Many people, including me, have remarked that this election we've just lived through may be the most important of our lives. We'll find out if that turns out to be true. The very idea, though, of elections as life-changing events makes one stop and think about the meaning of all those other elections that have taken place during the course of a given lifetime. The ones that really made a difference.
Nowadays, the presidential job description seems to demand that a candidate be somebody most Americans would like having a beer with - somebody, in other words, who at least pretends to be just like them. Jack Kennedy made you want.
For me, one stands apart from all the rest - and I didn't even vote in it. That was the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. I was 9 years old.
Needless to say, my fourth grade political consciousness wasn't very sophisticated. But then it wasn't that different from many of the adults who were walking around in those days. I was attracted to JFK because of the way he looked. Of course looks, in Kennedy's case, amounted to more than met the eye. The man had a presence that was, at once, reassuring, worldly, thoughtful and fun. I, along with a lot of other Americans, learned the meaning of the word charisma when Jack Kennedy came along.
That's a far cry from what passes for presidential today. Nowadays, the presidential job description seems to demand that a candidate be somebody most Americans would like having a beer with - somebody, in other words, who at least pretends to be just like them. Jack Kennedy made you want to be just like him.
Sure, it's true that many Americans detested Jack Kennedy. But it said something positive about this country at that time that so many of us - of all ages - looked up to the smart, well-bred picture he projected. In retrospect, it's easy to put this down, to say we were seduced by what were little more than images. But the words that went with those images never talked down to us. Kennedy made you want to be better than you were - and he made that seem possible.
So I ventured out into the world that year and began collecting all of the red, white and blue campaign paraphernalia that I could. The buttons and stickers and posters that proclaimed that Kennedy was the future.
This took place in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, the other Cook County, where, I soon discovered, hardly anyone spoke Democrat.
I was undeterred. I read everything I could about Kennedy, including the book about his exploits as a PT Boat commander during World War II, which in turn prompted the hit single by Jimmy Dean, the chorus of which concluded:
The PT 109 was gone,
But Kennedy and his crew lived on ...
Meanwhile, most of my friends and classmates were building up their own collections of Nixon gear. This led to a lot of good-humored, if high-pitched, back and forth in the classroom, which led our teacher, the infelicitously named Mrs. Pynch, to turn the election into a teaching moment.
Mrs. Pynch called on the most outspoken advocates of both sides to make a presentation before the class in support of our favorite candidates. If memory serves, Bill Treece and Michael Wells, both of whom believed that old Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the man who would have taken us to war with Red China, was really the only American truly fit for leadership, spoke for Nixon.
I carried Kennedy's spear alone.
I knew the odds were against me, but I clung to the idea that, somehow, I'd prevail. I was dreaming. In what was to be a foretaste of politics to come, Nixon carried my classroom 23-9.
But I could take it. I went home and wrote a fan letter in my best cursive to JFK, thanking him for making politics come alive for me and wishing him luck. Then came the election - the closest, at that time, in American history. Thanks to the other side of Cook County, Kennedy won.
Two weeks later, a letter came to my house on John F. Kennedy for President stationary. It was typed and dated Nov. 18, 1960. It began,
I wish to thank you for your recent letter regarding the election and for the interest you expressed. I regret that during the last few days of the campaign some of the mail was unanswered.
Again my thanks for your support which helped to insure this great victory. With your continuing help we will face each challenge which faces our nation successfully.
With every good wish, I am Sincerely,
John F. Kennedy
I am looking at that letter now, as I write this, noticing how the typewriter didn't strike quite cleanly on the letters "s" and "p" and that the signature has faded somewhat to an almost colorless scrawl.
If it was amazing for me to receive that letter then (and it was), it seems even more remarkable today. People like to talk about how organized political campaigns have become, how computers and high technology have turned national races into a kind of science project. But once upon a time, the winner of the closest race the country had ever seen found the time to sign a letter to an American 9 year old. I guess you could say that was when politics was a kind of art.
I want to honor that. And I miss it.