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Living in Society

Getting Over the Kennedys

Sunrise, July 9, 2020

When I think of politics I think of the Kennedys. That is, I did. I’m over it now. This was first posted on Dec. 15, 2012. It’s been significantly edited.

The end of year holidays are something I associate with the Kennedy family. Our family wasn’t of the Kennedy clan, yet didn’t seem that far removed. My framework was formed while being Kennedy-like.

Our family moved into a new home the summer after I finished first grade. It was an American Foursquare built in the late 19th Century in Northwest Davenport. By the time of the 1960 general election we were beginning to have a sense of neighborhood and local culture.

Father worked diligently to organize our neighborhood and elect John F. Kennedy as president. I still have copies of the mimeographed 8-1/2 by 14 inch sheets he used, with generic city blocks marked in purple ink, waiting to be completed with the names of voters. Father was from Virginia, the part where politics is a daily passion. His political engagement was infectious. His work for the Kennedy campaign expanded to include neighborhoods besides ours where he took the purple sheets and helped organize the effort.

When JFK won the election, it was a big deal for our family. The oral history is Dad and Mom were invited to the inauguration. We followed the Kennedy Administration, as much as grade schoolers could. In that context my association of the holidays with the Kennedys was formed.

We understood patriarch Joe Kennedy had earned enough money for his children to be free of financial worry to devote their time to public service. We also knew we would not have any such freedom. We were a mostly Catholic family on my mother’s side, so we looked on the Kennedy lifestyle, particularly their family life in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts as framed through press coverage, as something to emulate as best we could. Perhaps it was a dim reflection, but it was there.

Mostly, life centered around school, family, neighborhood friends and television. We weren’t poor, but we weren’t rich either. We lived close to the means of production. We played touch football in the back yard, like the Kennedys did.

Television was a strong influence. After finishing our homework and outdoor play, we watched news, variety, westerns, and comedy programs, almost daily. In the 1960s television was viewed as a vast wasteland by FCC Chairman Newton Minow, and maybe it was. Life was not always about participating in the nascent consumer society.

That is where the connection between the Kennedys and the holidays came in. At Christmas, from Advent through the Epiphany, we set aside much of mass culture and re-enacted family behavior that was our connection to society. To some extent we emulated what we heard about the Kennedys: siblings in a large family looking after each other, and participating in a life in retreat from the broad concerns of society, at least for a while. For us, there would be discussions, meals and home entertainment. Family members would come in and out of our home with our lives intersecting with others during visits at our home and at theirs. We would attend midnight Mass on Christmas eve.

It was a tribal time of friends and family, removed from external pressures, and a dim echo of what we believed society should be. I look back on those times with the nostalgia only separation in time can create.

What I know now, and only am beginning to realize, is that the bubble of that family life was popped when Father died in 1969. It would never be the same. Whatever cultural resonances of a faux Kennedy lifestyle remained after that, proved to be vaporous in the long run.

I caucused for Ted Kennedy in 1980, and remember his concession speech at the Democratic National Convention. I heard Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speak in Iowa City one recent evening. Throughout my life, I continued to touch them, or thought I did, even if I realized there had been no Camelot. I read the newspaper article about them selling the Palm Beach home in 1995 and the disputes over the final disposition of the compound at Hyannis Port after Ted Kennedy’s death in 2009. As time passes, the Kennedys seem less relevant.

What I realize now is life has always been mine to live. I have been over the Kennedys for a long time.