The conventional view is that after Joe Jr. died, Joe Sr. immediately turned to Jack and said, okay, you're now going to be the first Catholic President of the United States. The process was so much more subtle and complicated than that. For one thing, Joe Jr.'s death was so devastating to Joe Sr. Some friend of his said it was the most severe shock ever registered on a human being that he'd ever seen. He went into a depression. He couldn't get out of his room during the day. And only gradually did life reassert itself when he began to hope that maybe in this family something more could go on to answer his dreams for the family. On Jack's part, he saw the depression that his father was suffering. He wanted to reach out and help but he didn't know how. There was no way he thought he could be what Joe Jr. had been to his father. So the two of them circled around each other, I think for years, with Jack wanting to satisfy some need of the father's, the father wishing Jack could satisfy it but the father never could see Jack at that point as a politician. He was shy, he was withdrawn, he was happy-go-lucky, he was having too good of a time, he was undisciplined. And Jack surprised him. Jack decided, I think, to go into politics at first to make his father happy. Only later did he realize it was what he wanted for himself and suddenly he was good at it. And I think Joe Sr. was a surprised as anyone. There's a wonderful scene where at one point Jack was talking on a square, I think Maverick Square in East Boston and suddenly the father sees this kid is good, in fact I believe he's better than Joe Jr. ever would have been because he had that wry sense of humor that Joe Jr., who was so serious, never would have brought to it. But it was only time that allowed Joe Sr. to reevaluate his whole sense of this second child who he had never thought very much about in terms of ambition for the future.
Jackie seemed to have a really complicated set of feelings toward the press; on the one hand, once she became First Lady and especially I think when she went to Europe and DeGaulle loved her and Paris loved her, she got enormous pleasure from the celebrity of being First Lady and she courted it after that. But then at certain moments when she wanted her privacy back, she would turn it away. And I think she legitimately wanted to keep her children free from that kind of celebrity. It became an obsessive, and I think in some ways, very healthy response to want to keep them and let them have a life of their own but she wanted it still for herself, so she would find herself alternately at times, wishing the press would write her up and other times saying, don't touch me, I want you out of here. And I think she was confused about it in her own mind and that's why it came out in such a contradictory fashion to the public at large.
I think what the Peace Corps meant to young people was a chance to break out of the normal pattern of one's life. If you normally went from high school to college and then got into a profession and settled down, the Peace Corps offered you the chance to just say, I'm going to do something adventurous, not at all expected, something different, traveling to a foreign land and also knowing that you were helping people while you were carrying out your own adventure. You had that feeling that you would be helping people to learn to read or injecting people and giving them the chance to prevent disease from happening. It was that combination of feeling like you were saving the world and maybe saving yourself at the same time.
The best part of Jack Kennedy in some ways was the way in which he made politics such an honorable profession and made people feel like by doing public service, by being in the Peace Corps, by helping other people, that you could lead a life that was so much richer and broader than by simply having a career, making money and having your own family. He made people feel that life would be lived more fully if they helped their fellow man. And that was part of him. I mean he, himself, had chosen public life at that point, his whole family had chosen public life and somehow that choice was reflected on the country at large and it made them feel that life would be a little richer than it would otherwise be by broadening it and helping other people at the same time as you were loving what you were doing yourself.
I was a freshman in college when JFK ran for the presidency and there was such a sense of excitement about that campaign. He made you feel like things were going to change, the country was going to be different. I can still remember when he gave his speech proposing the Peace Corps and saying to myself, I want to do that. It meant breaking loose from the ordinary pattern of going to college and graduate school and going to Africa and helping people and giving injections. Somehow it meant that your lives were going to be broader as a result of JFK. For me probably there was also the sense, being Irish Catholic, of feeling like this was the first Catholic President, that it symbolically meant something for everybody that I was a part of, to become President.
For more on John F. Kennedy, visit JFK.
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