Mark Shields: An American president and the world

Mark Shields

The release by the Trump administration of thousands of pages of classified documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy brought to mind two anecdotes about the 35th president and his legacy.

After the shock of Dallas, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was then an assistant secretary of labor and would later become a significant U.S. senator, said to his friend and fellow Irish-American journalist Mary McGrory, who would become the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, ”I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually.”

According to Moynihan, McGrory said, ”We’ll never laugh again.” Moynihan replied, ”Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”

In 1962, asked why he had upended all his career plans to join what is perhaps Kennedy’s most enduring public legacy, a young Peace Corps volunteer answered: ”I’d never done anything political, patriotic or unselfish, because nobody ever asked me to. Kennedy asked.” Kennedy’s 1,037 days in office were not the Camelot of legends and heroes doing great deeds. His was a presidency of greater promise than performance. But Kennedy did regularly exhort his fellow citizens to recognize their obligation to public service, the equality and dignity of all people, and — bearing himself the wounds and scars of World War II combat — the insanity of war.

Kennedy taught us that the words and deeds of an American president do reach and can touch people in the most unlikely places. Upon hearing of Kennedy’s fate, Sekou Toure, the first president of Guinea after the winning of independence from France, said, ”I have lost my only true friend in the outside world.” In Moscow, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, whose measure Kennedy had taken a year earlier in the peaceably resolved nuclear confrontation in Cuba, was the first person to sign the condolence book at the U.S. Embassy. Citizens of the USSR, then officially atheist, were able to watch on television the Kennedy funeral Mass taking place in St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Cambodian Prince Sihanouk lamented: ”A light was put out which may not be relit for many years.” Spontaneous public displays of respectful sympathy took place all over Latin America, Africa and Asia.

To honor the fallen American president, England actually set aside for a memorial 3 acres of the historic fields of Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed. At its dedication, Queen Elizabeth paid tribute to the only U.S. president who was Catholic, as well as Irish: ”This soil is now bequeathed in perpetuity to the American people in memory of John F. Kennedy, whom in death my people still mourn and whom in life they loved and admired.”

Make no mistake; JFK was no plaster saint. He, like all of us, was fallible and flawed. But his life and his legacy remind us that what an American president says and what he stands for do echo around the globe. Truly — and even more so today than in 1963 — the whole world is watching and listening for a president’s actions and words to encourage them and inspire them and give them hope. But instead, they’re hearing words and seeing actions that do none of those things.

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