Wednesday 22 November 2017

James Downey: In death, we appreciated Kennedy's achievements

JFK with Mary Ryan in Dunganstown
JFK with Mary Ryan in Dunganstown
James Downey

James Downey

He was the very model of a modern American president. Tall, handsome, an inspiring orator, a World War II hero who sought world peace but found himself forced, in the greatest crisis of the Cold War, into a confrontation with the leader of the rival superpower which might have brought about a nuclear catastrophe.

John F Kennedy was many things to many people. He had made the White House a sort of Renaissance court. Famous actors, artists, writers, political thinkers flocked to entertainments featuring equally famous performers. His wife Jacqueline called it "Camelot".

But for Ireland and Irish-Americans, he was one thing above all: the first Irish Catholic to ascend to the most powerful office in the world.

His four-day visit here in 1963 did not transform this country. The transformation was already under way.

The Lemass-Whitaker project for economic development had begun to lift us out of the poverty and backwardness that had afflicted us for centuries. We had started to believe in ourselves. A new spirit of optimism had taken hold. Kennedy's celebration of his Irish roots set a sort of seal on our New Ireland.

None of that is either to assert or deny any claims about the political significance or otherwise of the effects on the president, or ourselves, of the "best four days of my life" in which he gloried in his Irishness and dwelt again and again on our literary and other achievements.

Kennedy's presidency had already had profound effects, not on Irish thinking or transatlantic relationships but on the status of Irish-Americans and on the views about Catholics held by the traditional US ruling class.

Anyone born since 1963 must find it hard to grasp the former depth and extent of anti-Catholic prejudice in the United States. Catholics were widely seen as puppets of the Vatican, of doubtful loyalty to the democratic system.

During the 1960 presidential election campaign, Kennedy grasped this nettle.

In a celebrated speech, he said that he would not be a Catholic president but "a president who happens to be a Catholic". These words are still relevant today. In recent times, they have been echoed by Enda Kenny.

Since JFK made that statement, the old prejudices have all but disappeared. Irish-Americans head universities, huge businesses, professions. Why not, since an Irish-American Catholic once ruled the country?

And for the Irish at home, the sight and sound of this spell-binding speaker, who charmed crowds with the same apparent ease with which he exercised political power, confirmed what they had hardly dared to think. An Irishman can do anything.

But there was another aspect of his Irish tour, something that made it unique. Nobody could fail to notice his sheer delight when he met his distant cousins in Wexford.

They accepted him as a member of their family. More: he saw himself as one of the family. One of our own. On both sides, nothing could have been more graceful.

We remember him for that grace, as well as for the devastating shock which we felt, only a few months later, at his assassination in Dallas.

In those few months, did his "discovery" of Ireland have any measurable effect on US-Irish relationships beyond copper-fastening the long-standing rapprochement between the two countries?

Before 1963, Kennedy had taken little interest in Ireland.

Only after the president's death did two family members, his brother Senator Ted Kennedy and his sister Jean Kennedy Smith, at one time ambassador in Dublin, become significant players on the Irish scene.

But the man who would take up the murdered president's mantle to the greatest effect was not a family member at all.

Bill Clinton resembles JFK in several ways, some trivial, some meaningful. He rejoices in his own (somewhat more distant) Irish roots. More to the point, he understands the handling of power, both rough and smooth.

Many hands made the Good Friday Agreement. All have had due praise. Alastair Campbell is mistaken in his belief that Bertie Ahern has not had his fair share. In reality, even Mr Ahern's critics – even his outright enemies – acknowledge the crucial nature of his hard work and skill. President Clinton's interventions in the construction of the pact, however, were almost equally important.

But what of JFK's legacy to his own country and the world? In 1963, did we meet one of the really great American presidents?

Historians and other experts differ. They tend, at most, to regard him as one of the 10 best presidents of the 20th Century. His record is spoiled by his embroilment in Vietnam.

His admirers for their part maintain that had he gained the expected second term he would have withdrawn from an unwinnable war and concentrated on domestic policy: the economy, the status of women and civil rights for African-Americans.

But Kennedy's international reputation should surely rest on an undoubted triumph, his handling of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

The Soviet Union under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev has installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. To force their removal, the United States blockaded the island. Soviet warships threatened to breach the blockade. With nuclear catastrophe apparently imminent, Khrushchev blinked.

It quickly became known that a deal had been done. In return for the removal of the missiles, the Americans had agreed to remove NATO missiles from Turkey.

By standing firm, at the risk of barely imaginable consequences, Kennedy had won. Had he given in, the results for his country would have been disastrous. But he was wise enough, and brave enough, to spare his opponent a complete humiliation. That was one mark of a real statesman.

The rest is not silence but anguish. The shots fired in Dallas ensured that there would be no second term. Kennedy's assassination was followed by the murders of his brother Robert and of Martin Luther King. Long after, the Americans would scramble out of Vietnam in disgrace and confusion. And in Ireland, some of the successors of Sean Lemass squandered their inheritance.

But we remember, along with all the tragedies and follies, the four happy days when a stylish young man with a Boston Brahmin accent and a fondness for the poetry of WB Yeats revelled in our admiration. And we believe he deserved it.

Irish Independent

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