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Douglas Caddy

The Mind of JFK

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Will Ruha wrote on Facebook today:

Owing to illness at the onset of life that rendered him perpetually bed-ridden, John F. Kennedy had an insatiable intellectual curiosity. From early youth, when he first penned an essay about the moral inequity of a poor suffering child and one of good health and privilege, he pondered the nature of God, the human condition, and systems of social domination.

Harvard professor Payton S. Wild said that young Jack was intrigued by the question as to why people obey, i.e., given a few people at the top and masses below, why do the masses obey? This fundamental question set him on a lifelong quest to comprehend, compare, and contrast all socio-political / economic systems existing under humanity's three basic forms of legitimate authority: traditional, charismatic, and legal-rational. Kennedy studied Democracy back to the ancient Greeks, as well as Oligarchy, Anarchy, Autocracy, Dictatorship, Despotism, Socialism, Communism, Capitalism, National-Socialism, Fascism, Conservatism, Liberalism, Imperialism, Plutocracy, Pluralism, Theocracy, and Monarchial rule. Wild said that Jack Kennedy "thought deeply and theoretically," and was able to discuss these matters "with acumen and thoroughness." Fellow professor, Bruce Hopkins called young Jack "surprisingly able . . . a commendable fellow." Classmate Donald Thurber, said of him, “he was a person who asked questions of you, who would challenge your assumptions . . . you got the impression that here was a mind that was learning from other people and that longed to learn from other people he regarded as sources of information and knowledge to fill his own."

On a 1939 tour of Europe with Lem Billings, Jack inquired of government leaders, businessmen, students, radicals, soldiers, laborers, and others, how they perceived their government, political events, and international affairs. Billings later remarked that he was astonished at how rapidly Jack grew intellectually following that series of direct, first-hand encounters with citizens of these European and Eastern European nations.

That growth never ceased. I spoke with several wartime buddies with whom he shared combat and recuperation. Each remarked about his voracious appetite for information, even to the point of reading gum wrappers and inquiring as to the different ingredients in various brands. "That's just the way his mind worked," said one Navy pal who spent two months in a tent hospital with him, discussing every manner of thing. "I knew I was bright," said the Phi Beta Kappa candidate, "But I also recognized that Jack was just that much brighter. His mind ceaselessly explored everything, turning things over to examine them from every angle. On the island on which we were stationed, Jack was always inquiring of the natives, about their lives - food, housing, health, customs, rules, lifestyle, life expectancy - everything. I think that's where he first came up with the idea for a Peace Corps."

An inveterate reader, Jack had his father ship books to him wherever he was: at school or in a far-off hospital; in California or on an Arizona ranch, while in England, Europe, across the country or around the world. He often startled acclaimed writers by mentioning to them a minor work of theirs that appealed to him, aware that the particular work was also one of their favorites. Norman Mailer was taken aback by Jack's mentioning that he had read "The Deer Park . . . and the others."

French intellectual Romain Gary, diplomat, novelist, film director, former WWII aviator of Litvak origin, the only author to have won the Prix Goncourt twice, and husband of actress Jean Seberg, remarked, following his initial meeting JFK, after seven years in the U.S., "This man has the most perfectly functioning mind of any human being I have ever encountered. He does not answer your argument, but immediately asks another question. Little by little, I felt as if I were no longer there; he reduced me to an intellectual function. I felt both honored by the excessive attention paid me by the President of the United States and a little dazed to be subjected to such analysis. There was something curiously voracious about his need for information . . . He listened to everything with equal attention, but when I had finished, he did not tell me his conclusion and went on to something else. He did not for one minute forget that he was President of the United States, and although he encouraged me to speak as his equal, the equality stopped there."

Among all with whom I spoke having known him, each remarked that John Kennedy was unquestionably the best listener they ever knew. "He listened intently, asked key questions, and made you feel as if you were the most important person in the world. . . He could exhaust you by the very intensity of his attention.”

For his inaugural, Kennedy invited mostly authors, artists, and scientists - Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Pearl Buck, Edith Hamilton, William Inge, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, John Hersey, Robert Frost, Saint John Perse, Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Ludwigmies Van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy, and journalist, Walter Lippman. And, (as written in Farewell America): "Like Thomas H. Benton, he could suddenly recite from the Georgics of Virgil, the Thousand and One Nights, Herodotus or Sancho Panza, the New Testament, the German Reformers or Adam Smith, Fenelon or Hudibras, the financial reports of Necca or the acts of the Council of the Thirty, the debates that preceded the adoption of the Constitution, or some half-forgotten speech by a deceased member of Congress. In Chicago he quoted from the Greek poet Alcaeus. When the students of a girls' school translated his Inaugural Address into Latin because the style reminded them of Cicero, he answered them in Latin (with the help of one of his assistants)."

This is who we lost on November 22, 1963. Bright, handsome, brave, with a great sense of history and humor, and every aspect of his being in proper proportion and exquisite balance, John F. Kennedy was a marvel of a man, a great guy, and brilliant leader, whose remarkable mind and reserves of restraint and courage uniquely prepared him for the Presidency of the United States. I truly believe that if anyone else, from among the 1960 candidates had been in the Oval Office in October of 1962, we would now not be here to consider him. Born during the first World War, serving bravely in the Second, and almost single-handedly preventing the Third, John F. Kennedy must assuredly be held in history as one of America's greatest presidents. Having lost him, we are lesser people in a lesser land, but we must rise to restore justice, democracy, liberty, and proper economic equity in America if we are to truly honor him and the nation he loved. As he declared, "We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that First Revolution."

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This essay on JFK is something I am going to save and return to many times.

It articulates so well how special JFK was as a leader of men and why JFK's death in his young prime was such a loss to us all.

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I've read Mailer on meeting JFK, and he felt that JFK was groping for praise when he only mentioned the title of Mailer's latest book, and acknowledged in an Er-Um way that there were "others."  My reading of Mailer discovered no great partisanship for Kennedy; Mailer, after all, wrote the unfawning, critical piece on the campaign, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," which Ruha ought to review.  That said, I can get behind the bulk of his sentimental praise of Kennedy's intellect and taste.  I think DiEugenio's line on Kennedy's geopolitical thought is more incisive, however.

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Posted (edited)

I'm reading Mailer's essay David, after you cited this in your post.

Mailer can be very intoxicating to many who find his writings to be intellectually stimulating and provocative.  

 I enjoy reading him for the same reason I enjoy reading other intellectuals.

They open up my greater thought processes which 95 % of the time are locked into a daily routine numbness.  Much of this is due to their writing style as much as the content of their work.

Yet,  these great writers often don't have all the answers. They often miss great truths.

They themselves can be greatly flawed, even weak in character and not brave when called on to be so.

I can be truth and goodness finding inspired by a child's finger paint creation, a crippled or homeless person's actions or words or any number of other non-intellectual human interaction as much, or even more at times, than great writer expositions.

When one compares Mailer's life, personal character and efforts of assuming great responsibility for the welfare of many others besides himself - especially in confrontation with super aggressive powerful forces, groups and individuals who would like to see you dead for those efforts - to that of JFK ... what can one say?

Mailer's critiques of JFK seem almost meaningless in this context ... to me anyway.

 

 

Edited by Joe Bauer

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19 hours ago, Joe Bauer said:

This essay on JFK is something I am going to save and return to many times.

I thought the same. A lovely synopsis of the intellectual JFK was.

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21 hours ago, David Andrews said:

I've read Mailer on meeting JFK, and he felt that JFK was groping for praise when he only mentioned the title of Mailer's latest book, and acknowledged in an Er-Um way that there were "others."  My reading of Mailer discovered no great partisanship for Kennedy; Mailer, after all, wrote the unfawning, critical piece on the campaign, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," which Ruha ought to review.  That said, I can get behind the bulk of his sentimental praise of Kennedy's intellect and taste.  I think DiEugenio's line on Kennedy's geopolitical thought is more incisive, however.

 

“In 1960, he was convicted of assault and served a three-year probation after stabbing his wife, Adele, nearly killing her.”
 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Mailer

 

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23 hours ago, Douglas Caddy said:

 

“In 1960, he was convicted of assault and served a three-year probation after stabbing his wife, Adele, nearly killing her.”
 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Mailer

 

What struck me most about the interview was a passing remark whose importance was invisible on the scale of politics, but was altogether meaningful to my particular competence. As we sat down for the first time, Kennedy smiled nicely and said that he had read my books. One muttered one's pleasure. "Yes," he said, "I've read…" and then there was a short pause which did not last long enough to be embarrassing in which it was yet obvious no title came instantly to his mind, an omission one was not ready to mind altogether since a man in such a position must be obliged to carry a hundred thousand facts and names in his head, but the hesitation lasted no longer than three seconds or four, and then he said, "I've read The Deer Park and…the others," which startled me for it was the first time in a hundred similar situations, talking to someone whose knowledge of my work was casual, that the sentence did not come out, "I've read The Naked and the Dead…and the others." If one is to take the worst and assume that Kennedy was briefed for this interview (which is most doubtful), it still speaks well for the striking instincts of his advisers.  -- "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," Esquire, November 1960

https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a3858/superman-supermarket/

Edited by David Andrews

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On 1/9/2019 at 12:28 PM, Joe Bauer said:

When one compares Mailer's life, personal character and efforts of assuming great responsibility for the welfare of many others besides himself - especially in confrontation with super aggressive powerful forces, groups and individuals who would like to see you dead for those efforts - to that of JFK ... what can one say?

Mailer's critiques of JFK seem almost meaningless in this context ... to me anyway.

 

 

I mostly don't care to compare Mailer to JFK, Joe.  I'm sure Kennedy was a better guy than me, also - though I like Mailer better than many people I know personally, and he was nice to me when I met him in Boston in about 1988.  What I do say is that, throughout all the Mailer I've read, Mailer's opinion of Kennedy at the time, and over time, is more qualified than Ruha paints it, and in general Ruha paints Kennedy too sentimentally.  DiEugenio writes about more germane and important things than whether Kennedy appreciated artists.

Is Mailer a better writer when someone makes us think he thought the world of JFK?  Like it or not, "Superman" was the liberal press Kennedy was getting on the eve of the election.

Edited by David Andrews

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From The Sixth Floor Museum...In which everything but the essay is discussed.

Edited by David Andrews

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