.
JFK was a master of oratorical phrasing, of nuance and inflection, and his words caught their meaning in the timbre of his voice and the gently persuasive urgency of his emotion. They were wonderful speeches, rich with ideas and meaning, impeccably delivered.
The young can be awfully callous, yet although I chaired the local Teen Age Republicans and looked forward to growing into elective office as my forebears had over the years, I never for a moment disparaged our late President.
I met President Johnson in the White House after I was elected Youth Governor of New York and when the Reader's Digest sponsored a trip by all 50 of us from across America to Washington, where we went to parties at the French, Israeli and Kuwaiti embassies and I got to be on a Sunday morning TV talk show - "Youth Wants to Know" - for the first time.
President Johunson came into the room where we waired for him through a side door, and I remember having the impression that a large number of men had come into the room. Trailing him were only7 two, though; the British Chancellor of the Exchequer and his American counterprt, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Fowler - his name was on all our dollar bills back then.
Johhnson's five-minute speech, touching largely on the sacrifice of young men like ourselves in Viet6nam, waqs not especially memorable. He shook only one huand when he passed down the aisle between us and left. The hand he shook was of the boy7 next to me, the Youth Governor of Texas - I believe he became the state's attorney general a few years ago.
Another of the governors was Rush Dew Holt, Jr., the son of the then-youngest man ever elected to the Seate, Rush Holt of West Virginia, a fighter for miners who had to wait six months to be old enough to be seated and begin his struggle with the cancer that soon killed him and his fight against the coal miners' black lung disease.
I met the former Vice-President, Richard Nixon, at a National Women's Republican Club dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1964. As I shook his hand up on the dais, where he'd been sitting next to his wife, Pat, I looked into his eyes with all the cunning, avarice and criminality I could muster; he looked back at me with exactly the same look.
A friend, Dan Lamblin, told me years later that Nixon had the gift of "recognition," an ability to reflect back to a person whatever the person was beaming at him. It certainly seemked appropriate later in the years of Watergate.
I have met more than a few of the men who wanted to be President. Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul, John Edwards and more. I a;so heard Obama at the 1964 National Democratic Convention and was upset that he had (in my view) mangled the perfectly crafted speech that was handed out. He never stopped for commas or semicolons, or summoned up the oratorical flourishes inherent in the words. The speech that was written was far better than the speech that was given. I later heard our Florida Democratic chair, Karen Thurman, speak far better just before him at the state convenmtion (I am now a Democratic Executive Committee member in my county).
None of the above had a Kennedy in them, and I thought I did - I still do. I even saw his face in the mirror on my 21st birthday, staring back at me.
The Kennedy is there, buried deep by time and experience, but still alive. When I see his smile and his charm today, I feel it coming out from within.
I couldn't qualify to carry his briefcase, but carried him within me for half a century. And when I saw the tears on the faces of middle-aged men and their wives and children on CNN Monday night, he was still there - now crying for them.
We talk a lot about the death of innocense, even though we now know that JFK was not so innocent as we imagined, and was probably more of a womanizer than Bill Clinton ever was. None of that stuff has ever diminished him in my eyes.
They say he would pull attractive young women out of the line of visitors coming to tour the White House, bring them back to his office and be making love to them minutes later. That's a whole lot of charm; he must have been something, but I never got to meet him.
Now, of course, I never will. That is probably yet another of the reasons the tears came at last on Monday, 50 years late. At 66, I was finally young enough to cry.