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JFK: 50 years later | Kevin Cullen

More than a president was lost to time that day

John Kennedy’s good looks, and the optimism he engendered, seem to have clouded the rearview mirror in the past 50 years.

Associated Press File

John Kennedy’s good looks, and the optimism he engendered, seem to have clouded the rearview mirror in the past 50 years.

In 1848, Patrick Kennedy looked across the moonscape that was Dunganstown, in County Wexford. It was littered with dead potatoes and dead neighbors and so he, like a million others, decided to leave.

As the Famine Irish prepared to leave their homeland, they held long, forlorn farewells, something they called wakes, because the presumption was that whoever was sailing away was dead to Ireland. They would never return.

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It seems to me that we have just engaged in a weeklong wake, remembering Patrick Kennedy’s great-grandson Jack, the assassinated president. But then, what did the four days that followed JFK’s murder in Dallas amount to but an extended wake?

And as we do at all wakes, we remember the dead not just for what they were but for what they could have been.

In his new book, “If Kennedy Lived,” Jeff Greenfield notes that the nation’s long weekend of grief in 1963 was the first time that Americans shared a communal moment through the relatively new medium of television. If Jack Kennedy was the first president elected in part because of his telegenic appearance and demeanor, so, too, was he the first one dispatched from this earth under the unrelenting gaze of the camera.

Jack Kennedy’s good looks, the optimism he engendered, his death before the nation became engulfed in its second civil war, seem to have clouded the rearview mirror.

Lost in the miasma of nostalgia of the last week is the reality that Jack Kennedy was narrowly elected, that nearly half of the country didn’t like him, and that a good portion of that half hated him.

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In preparing to write this, I went back and re-watched Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” It is, like many Stone things, over the top, but Stone did one important thing for the popular culture: he captured a sense of the menace that existed in some segments of American society, where people didn’t just disagree with Jack Kennedy but despised him. In this context, his assassination remains shocking but not so entirely unexpected.

In some parts of America, people joked and cheered upon hearing of Kennedy’s murder. I’m guessing no one told school kids that last week.

Greenfield makes some other thought-provoking observations, namely that he believes Kennedy, chastened by the Bay of Pigs fiasco and by how terrifyingly close to nuclear war we came during the Cuban missile crisis, would not have escalated the conflict in Vietnam had he lived. Greenfield also believes that Kennedy would not have been able to get civil rights legislation through Congress as his successor Lyndon Johnson did, because Kennedy had spent so little time in the Senate and was not as masterful an arm-twister as Johnson. No one was.

I think Greenfield’s right on both points. But as the Irish wonder how their country, how their lives, would have been different if Michael Collins, the great revolutionary leader, had lived, so we are destined to always wonder how our futures would have played out if Jack Kennedy lived. It is a parlor game. We don’t know. We’re guessing. It won’t stop us, or change anything, but we’re guessing.

Liberals and conservatives tussle over where Jack Kennedy would fit in today’s political spectrum, an argument akin to postulating how Babe Ruth would fare in today’s game when his beer belly would protrude from form-fitting uniforms — utterly lacking in context. Everybody still wants a piece of Jack Kennedy, even those whose predecessors formed that half of the country that wouldn’t vote for him in a million years, even part of that half that hated him.

Here in Boston, of course, Kennedy’s death is something of a personal loss, because we claim him as our own. There are schools, parks, buildings, streets, and many 40 and 50-somethings named for him. His face, forever 46, is indelibly etched in our consciousness. His death, 50 years on, resonates here like nowhere else, perhaps aside from Ireland itself, because he empowered the city and the region’s largest ethnic group, imbuing them with a sense of endless possibilities that the nuns would have told us was almost too prideful.

“When he was elected,” Ed Markey, who now occupies one of the Senate seats Kennedy used as a launchpad to the presidency, told me last week, “even as a kid, I had this sense that I could do anything. I think my entire generation, not just the Irish, felt that way.”

A month before he was murdered, Jack Kennedy came to Boston for what would be the final time. In what has to constitute one of the biggest fund-raising dinners of all time, Gerry Doherty, of the Charlestown Dohertys, somehow managed to squeeze 8,000 people into the old Armory on Comm. Ave. and an adjacent garage.

“We could have sold more tickets,” Doherty told me the other day. “The only reason we cut it off at 8,000 is because we couldn’t find any more crockery.”

There was something about Charlestown that Jack Kennedy loved. The gaslight lampposts. The hills that sweep down from Monument Square. The Bunker Hill Monument itself, a provincial version of a much larger obelisk, the Washington Monument, that was just south of the White House.

It wasn’t just Gerry Doherty, whom the president entrusted with getting his little brother Teddy elected to the Senate. The Charlestown guys — Dave Powers, Billy Sutton, Frank Morrissey — were everywhere, and they had Jack Kennedy’s back.

After Kennedy won the presidency, some big-shot journalist was interviewing him and casually mentioned all the right people at all the good schools had backed him: Harvard, Yale, Princeton.

Dave Powers interrupted the questioner.

“You mean St. Mary’s, St. Francis, and St. Catherine’s,” Powers said, ticking off the parochial grammar schools in Charlestown.

Gerry Doherty still smiles at that, because it recalls Jack Kennedy’s strength. He had Harvard in his corner, but he had the nuns in Charlestown, too. He took Robert Frost’s advice to heart and was more Irish than Harvard.

After Gerry Doherty packed them in at the old Armory, Jack Kennedy took away $600,000 for his reelection campaign, an extraordinary amount of money from one event at the time. The president shook Doherty’s hand, thanking him profusely.

“He told me he couldn’t wait to come back to Boston, to come back home,” Gerry Doherty said. “Of course, that never happened. Because he went back to Washington and then the next month he went to Dallas.”

It was sheer coincidence that I sat down with Joe Kennedy, the congressman, on Friday, the 50th anniversary of his great-uncle’s murder. We had been playing phone tag, trying to meet for weeks, and it wasn’t to discuss what happened in Dallas in 1963 or what has happened since.

Kennedy gave his son, John, an early introduction to boats at Bailey’s Beach in Newport, R.I., in September 1963.

JFK Library via ASSOCIATED PRESS

Kennedy gave his son, John, an early introduction to boats at Bailey’s Beach in Newport, R.I., in September 1963.

But there was poignant irony, as we sat there in a restaurant in West Newton, because he was talking about something he came to appreciate when he was in the Peace Corps, engaging in the very kind of public service Jack Kennedy extolled in the very organization Jack Kennedy created to tap into the youthful idealism that accompanied his election.

Joe Kennedy, who has the good looks and intensity of his grandfather, Robert Kennedy, himself murdered just five years after Jack, spent more than two years in the Dominican Republic, helping, among others, working stiffs who were exploited badly by tour companies.

He is still getting used to the vagaries of the Beltway, and part of him is still in the DR, where he fell in love with the country and its people.

He is worried about a recent ruling by the Dominican supreme court that could leave many Haitian migrant workers living in the Dominican Republic stateless. He talks about helping the migrant workers in the DR the way his grandfather talked about helping Caesar Chavez’s migrant workers in California.

Young Joe Kennedy talked about building a coalition of political forces to help the Haitians who face uncertain prospects, even possible deportation, in the wake of the court ruling.

“There is a potential to work this out in a humanitarian way,” he said. “But the long term answer is helping Haiti, developing Haiti.”

As Joe Kennedy spoke, I couldn’t help but notice over his shoulder that on the TV, even on ESPN, the sports channel, they were showing the open car as it made its way down Dealey Plaza 50 years ago.

When I told Joe what was on the TV behind him, he didn’t turn around. He had been animated, talking about helping Haitians in the Dominican Republic, but he suddenly seemed subdued.

“I’ve tried not to watch any of it,” he said, and at that moment it occurred to me that, for all the attention given to the 50th anniversary of Jack Kennedy’s assassination, for Joe Kennedy, for his family, this was not a media event, not an opportunity for every pundit in every corner to pop off, for everyone to recall where they were when JFK was shot.

For young Joe Kennedy, it was just another reminder that he never got to know his father’s uncle who became president, that he never got to sit on the lap of his grandfather who wanted to be president, that he was part of a family that has been given much but also has had so much taken away.

“The outpouring has been moving,” Joe Kennedy said of a week that remembered his great-uncle. “What he embodied and represented, in challenging us to be a better country, for us to be better citizens, to be better people, is still important. That challenge still resonates. If you are willing to answer that call, you can serve in the military, in the Peace Corps, whatever form.”

Joe Kennedy paused and it took him some time before he said something else.

“But, you know, he was a father, a husband, an uncle, a son. And our family still misses him. For all the history around this, this is a sad day.”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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