I am throwing JFK a hundredth birthday party on May 29th. The signature drink will be the Jack & Coke; pun intended. Also, daiquiris will be served; no pun intended. JFK just loved daiquiris.
Each year on November 24th, headlines are run, television tributes are broadcast and I imagine, in some Boston churches, masses are said. It isn’t just the general tragedy of the late president’s assassination which makes the 24th a perpetual vigil; it’s also the drama: the memory of a pink Chanel suit stained in blood, a broadcast in which Walter Cronkite got choked up, a little boy’s iconic salute.
And maybe, too, it’s our society’s obsession with fate; our focus on the circumstances which cannot be controlled; in this case, death.
I see this same cynicism every day at Penn. When a student’s younger sibling is accepted, a “family connection” is instantly identified. “Quotas” are acknowledged begrudgingly as the reason for a particularly impressive internship. We neglect to consider the intelligence and creativity of our peers, instead attributing their successes to fate, luck, circumstance.
JFK’s accomplishments have been judged with similar suspicion. But he was special not because of the things that happened to him, but because of the things he happened upon: the speeches he gave, the causes he backed, the lives he touched (and one in which he outright saved).
Scholars will sell it to you differently. I can’t tell you how many biographies I’ve read which perpetuate the “second son” myth. The myth holds that JFK was bound for a life of normalcy until the day his brother and his father’s namesake, Joe Jr., died in a plane crash. But to regard the thirty-fifth president as a mere successor to his father’s ambitions is to deny him his spectacular way, which surely did not materialize more than two decades into his life.
His will to survive, dream and seize opportunity prepared him for the presidency and for an enduring place in history.
Having spent much of his childhood in infirmaries, he became an insatiable reader of history. He was constantly modelling himself on the great men who came had come before him. And in constantly having to get better, he made a habit of beating the odds.
If it’s true that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then JFK’s time at Harvard was particularly indicative of what was to come. His admittance to Spee, a finals club in which Catholics were barred, was telling. With his famous charisma, he could discredit prejudices harbored over generations in a single conversation.
He’d go on, of course, to break “the stained glass ceiling,” becoming the first Catholic elected president. And these overcome prejudices made him empathic toward larger plights. He was the first president to deem civil rights a “moral issue.”
Other things you seldom hear: how brave he was. After the PT-109 was torpedoed in the Pacific theater, JFK carried a burned man on his back. He swam three long miles, clenching a life jacket with his teeth; this, despite his lifelong back pain, so chronic and intense, he’d often lay on wood tables for “relief.”
His grit, charm, curiosity and courage have always inspired me. I remember devouring biographies beneath my desk during algebra in high school; not just enjoying history, but modeling my future self. I know from all I’ve read that he was not his father’s son, but his own man, and he was not his death, but his life.
So I choose to celebrate his life, just as the late Jacqueline Kennedy did (she would visit Arlington in May, not November). To borrow a phrase from the I love, “will you join in that historic effort?” Will you join in a rejection of cynicism and the romantic sham that is fate?
If for every time we said “he only got in because his father is [fill in the blank]” or cited “affirmative action” as cause for an acceptance, we instead noted the accomplishments, astute observations and distinctive personalities of our classmates, what a better campus we’d share.
My May 29th bash alone cannot bring about such a campus. May this column, however, be a reminder of its possibility. To celebrate the great things we choose to say and do, we could “truly light the world.”
OLIVIA FITZPATRICK is a College senior from Philadelphia studying English.
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