Forty-two years ago today, I was in a Catholic weekend retreat (I had asked if I could attend it, despite the fact that I was Episcopalian) at my school, St. Mary's International School, in Tokyo, Japan. From Friday evening through Sunday morning all the boys who attended were to remain silent and contemplative, charged, as I remember, by The Brothers (as they were known) with concentrating on how we could save our poor souls.
On Saturday morning, after an evening of whispers among ourselves (in all likelihood, committing an enormous mortal sin in the process), we were spoken to by Brother Andrew on Saturday morning this way: "I have sad news for you all. President Kennedy has been killed." And that was it. No time for discussion, no break, no allowance for any normal human reaction. Now go back to your prayers and contemplation.
I am sure that The Brothers, among themselves, discussed whether to pospone the retreat, but it didn't happen. I am equally sure that many parents called to inquire whether it ought to be cancelled. It wasn't. So we spent all Saturday concentrating on everything but ourselves, high schoolers, sons of diplomats and international businessmen, sophisticated and worldly enough to know the portent of those few words from Brother Andrew. Our minds were spinning, and we could not shut up. But the retreat went on.
My father (he was Military Attache at the US embassy) and mother picked me up on Sunday morning, and we went to our church, St. Alban's, almost directly under Tokyo Tower, for a memorial service. It was the only time I ever saw my father in his full dress blues with tears streaming down his face. Then we were off to the embassy (where thousands of Japanese lined up outside for days and days to sign the condolences book) to meet the Ambassador, Edwin Reischauer, who was giving a brief statement. (Reischauer, by the way, was one of the finest diplomats this country has ever produced. Fluent in Japanese, admired by the Japanese, he also warned the American government, early on, of the folly of getting mired down in Vietnam).
To this day, I remember watching, in black and white on Japanese TV, the cortege, "Black Jack," the riderless horse, Arlington cemetery, the people lining the streets of Washington DC, and the Kennedy family, who carried the rest of the nation on their faces and on their backs. Their strength and character kept the country whole, and united it behind a new President, almost seamlessly. The memories are still strong, and reading and writing words about these events still bring tears to my eyes -- that's how strong they remain. As I, and millions of others like me, pass from the scene, the memories will fade, and certainly the tears will be gone.
Kennedy was a flawed man who simultaneously sustained and contradicted his myth. I know his legacy has been marred by real mistakes and miscalculations, both personal and political. Nevertheless, there is something about the hope, and wisdom, and character of those times, and about John Kennedy himself, that is so sorely missing today. I look around today and see so little of what I saw and felt back then.
Many of us are attacked as being unpatriotic, for criticizing our government, and for demanding that Bush be accountable. Look at the feeding frenzy of the vultures sitting on John Murtha's body. Behaving democratically, exercising our rights, speaking out, all are excoriated by a pack of political jackals led by the likes of Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Tom Delay, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Reilly, men who represent what is dishonorable and anti-democratic about this country, and who pale in comparison to the likes of John Kennedy.
I know there are men and women of character in America with the potential for leadership of this country, but given the stench and corruption and greed that dominates, I understand why most of them won't come near it with a ten-foot pole. I worked on Capitol Hill in the 1970s and the money corruption was bad, then. Today, it s rule is virtually complete. It is going to take someone who is free of that money corruption to take America back.