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Why I weep


I cry easily these days. There’s so much to cry about. The pandemic, and the lives upended, the economic pain it’s brought to so many of my friends and my city. And I cry because of Trump, and the stain upon our country and the presidency. I’ve been reading biographies of great Presidents lately: Robert Caro’s “The Path to Power,” the story of Lyndon Johnson’s later career, and David McCullough’s “Truman.” Those books make me cry, too. Reading of those men, who did so many great things, who worked so hard for liberal democracy, it’s almost impossible to comprehend the mediocrity currently in the Oval Office, doing his best to undo it. Then, too, the history of those presidents echoes my own history. As I grow old, and peer into the grave, it gives me comfort to revisit my past.

Caro writes with great power and vividity of the assassination and funeral of John F. Kennedy, when LBJ ascended to the presidency. Caro’s description of those four days in 1963—Friday Nov. 22, Saturday Nov. 23, Sunday Nov. 24 and Monday Nov. 25—the four most tumultuous, horrifying days in American history–the flight of Air Force One from Dallas to Washington, D.C, with two Presidents, one dead, the other living, and the slain President’s widow—the arrival of Bobby and Jackie, in her blood-splattered pink suit at Andrews Air Force Base, with the coffin—the insanity of Oswald’s murder by Ruby, live on T.V.—and the funeral procession itself, the grandest State event in American history—I, along with everyone else in America, watched nonstop on television. I cried then, and I cry now, 57 years later.

I went to YouTube to relive that experience, not from any ghoulish interest in the macabre, just…because. And more tears. They came unbidden. The sound of the muffled drums…in relentless, repeating cadence…from the White House to the Capitol, and the next day, to Arlington…the drums, and the clip-clop of the horses on the cobblestones, including the riderless steed Black Jack, with empty saddle, and boots reversed in the stirrups…and the steady, mournful tread of thousands of uniformed sailors, soldiers, marines, and air men in somber, grievous march…not a sound from the crowd of hundreds of thousands lining the wide avenues, except for an occasional sob…but those muffled drums, stately, filled with pathos, like a beating heart. And I cried.

Why do I weep at something from so long ago, something that, to millions of Americans, is as distant, as buried in history as the death of Davy Crockett at the Alamo? I weep, because those muffled drums beat, not just for John F. Kennedy, but for me, and for all of us…for America. The flag-draped casket, drawn on the same catafalque that had carried Abraham Lincoln’s, contained, not only the mortal remains of the President, but my heart, and the hearts of the world. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee…Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

This is why I cry, so many years later. John F. Kennedy brought us what is best in our lives. Now, instead of gallantry in the presidency, we have greed. Instead of courage, we have corruption. Instead of heroes, we have a hooligan. I cry, too, because old men weep, as they realize their lease on life will soon expire. None of us has the luxury of knowing the moment of our death. But as the death of John F. Kennedy, at such a young age, at the height of his promise—as that reminds us, our demise might meet us at any moment. Now. A minute from now. Without warning. And so old men cry.

At JFK’s funeral, and at Jackie’s request, a military band played the official U.S. Navy hymn (Kennedy had been in the Navy), “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” (you might recall it from the movie, Titanic):

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm does bind the restless wave,
Who bids the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee 
For those in peril on the sea.

As I was walking in Oakland yesterday, pondering these thoughts, I passed a bookstore with a shelf out on the sidewalk: paperbacks $1 each. The first one I saw, literally, was Profiles In Courage, JFK’s Pulitzer Prize-wining 1956 book. These things are never coincidences. The book was a 1964 reissue of the original, but with a twist: Robert Kennedy wrote the new Foreward, on Dec. 18, 1963—less than a month after his older brother had been killed. The still-grieving Robert wrote, in words that are as alive today as then:

“[John Kennedy’s] life had import, meant something to the country while he was alive…It was his conviction that a democracy…must and can face its problems, that it must show patience, restraint, compassion as well as wisdom and strength and courage, in the struggle for solutions which are very rarely easy to find.”

Imagine a President whose life has import. Imagine a President with wisdom, strength, compassion and courage. For that reason, too, I cry.

  1. Paula Fins says:

    Oh, so beautifully and passionately written. I weep with you for all the same reasons.
    November (or should I say Inauguration Day) cannot come soon enough.

  2. We share so much history. Thank you, my dear Paula.

  3. Judi Levens says:

    Beautiful and I am crying with you at the loss of dignity, honor, compassion and justice we’ve come to expect from the Presidency and which JFK displayed so well. To see it not just lost but trashed and spat upon is painful, to see lies as the norm, corruption everywhere, the total lack of honor…I am crying too.

  4. Adam Strum says:

    Steve this piece about JFK and your tales from your childhood in the Bronx (I share many of your baby boomer memories) are shear brilliance.

    You are truly a historical poet (if such a thing exists) but even more musical as your words sing from the pages.

    Warm Regards,


  5. Thank you Adam. You always did appreciate the quality of my writing.
    By the way – I hope you’re over your Trump family infatuation now that we know the horror.

  6. Edith Goss says:

    Steve, you are an amazing writer.😊 I would love to
    see some of your pieces published nationally.
    I still recall when JFK, RFK and MLK were killed.
    Dr. King’s death especially
    On that evening I was sitting writing a report on his book, “Why We Can’t Wait.”
    I was the 1st called on in class to speak that next day.

  7. Wow. Seems like only yesterday.

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