Would JFK be JFK today?

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination, a part of history so devastating that everybody who was alive then remembers where they were.

I was in Catholic school art class, where we were making Thanksgiving turkeys from construction paper, when the principal, Sister Pascal came on the PA system to tell us the President had been shot. We stopped what we were doing and knelt on the floor to say prayers, only to learn minutes later that they had been futile. I remember stepping off the school bus that afternoon and finding my mother and several neighbors heartbroken and sobbing. Later, our family would cluster around our one black and white television to watch the unrelenting news coverage and funeral events. My siblings and I, despite secretly missing Popeye and the Flintstones, were aware on some level that our nation had changed forever.

In the ensuing decades, as one politician after another failed to measure up to Jack and Bobby and Watergate made the press less deferential to elected officials, many would mourn for the Kennedy era when we were more hopeful and innocent and our country seemed so full of promise. But how long would the high have lasted if JFK or Bobby had lived? Over time, new information would become public about JFK’s affairs with mafia moll Judith Exener, Marilyn Monroe, intern Mimi Alford and many others….affairs that were known about but never publicized out of deference to the commander-in-chief. One commentator referred to the press of that era as a “Victorian gentleman” who looked the other way when public figures engaged in extramarital flings.

Maybe the trajectory of history would have been different if the Kennedys had continued to unite the country behind a young, idealistic and charismatic leader. Or if Chappaquiddick had not happened, enabling Teddy Kennedy to represent an ideal instead of a flawed mortal. Would Nixon have been elected and would Watergate have happened if a Kennedy had stayed in the Oval Office? Would the press have continued to look the other way when personal indiscretions happened?

Some things we can guess would not have changed. The sexual revolution would still have happened, making us more willing to talk about sex and less prudish, if not less prurient. Magazines like People and Us would still have turned the personal lives of the rich and famous into a hot commodity. The Internet, YouTube and smart phones with built-in cameras would still have been invented, giving anyone the capability to blow up someone else’s reputation within seconds.

Like nuclear weapons, these tools are capable of great devastation, but only if someone is willing to push the button. How willing would we have been to do that if the Kennedys had kept us more hopeful and less cynical? Would Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky have mattered? Today would John Edwards, Mark Sanford, and Anthony Weiner be admired for their ideals rather than scorned for their peccadillos?

Weighing the JFK myth against the man we now know him to be, it’s worth asking: would someone like JFK be able to hold public office today? And is knowing the full truth about a public figure’s personal life a good or a bad thing?

The Way We Were

This twisted antenna from one of the World Trade Center towers is enshrined in The Newseum in Washington, DC.

Today it’s 11 years. That number 11 will never mean the same thing.

As with Kennedy’s assassination, anyone who was alive on the day of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will remember exactly where they were when they first heard the news. It was a turning point for our nation’s history and our personal histories.

Does anybody remember the way we were, before that day? The time when the process of flying was more carefree, when we didn’t have to take off our shoes or watch what we say? When the top floor of a skyscraper was the perfect place to survey the swath of a great city? When we could descend into a subway without thinking “what if…?” When the rare news of a bombing somewhere didn’t cause us to jump to the conclusion that the bomber was swarthy and bearded?

During our recent trip to Washington, DC, we visited the Newseum, one of the city’s most intriguing museums, which depicted U.S. history’s most memorable news stories in artifacts and news clips. An entire exhibit was devoted to Sept. 11, and included the twisted needle from one of the twin towers, the destroyed engine from one of the doomed planes, half-incinerated cellphones found in the wreckage, a wall of front pages from Sept. 12, and videos that re-broadcast news from that horrific day. It brought home the terror of watching it live; seeing the second plane come out of the blue and strike the second tower; hearing the news about the planes that struck the Pentagon and crashed in a Pennsylvania field; experiencing the horror of seeing the stately buildings crumble into ashes; and, in the days that followed, seeing photos of the desperate people who plunged to their death instead of staying behind in the inferno.

Today we take the inconveniences of flying in stride. We don’t joke when we wait in line for the baggage screening. We put up with the Patriot Act and the increased scrutiny of our cell phone calls and web site visits. The acute worry of those post-911 days has become a dull resignation: this is the way the rest of the world lives, after all. The New York Times reported this morning that many communities near New York are scaling back their 911 remembrances, especially since the 10-year anniversary passed one year ago. They feel it’s time to move on.

But 11 years after that terrible day, it’s still hard to remember the way we were without feeling some regret.

My son Ryan and I had visited the World Trade Center in May of 2001. We can remember standing on the observation deck, looking at the antenna that beamed signals around the exciting metropolis that lay around our feet. While guards still were on duty in the lobby, we did not feel vulnerable. We did not feel even vaguely uncomfortable in the company of fellow tourists from exotic lands who did not look at all like us or speak English. From the top floor of the tower we visited a souvenir shop, bought mugs imprinted with the towers’ image; and made a short video to email home.

Little did we know, as we stood atop that more carefree world, how little time we had left.

Travels With My Aunts

Josephine Cipolla, who had both brains and beauty, died of tuberculosis at age 22. She and other members of our family endured poverty, illness and prejudice.

Decades ago, my Aunt Josephine, an Italian, was the top student in her predominantly Irish Catholic grade school, but the nuns didn’t want to make her the valedictorian.  “Couldn’t we find an Irish child?,” one of them asked the pastor.

Fortunately, the priest told the nuns that if Josephine Cipolla was the top student, then she deserved the honor.  But my grandparents were justifiably wary about the local Catholic school after that.

This story was one of the many shared by Josephine’s sisters – my Aunt Chickie and Aunt Theresa – last Saturday over a get-together at Chick’s house.   We were filming  them for an oral history of my dad’s side of the family.  Josephine, my dad, and three of his other siblings have died; Chickie, Theresa and Aunt Rita, who was in the hospital, are the three survivors of this family of eight children.

About a dozen of us sat in Aunt Chick’s cozy home, a place of many warm family gatherings in the past.  My sister Julie and cousins Barb, Wendy, Ann and Paul – all of us middle aged – listened raptly to their stories.  Chick, Theresa and my mom, Gloria, who knew the Cipolla family since she was five years old, searched back to their earliest memories.

Along with prejudice against Italians in the early 20th century, the Cipollas had many other things to overcome: poverty, illness, heartbreak.  Brainy Aunt Josephine died of tuberculosis at just 22. We learned that the 1918 flu epidemic claimed my first Uncle John when he was just 18 months old.  My grandmother was pregnant with another child then; when a boy was born she named him John, who became the Uncle John that we knew.  “It was like having my baby back,” Grandmom said at the time.

Aunt Chick remembers how her mother never went to church because her clothes were so shabby. She remembers when a freak summer hailstorm destroyed Grandpop’s garden, where he grew the vegetables that fed his family through the winter.  This tall, stoic man cried like a baby when he saw his ruined garden.  Theresa remembered how she and her siblings would get to pick out a free toy each Christmas from Mrs. Potts, a kindly neighbor, during the Great Depression.

They also told wonderful stories about how family pulled together.  Grandpop would go out early after a snowstorm to shovel a walkway so that his children could walk to school.  Despite hard times he would share the bounty from his garden with his neighbors.  Aunt Chick would use a hand saw to cut wood for Grandpop’s projects around the home; while the other aunts preferred the kitchen, Chick was a tomboy who loved being with her dad.  Theresa remembered when my dad’s pet duck was in peril when my Uncle Andy wanted to slaughter him for dinner; how Uncle John would scare her by pretending to be Frankenstein; and how she walked in on my grandparents during a moment of passion.  Here is a link to a (private) YouTube video with some of their memories.

Mom remembered how her future sisters-in-law dressed her as a bride when she was just five years old, complete with flowers and a curtain for a veil.  Sixteen years later Gloria would be a real bride, marry their brother “Tot,” and become their sister.

The afternoon went quickly and I was sorry when it ended.  It was a peek into the past before our own past, the experiences and values that set the stage for how my generation of Cipollas would be raised.  I came away from it with a new appreciation of my family’s many struggles, and renewed pride in their strength and values.