January 20, 2005

The President

In my lifetime there has only been one whom I thought of without qualification or irony or doubt as “The President.” Maybe I was only a boy, but the whole world was younger then, and he made it younger when he stepped into office. He spoke in sentences, not sound bites, and the sentences became watchwords that echo still. Those who heard the wit and charm of his answers at press conferences cannot listen to the stiff, coached stammerings of his successors with anything but disgust. Now we learn that his great—his only—inaugural speech was much more his own creation than the cynics would have us think.

For a generation it has been fashionable to discover his imperfections. They mean nothing to me. If your dashing, gallant father had been murdered in front of your eyes, would you turn against him on learning that he was a fallible human being? And we would be a saner nation if we understood that it doesn’t matter who the president—or our neighbor—sleeps with.

Don’t believe those who claim that he became a legend only in death. In his lifetime he was more adulated than any movie star. With a single bareheaded appearance he made men’s hats obsolete. He began a lasting craze by mentioning that he had liked an Ian Fleming book. A hit movie was made about him while he was in office, and the actor who played him made no attempt to impersonate his famous accent: it would have been trespassing.

In August, 1963 my family stayed on Cape Cod. One weekend the radio told us that he and his family were on Hyannis Port. Sunday morning we drove across the Cape just on the chance of seeing him leave church, and joined a crowd of thousands of people filling block after block, standing on tiptoe and craning their necks for a sight of thatched brown hair: “Did you see him? I think I saw him!”

If he had lived he would not have solved every problem or responded the best way to every crisis. But because of his death, we will always be able to name the exact moment when our nation turned onto the wrong path.