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JFK's November
Published on Tuesday, November 18, 2003 by the Boston Globe
JFK's November
by James Carroll

THE CHILL WIND from the north has come. The days fall into darkness with premature finality. Now begins the season that first made human beings afraid of the year. The rotations and revolutions of the Earth define the very limits of existence, the controls of light and warmth, yet no direct perception of these movements is possible. Indeed, your daily perception -- that the sun is the thing that moves from dawn to dusk -- is unreliable, or so science tells you. And now the seasonal evidence is equally perplexing. In the northern climes, this is the time of what seems the sun's retreat. Yet it is only the arc of Earth's rotation? Never mind. As the sharp green leaves once turned to follow the sun's course in the sky (the leaves believe it moves), so the winter soul adjusts itself for dark.

So, too, with what the calendar evokes. In America, you prepare to observe the 40th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy, which violated every law of nature except this season's.

He had a certain mythic air but was no deity. Yet an illumination failed when he did. The hopes associated with him could have been extinguished, so it felt, only in the desolations of November.

What was it about Kennedy that made him seem a source of light? You know now what chill winds cut through his bones, making him brittle with self-protecting pretense. He seemed an icon of masculine maturity yet secretly raced to the ever ticking clock of an adolescent sexuality. He knew the risks of war from his own experience, yet infinitely exacerbated them by unleashing an ungodly missile race. He was sick while seeming the most fit of men. A wit, with an ever-ready smile, he was never more himself than when brooding alone. You picture him always on that overcast Cape Cod beach, photographed from behind, head bent, trudging through the sand, khakis rolled -- and only now it hits you that that, too, was probably November. Grim complacencies of some Thanksgiving weekend.

The odd thing is, the more the air of myth has been dispelled, the more irresistibly human he is made to seem. The more ambiguous his legacy appears, the firmer his grip on your affection. And loyalty. On the cusp of senior discounts yourself, yet you remain one of Kennedy's children. In him you saw far more than you knew you were seeing at the time. The possibility of public -- and private -- style, yes. But also, as it turned out, of enduring commitment. Militant Cold War resolution, yes -- those missiles -- but also an impulse for another way. When that other way showed itself so unexpectedly through the likes of Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, didn't they, by their own account, embody something glimpsed long before in Kennedy, too?

His hold on the imagination of a global generation could be, as some say, only that you lost him young. But you say no, it's more than that. Even in the fullness of his own life, which was the first flower of yours, he pointed to the relevance of a realm of experience from which politicians are conditioned to turn away. He made his argument for peace and against the arms race not primarily in geopolitical terms but in human ones. "For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

In uttering such words at American University a few months before he -- and you -- were so untimely confronted with his own mortality, Kennedy was expressly addressing the enemy of the United States, and in Moscow his words were taken as unprecedented. For the first time, an American leader was connecting with that frightened if belligerent nation -- belligerent because frightened -- as a group of fellow human beings. All mortal. All afraid. All looking for transcending bonds.

You thought even at the time that what Kennedy had said might help, because it was the way he had connected all along with you. As events showed -- the Test Ban Treaty came soon after, and like treaties would save the world -- Kennedy had moved the tiller across the wind and changed the course of history. Kennedy gave Lech Walesa his chance.

What happened in November 40 years ago sealed forever what you already knew. The chill wind. The fading light. Infinite danger of contingent life on earth. Universal mortality, which is the unexpected source of hope. Grief, oddly, as a source of peace. Death is not proud. When the weather turns, you go inside in search of those you love. These are the notes of the world as it is. Notes of the world, therefore, exactly as you want it.

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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