I WAS 20 the year John Kennedy ran for president, too young to vote. I spent that summer in Donegal, where my parents were born. My Irish cousins were more interested in the American political race than I. My bland assurance that Nixon would win must have dampened their spirits, and made them wonder did Irish Catholics turn insipid across the Atlantic.
It came from my father, this blend of caution and contrary conservatism. He landed in New York in 1927, just in time to see his new country reject its first Catholic presidential candidate, Al Smith, with hatred and overwhelming numbers. Alone among our Democratic relatives, he gave Franklin Roosevelt no credit for leading the country through the Depression, and Harry Truman, was only, and always, the haberdasher from Missouri in his eyes.
In the 1950s, with our first television, we watched the Army-McCarthy hearings, and rooted for McCarthy. On Election Day, 1960, my mother came home from voting and whispered to me that Kennedy was going to win. Following her husband’s lead, she’d gone to cast her vote for Nixon, but something confused her in the booth and she pulled the lever for Kennedy. Divine intervention was the only possible explanation but even with God on her side she implored me not to tell my father she’d cancelled out his vote.
That night, I got hooked on politics, and on JFK. As the seesaw drama that would turn Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960 into a best seller played out across the country, Kennedy’s victory suddenly became the most important thing in the world to me. I sat alone, past 11 when my father left for his night job in St. Vincent’s Hospital, past midnight when my mother and younger brother had long since given up the vigil, riveted by the poetry of the roll call of the states and the thunk of delegates falling to one side or the other, like the spinning roulette ball eventually dropping either red or black. By the following day, when Kennedy had definitely won, I was ready to march to the new frontier.
Over the next two years, Kennedy’s inaugural challenge ask what you can do for your country sang in my head as I finished college and found a newspaper job. Working nights, I had plenty of time to read the American history and literature I’d missed in college, to watch Kennedy crisp and witty spar with the press, to root the astronauts into space, to feel the somber shadow of the Cuban missile crisis dissipate in the spring air. Two movements of the young called to me: the freedom riders joining the intensifying civil rights struggle in the south, and the stream of volunteers heading abroad in Kennedy’s Peace Corps. I didn’t see what I could bring to civil rights except a head to be cracked by Alabama cops and I wasn’t brave enough for that. But I’d studied Spanish for seven years and so the Peace Corps invited me to join a group going to Colombia. While in training, I read about Martin Luther King’s great speech in Washington, and the week before flying to Colombia I stood on First Avenue and saw Kennedy smile and wave as he swept by in a motorcade headed for the United Nations. It was a shining moment to be a young American heading out into the world.
TWO MONTHS LATER news of another Kennedy motorcade reached the jungles of western Colombia where I worked as a community organizer with the descendents of African slaves. That night, my partner an ex-Marine from Ohio and I sat stunned in our darkened rooms over a warehouse. The electricity had failed, as it did almost every night. A murmur from the street drew us to the window. A candlelit procession was winding its way towards us. Maybe a hundred people crowded into our large bare room and lined the stairs to the street, the light flickering on their dark faces and the sympathy shining in their eyes. Eloquent speeches were made and an official proclamation of mourning delivered to us. I still have it.
In spring 1965, Lyndon Johnson sent troops into the Dominican Republic. A group of us were in Medellin for a conference about the approaching end of our service. The local Peace Corps staff director, a man I respected highly and whose occasional visits to my site were always accompanied by a bottle of rum and long conversations into the night about politics and justice, invited us to dinner at his comfortable home. That night I realized my country could lie to me, as I watched him peremptorily defend an invasion I knew in my bones was wrong.
By late July, I was back in the USA, having hitchhiked through Central America and Mexico to a California friend’s house not far from the border. When I came down for breakfast the next morning, Johnson was on the screen, announcing a big troop buildup in Vietnam. A couple of days later, I drove past Watts. The America of Martin Luther King’s optimistic oratory and John Kennedy’s summoning of idealism was gone.
“History says, Don’t hope on this side of the grave,” wrote poet Seamus Heaney in The Cure at Troy, a position punctuated by the bullets of April and June 1968. Even large countries don’t have that many inspiring leaders and we lost the ones we had in half a decade. In the 40 years since, only on occasion would I have opted for the pollster’s positive alternative, that the country is on the right track.
Over that period, conservative Republican control of the political debate and largely uninterrupted control of the presidency, combined with the divide and rule politics that enabled it, has almost erased hope from our political vocabulary. It has also brought us to the current situation, a monumentally incompetent incumbent struggling for relevance atop the rubble of our economy and our foreign and military policy. The excitement in the Democratic primaries signals an era is ending and something new is in the offing. The poet continues:
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
Might I hear them rhyme twice in mine?
Novelist Patrick Breslin lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, where he is working on two new books.