November 22, 1963

What our leaders have forgotten in the years since JFK.

click to enlarge WE KNOW JACK: A philanderer, yes -- but a Casanova's better than a Napoleon. - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
WE KNOW JACK: A philanderer, yes -- but a Casanova's better than a Napoleon.

Outside, women are screaming, and sensible

men are drinking themselves senseless, smashing

mirrors with bare fists, opening veins

to join with yours streaming over the world,

reddening the capitals, flooding foreign squares,

running in crimson rivulets over European

cobblestones, through Asian rice fields, below

the primal peaks of Africa. And I,

wanting to smash things, sit here writing words ...

So I wrote, as a young graduate student at the University of Minnesota 44 years ago, on the night of the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

That afternoon I was driving to class, from St. Paul to Minneapolis, and as I neared campus I could see that something cataclysmic had occurred: People were streaming out of stores and apartments, waving their arms and grabbing strangers. "What happened?" I yelled from the car window. Finally I heard, or thought I heard, "The president's been shot!" I parked illegally and ran up the steps and into the building where our class met. In the classroom, everyone was talking at once. After a few minutes of confusion the professor entered, his robotic slowness stopping all the babble. He looked at us for another minute. Normally, he had a wry, intellectual face; now it was pale and haggard. "The president's dead," he said and left the room.

... Now you are dead

we know how lame a cripple this world is:

where seven-year-olds

are shot off bicycles, blown to bits in church;

assassins are assassinated and everywhere

the dragons of unreason fly their flags ...

Both Jeanne and I came from Republican families, where FDR was referred to as "that man." We'd been politicized leftward by the Nixon-Kennedy debates, and our Democratic leanings have only been strengthened by the actions of Nixon-Reagan-Bush compared with those of Kennedy-Carter-Clinton. (Of course it's a mixed bag, but to us, not that mixed.) We weren't fond of Lyndon Johnson, either, though he turned out to be good on civil rights. The Republicans were, and remain, bad on war and civil rights.

No one could inspire people like John Kennedy. We know now, of course, that he was a reckless and tireless philanderer — maybe a model for Bill Clinton! — but sex is less immoral a failure for a leader than the kind of bloody belligerency favored by Republicans (Vietnam, Grenada, Iran-Contra, Iraq). Give us a Casanova over a Napoleon any time. Exercising droit du seigneur is not a likable trait, but it does a lot less damage than nation-meddling.

Because of Kennedy's assassination, and his early support of the South Vietnamese against the North, spinners of history tirelessly make up possible scenarios to Kennedy's detriment. But to claim he would have made the same massive mistakes as Johnson and Nixon is just jealousy: bring down the popular good-looking rich kid, too smart for his own good. It's possible — anything is possible — but mainly nasty, and unprovable.

Clio, the muse of history, will not be fooled, at least while there are people still around to remember. What I do know is this: I and uncounted others will never forget Kennedy's Inaugural Address in 1961. Almost all of it was memorable, but of course we remember most: "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country." And, "My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

So in November 1963, before he was cut down in what is still basically an unsolved murder, we were thinking, Should we join the Peace Corps? How can we work to integrate our schools?

Today, unbelievably, we're thinking, "Are we really torturing our prisoners? Will our president, acting on his own, bomb another small Arab country, and on even flimsier evidence?"

First of all, for our country and the world, we can try to speak the truth; and this is what our current leaders seem to have forgotten. That wise old rascal Norman Mailer, who will be missed, asked, "Can leaders who lie as a way of life protect any way of life?"

And now the sun rises gold in the east

but the golden boy rises no more, no more.

Thanksgiving comes, the time draws near the birth of Christ

and our wounded land, like the riderless horse

skittering down Pennsylvania Avenue

to the roll of muffled drumbeats, is frightened

by death's music. Bagpipes wail, the flag-draped

carriage drifts through our dreams ...

I can see that horse even today, still riderless; and the bagpipes are still wailing.

Peter Meinke's most recent book is Unheard Music, a collection of stories. The above excerpts are from his poem, "November 22, 1963" (unfinished).

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