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Summer school, JFK, and no heavy breathing

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John and Jacqueline Kennedy look out from the balcony of their rented Georgetown townhouse in 1954

John and Jacqueline Kennedy look out from the balcony of their rented Georgetown townhouse in 1954

John and Jacqueline Kennedy look out from the balcony of their rented Georgetown townhouse in 1954

In Don Watson's Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, his extraordinary account of his tenure as a speech-writer for the Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, he described Keating's emotional trip to his ancestral home in Tynagh, Co. Galway in 1993.

They left via helicopter, and he remembered how they "rose above the sea of faces - the kind of faces we have not seen in Australia since the Great Depression - peering up as Paul Keating peered down, and no-one could say, 'what he was thinking?'".

Thirty years earlier, the President of the United States lifted off in similar style from Collins Barracks in Cork city, and no one then really knew either what he made of the impoverished faces who gazed up at him.

Noel Whelan's upcoming Kennedy Summer School programme might be able to fill in some of these gaps in New Ross this week, though. Whelan predicted Nessa Childers's European victory before anyone else, and something of that flair is apparent in the exciting panels he has assembled. Whether you go to hear the Minister for Foreign Affairs, talk with Nuala O'Loan about Northern Ireland, or absorb some of the new thinking about Irish-American migration patterns, you are unlikely to be bored. The programme has happily avoided the mistakes of the other summer schools, and it shows no signs of the heavy breathing about the "renewed republic". And there is no clotted Camelot nonsense either on the programme, which is just as well, considering some of the more lurid recent revelations from the Kennedy court. Whether we look at President Kennedy's staggering pharmacological intake, his addled Vietnam policy, or the affair he had with an East German spy - that would probably have led to his impeachment had he survived Dallas - his reputation has continued to slide in recent years. But his presiding spirit can still help us take the pulse of the transatlantic relationship.

Though he liked to pretend that the Irish-American relationship was a kind of love whose month was ever May, Kennedy really personified the hostile, even uncomprehending strand in the overall weave. When he was petitioned by the Irish ambassador to interest himself in the gerrymandering of local councils in Northern Ireland in 1963, the first Irish Catholic occupant of the Oval Office proved as unsympathetic as Churchill or Macmillan. "There is a long built-in history involved", Kennedy explained, "which included religious differences, and it has to be seen like that from the British point of view; he [Kennedy] is convinced that no British minister could feel able to make a public statement of the kind suggested."

This hard-nosed emphasis on the absolute priority of the UK-US alliance in Nato softened somewhat after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but every subsequent American president reserved the right to go his own way. (Those who enjoyed Anthony Seldon's fascinating biography of Tony Blair will remember the surprising emphasis there on Blair's irritation that Clinton did not do as much as he asked of him during the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.)

Kennedy's particular variant of Irish Catholicism also points up some radical differences between the American and the Irish approach to church-state relations. As President, Kennedy formally accepted the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Everson vs Board of Education of the Township of Ewing from 1947, which insisted bluntly that "no tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion."

We went in entirely the opposite direction here, despite a cynical constitutional hat-tip towards the American anti-endowment principle in 1937, and Kennedy rather feebly declined to get into that in his Dail address. A bit of a scolding here would have done us the world of good back in 1963, and might well have sped up the de-clericalisation of public policy that remains sadly incomplete even today. Here's hoping that some of the Kennedy School panels on political reform will touch on some of these themes.

One other aspect of the Kennedy legacy is worth emphasising too. It has never been clear why his imaginative approach to public policy failed to really take off here, even though Sean Lemass spoke admiringly on many occasions as Taoiseach about Kennedy's executive brio. Kennedy cast a wide net after his election, and he made fascinating choices. He put a mathematical genius in charge of the Pentagon (Robert McNamara), an ace football star on the Supreme Court (Byron 'Whizzer' White), and he made an academic economist his ambassador to India (J.K. Galbraith). We stuck with the essentially Victorian civil-service model. Maybe Noel Whelan and co. will explain this too.

Sunday Independent