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?

Some of My Best Friends Are Republicans

Two years ago I was at a social gathering with a few dozen women, some of them good friends and the rest friendly acquaintances. As the evening wore on and the wine went down the conversation drifted into dangerous waters: politics.

It started with a conversation about a local family that had fallen on hard times, with both wage earners out of work. While we were somberly expressing concern for them and others like them, one acquaintance, normally a bastion of politeness, spat out a comment:

“It’s all because of that o-BAM-a!!!!” The “bam” syllable launched a spray of pino grigio in my face. I wiped away the wine and the incident for the time being.

But it has come back to me over the past month, during a particularly nasty Presidential campaign filled with vitriol on both sides. People are very divided over the future of this country, something that goes beyond the candidates. Here in Massachusetts the forces are rallying for Romney vs. Obama; for Scott Brown vs. Elizabeth Warren. As campaign signs begin to sprout like spring dandelions on front lawns, the challenge until November will be to keep conversation civil, unlike the campaign.

I lean Democratic, and my Republican friends and I care enough for each other to not let politics interfere with personal relationships. At social gatherings we try not to talk politics, especially if we are unsure of the other person’s beliefs.

But every so often we can’t keep a lid on it.

Last month was one of those times. I was chatting on the phone with an old friend, who went from near-poverty to being a successful businesswoman, and she was lamenting that her 26-year-old son was aging out of the family health insurance plan.

“Fucking Obamacare,” she said. When I reminded her that without the health care plan her son would have lost coverage three years ago, she went on a rant and said Obama was ruining the country. I decided not to argue.

Earlier this year I was driving with three other friends and we were lamenting the alarming number of people who didn’t have health care. “They should get off their butts and go get a job,” said my Republican friend. “Well, many of them LOST jobs!,” my Democrat friend chimed in, clearly ready to debate the issue. Since we were in a car I steered the conversation into safer waters before things got uncomfortable.

My Facebook page includes ads for Romney’s and Paul Ryan’s Facebook pages as “pages you might like,” based on my two dozen FB buddies who’ve already “liked” them. One FB friend — a local businessman whom we like very much — “likes” nearly every ugly caricature of the President that you can imagine, including one that denounces him as a “big fat liar.”

How can friends and neighbors who I adore and share a lot in common with feel so differently from me? Why have some of my childhood confidantes “gone the other way,” despite having shared many of the same life experiences and attitudes in the past? What makes some people Republican and the others Democrat?

I lean Democratic, but not all the way. I believe in the safety net but don’t think it should be a hammock that makes people lazy. I hate people who game the system, whether they are Medicare cheats or billionaires who pay little or no taxes. I never want my kids to lack access to affordable health care but know that some tough decisions have to be made about the cost of treatment.

I’m sure many of my Republican friends share similar moderate views. And to be fair, people with more liberal tendencies are also capable of loose talk, especially after a few drinks. My Facebook feed includes plenty of “likes” for disparaging slogans about Romney and Paul. At a recent dinner out a few of us Dems heartily trashed the other side of the aisle, to the chagrin of a dear friend and very classy guy who happened to be the only Republican present. He smiled patiently and didn’t try to argue with a bunch of tipsy Democrats. Sometimes I’ll go on a rant about right-wing wackos and gradually figure out that the person I’m ranting to is a non-wacko Republican, and just politely waiting for me to finish.

While I sometimes wonder what makes them tick, my Republican friends are compassionate, smart, hard working, always there for me, passionate about giving back to the community. Our friendship will survive this awful campaign, no matter who wins. But I’ll be glad when the elephant in the room – and the donkey — are gone. I’m watching what I drink until then.