About noon on November 22, 1963, I was preparing to swim laps in the indoor pool of Harvard College. It was then required of freshmen students to pass a swimming test. The test was a condition put in a large gift to the college, as I recall, from the mother of Harry Elkins Widener, who drowned in the sinking of the Titanic. A graduate of the college, he could not swim and so drowned. His mother made a gift in his memory to his alma mater on condition that the college would teach all its students how to swim. If you passed the test, you were exempted from otherwise compulsory swimming classes – as I recall.
You swam naked in the pool. As I stood there that November 22nd with 2 or 3 classmates about to plunge in, a friend of ours came running out of the locker room with a kind of desperate excitement in his face and voice: “The president’s been shot!,” he exclaimed. Our group looked at one another in disbelief – no, we each thought separately; impossible.
Then a cold feeling came to me. I remembered Abraham Lincoln and the much more recent assassination attempt on President Harry Truman. Such terrible things can and do happen, I realized.
We did not want to swim, but had to wait for the class hour to expire. As soon as I had dressed, I ran over to the office of the student newspaper. As I walked in, many were standing around watching TV. As I looked over at the television set, I saw Walter Cronkite take off his glasses and say in a breaking voice: “The president is dead.”
Harvard in 1963 was sort of a center of fandom for Jack Kennedy and his New Frontier. His death seemed to sever the moral fiber of that community. My dad, also a Harvard graduate and a friend of John Kennedy’s older brother Joe when both were undergraduates, had been President Kennedy’s Ambassador to Thailand. Dad had taken us to Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961.
I was standing in the snow on the back side of the Capitol, where inaugurations were then held, for the ceremony, hearing with my own ears my new president’s call to action:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. …
Now the trumpet summons us again – not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need – not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation,” a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself. …
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.
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. …
With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.
I said to myself, “yes.”
And now 59 years and many global tribulations later, I still say “yes.” The work of doing right and good in this world must truly be our own. We must ask of ourselves and not of others.
John Kennedy’s assassination was not the only death or inexplicable tragedy we have witnessed during these past nearly 6 decades. Those sad and bad turns of fate can only leave us with the conclusion that our cosmos does not arrange for the best to happen to us and for us to live in the best of all possible worlds.
His assassination shocked American self-esteem. That such a promising young man would be cut down by a lone misfit made no sense. Many responded with denial of the truth. They felt more psychologically secure in claiming that Kennedy’s death was the result of a conspiracy. They needed an infamous power to blame in order to remove responsibility off the vagaries of that unknowable fate, which embraces us all.
Shifting blame the better to live comfortably in our own imaginations is very human. Scapegoating has its calming effect. Giving our fears a knowable cause puts us more in charge of our lives, as we can then demand specific remediation for what bothers us. If the world is out of sorts with us, then somebody needs to do something about it.
Coincidently, I just read a comment of Picasso on how our minds create safe spaces. He referred to his painting, a process seeking to express an aesthetic, as a “form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile in the universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors, as well as on our desires.”
Recently, in the U.S., we suffer from a surfeit of conspiratorial scapegoating, as things go badly. Some saw a conspiracy between Donald Trump and the Russians in the 2016 presidential election and in the riotous attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Others see conspiracy in how ballots were accepted for counting in the 2020 presidential election. Perhaps not totally irrational, fears of others who are different, fears too of their taking control of our lives, has turned many Americans towards such homeopathic therapy for their psychic discomfort.
Maybe we could use a magic to carry us away from the here and now in a narcissistic embrace of our psyches?
But I ask you: would it not be more realistic to work in this world – to bear every burden, pay every price, meet every hardship, support every friend, oppose every foe – so that actual events bring succor and happiness to those around us?