Wednesday, January 19, 2011

John F Kennedy’s Inauguration: A Reflection

I would think that grey-haired Americans recall the assassination of JFK more than they have a recollection of his inauguration. As one of those ‘grey-haired’, I certainly do. But coincidently, I remember JFK’s inauguration as a time of significant personal change. For a year prior to his inauguration, I was a musician on the road in the Deep South. I was appalled at the treatment of black and brown Americans in the south of 1960. It changed my perception of Martin Luther King developed while a student and musician, living and working in Boston. During that year, I acquired a great admiration for Dr. King and his work, which brought about a sea change in attitude concerning racism, law enforcement, and government in my life.

Fifty-years ago, following Saturday’s New Year’s Eve engagement, I made a resolution not to return to the road. I was 23 years old, and could not envision continuing a life on the road. So, on Saturday, January 7, 1961, I took a bus from Norfolk, Virginia, connecting in Boston to a Plymouth-Brockton bus that brought me back home to Bryantville, a village in Pembroke, Massachusetts.

I found secondary employment as a bartender at Boston’s Harvard Club where I had been employed while a student at Berklee College of Music.

On my previous employment at the club, then in my early 20’s, I had served one Kennedy brother or another. I remember the first time Ted Kennedy placed an order at my bar: a scotch and water with just enough scotch “to color the water.” All the brothers would greet me with that familiar Kennedy smile.

At these events, Ted Kennedy was unremarkable amongst his peers; one would never suspect he would be our next Senator from Massachusetts, filling the seat of his brother John F. Kennedy, our next President of the United States.

Because of that personal connection, I developed a fondness for the Kennedys, and curiosity with their life’s vicissitudes, tribulations, triumphs and failings.

I was working that Friday at the Harvard Club when Jack Kennedy delivered his Inaugural Address. It seemed everywhere club members had an ear to the radio.

I felt then, as I do now, that JFK, even though by a narrow margin, was elected because of America’s obsession with idols, movie stars, and the rich and famous, of which JFK was marked by wealth, a politically respected name, war heroics, personal attractiveness, his youth, a good-looking wife, and attractive children.

Because of my road experience, I was sensitive to King’s civil rights movement. When Kennedy articulated the phrase, “… ask what you can do for your country,” my thoughts focused on King’s struggle for civil rights. I said to myself, “well, Jack, civil rights legislation is what you can do for your country.”

Despite Kennedy’s rhetoric, my perception is that President Kennedy did not have the political will to embrace the Civil Rights that Martin Luther King sought. I don’t believe it would ever have been accomplished under his leadership.

This year, the memory of the sixties is particularly poignant. The attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the murders of six and critical wounds to twelve others, brings revulsion and shudder to this ‘grey-haired’. Like many others who had just come of age in the 60’s, the Vietnam war, anarchy, and assassination are the events marking that era and are indelibly engraved in our memory. These events, the tragedy in Arizona, and the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, manifest disillusionment with America.

JFK was at heart a politician and warrior. With those attributes, my instincts are that he would not attempt to do what would be beneficial for Americans. He would not have reached beyond politics, “allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions,” as Dr. King put it.

I certainly don’t think three years is enough time to reasonably assess a presidency. Nevertheless, in hindsight, I wonder today if JFK was, or ever could have been, a successful President.
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