JAMES RESTON, “WHY AMERICA WEEPS” (1963)
Why America Weeps: Kennedy Victim of Violent Streak He Sought to Curb in the Nation
By JAMES RESTON
Special to The New York Times
WASHINGTON, Nov. 22—America wept tonight, not alone for its dead young President, but for itself. The grief was general, for somehow the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best. The indictment extended beyond the assassin, for something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence, had destroyed the highest symbol of law and order.
Speaker John McCormack, now 71 and, by the peculiarities of our politics, next in line of succession after the vice President, expressed this sense of national dismay and self-criticism:
"My God! My God!' What are we coming to?"
The irony of the President's death is that his short Administration was devoted almost entirely to various attempts to curb this very streak of violence in the American character.
When the historians get around to assessing his three years in office, it is very likely that they will be impressed with just this: his efforts to restrain those who wanted to be more violent in the cold war overseas and those who wanted to be more violent in the racial war at home.
He was in Texas today trying to pacify the violent politics of that state. He was in Florida last week trying to pacify the' businessmen and appealing to them to believe that he was not "anti-business." And from the beginning to the end of his Administration, he was trying to damp down the violence of the extremists on the Right.
It was his fate, however, to reach the White House in a period of violent change, when all nations and institutions found themselves uprooted from the past. His central theme was the necessity of adjusting to change and this brought him into conflict with, those who opposed change.
Thus, while his personal instinct was to avoid violent conflict, to compromise and mediate and pacify, his programs for taxation, for racial equality, for medical care, for Cuba, all raised sharp divisions with the country. And even where his policies of adjustment had their greatest success - in relations with the Soviet Union-he was bitterly condemned.
The President somehow always seemed to be suspended between two worlds—between his ideal conception of what a President should be, what the office called for, and a kind of despairing realization of the practical limits upon his power.
He came into office convinced of the truth of Theodore Roosevelt's view of the President's duties—"the President is bound to be as big a man as he can."
And his inaugural—"now the trumpet summons us again”—stirred an echo of Wilson in, 1913 when the latter said: "We; have made up our minds to square every process of our national life with the standards we so proudly set up at the beginning and have always carried at our hearts."
This is what the President set out to do. And from his reading, from his intellectual approach to the office, it seemed, if not easy, at least possible.
But the young man who came to office with an assurance vicariously imparted from reading Richard Neustadt's "Presidential Power" soon discovered the two truths which all dwellers on that lonely eminence have quickly learned.
The first was that the powers of the President are not only limited but hard to bring to bear. The second was that the decisions - as he himself so often said-"are not easy."
What He Set Out to Do
Since he was never one to hide his feelings, he often betrayed the mood brought on by contemplating the magnitude of the job and its disappointments. He grew fond of quoting Lord Morley's dictum-"Politics is one long second-best, where the choice often lies between two blunders." Did he have a premonition of tragedy-that he who had set out to temper the contrary violences of our national life would be their victim?
Last June. when the civil rights riots were at their height and passions were flaring, he spoke to a group of representatives of national organizations. He tolled off the problems that beset him on every side and then, to the astonishment of everyone there, suddenly concluded his talk by pulling from his pocket a scrap of paper and reading the famous speech of Blanche of Spain in Shakespeare's King John:
The sun's o'ercast with blood: Fair day, adieu!
Which is the side that I must go withal?
I am with both: each army hat a hand.
And in their rage, I having hold of both,
They whirl asunder and dismember me.
There is, however, consolation in the fact that while he was not given time to finish anything or even to realize his own potentialities, he has not left the nation in a state of crisis or danger, either in its domestic or foreign affairs.
World More Tolerable
A reasonable balance of power has been established on all continents. The state of truce in Korea, the Taiwan Strait, Vietnam and Berlin is, if anything, more tolerable than when he came to office.
Europe and Latin America were increasingly dubious of his leadership at the end, but their capacity to indulge in in-dependent courses of action outside the alliance was largely clue to the fact that he had managed to reach a somewhat better adjustment of relations with the Soviet Union.
Thus, President Johnson is not confronted immediately by having to take any urgent new decisions. The passage of power from one man to another is more difficult in other countries, and Britain, Germany, Italy, India and several other allies are so preoccupied by that task at the moment that drastic new policy initiatives overseas are scarcely possible in the foreseeable future.
At home, his tasks lie in the Congress, where he is widely regarded as the most skillful man of his generation. This city is in a state of shock to-night and everywhere, including Capitol Hill, men are of a mind to compose their differences and do what they can to help the new President.
Accordingly, the assumption that there will be no major agreements on taxes or civil rights this year will probably have to be revived. It is, of course, too early to tell. But it is typical and perhaps significant that the new President's first act was to greet the Congressional leaders of both parties when he arrived in Washington and to meet with them at once in the White House,
Today's events were so tragic and so brutal that even this city, which lives on the brutal diet of politics, could not bear to think much about the political consequences of the assassination.
Yet it is clear that the entire outlook has changed for both parties, and the unexpected death of President Kennedy has forced Washington to meditate a little more on the wild element of chance in our national life,
This was quietly in the back of many minds tonight, mainly because President Johnson has sustained a severe heart attack, and the constitutional line of succession places directly back of him, first Speaker McCormack, and then the president Pro Tempore of the Senate, 86-year-old Senator Carl Hayden of. Arizona.
Again a note of self-criticism and conscience has touched the capital. Despite the severe illnesses of President Eisenhower just a few years ago, nothing was done by the Congress to deal with the problem of Presidential disability.
For an all too brief hour today, it was not clear again what would have happened if the young President, instead of being mortally wounded, had lingered for a long time between life and death, strong enough to survive but too weak to govern.
These, however, were fleeting thoughts, important but irritating for the moment. The center of the mind was on the dead President, on his wife, who has now lost both a son and a husband within few months, and on his family which, despite all its triumphs, has sustained so many personal tragedies since the last war.
He was, even to his political enemies, a wonderfully attractive human being, and it is significant that, unlike many Presidents in the past, the people who liked and respected him best, were those who knew him the best:
He was a rationalist and an intellectual, who proved in the 1960 campaign and in last year's crisis over Cuba that he was at his best when the going was tough. No doubt he would have been reelected, as most one-term Presidents are, and the subtle dualism of his character would have had a longer chance to realize his dream.
But he is gone now at 46, younger than when most Presidents have started on the great adventure. In his book, “Profiles in Courage,” all his heroes faced the hard choice either of giving in to public opinion or of defying it and becoming martyrs.
He had hoped to avoid this bitter dilemma, but he ended as a martyr anyway, and the nation is sad tonight, both about him and about itself.
There is one final tragedy about today: Kennedy had a sense of history, but he also had an administrative technique that made the gathering of history extremely difficult. He hated organized meetings of the Cabinet or the National Security Council, and therefore he chose to decide policy after private meetings, usually with a single person.
The result of this is that the true history of his Administration really cannot be written now that he is gone.
He had a joke about this. When he was asked what he was going to do when he retired, he always replied that he had a problem. It was, he said, that he would have to race two other members of his staff, McGeorge Bundy and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., to the press.
Unfortunately, however, he was the only man in the White House who really knew what went on there during his Administration, and now he is gone.