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JFK Had The Wit To Lampoon Himself


John Fitzgerald Kennedy embodied charisma for most Americans, half a century ago and even today. JFK was a stirring, glamorous figure who'd been gallant in war, if not always with women; energetic and eloquent, whose image would always be tinged with tragedy.

Six months after his assassination, idolatry had set in, but the late Tom Wicker of the New York Times, who'd been in the press bus in the president's motorcade that day in Dallas wrote a piece for Esquire Magazine called, "Kennedy Without Tears," in which he said that adoration was uncalled for. The Jack Kennedy he remembered was a career Boston pol, not a paragon of virtues, who'd cynically scuttled exiles on the beaches of Cuba and had to be dragged into supporting civil rights.

But he had a magnificent wit.


SIMON: Wry, ironic and self-mocking, said Tom Wicker, as when Kennedy appeared at the annual Al Smith dinner during the 1960 campaign and played off his own images as the son of a man who was trying to buy the presidency for his boy, the way campaign contributions had once helped his father become a U.S. ambassador. John F. Kennedy's words are voiced by Conan O'Brien.

CONAN O'BRIEN: I announced earlier this year that if successful I would not consider campaign contributions as a substitute for experience in appointing foreign ambassadors. Ever since I made that statement, I have not received one single cent from my father.

SIMON: Another time he pretended to read a telegram.

O'BRIEN: Dear Jack: Don't buy a single vote more than necessary. I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide. Love, Dad.

SIMON: And after he was elected president, John Kennedy deflected criticism that his 35-year-old brother, Robert, was not qualified to be attorney general of the United States.

O'BRIEN: I don't see anything wrong with giving Bobby a little legal experience before he goes out on his own to practice law.

SIMON: It's astonishing, Tom Wicker wrote, how constantly and boldly this young man, so publicly committed to patriotism and public affairs, lampooned politicians, politics, myths and himself. The very night before he was assassinated, President Kennedy told a Democratic fundraising dinner in Houston that putting the new manned spacecraft center in Houston, which would also bring thousands of jobs to Texas, would lead to bigger booster rockets.

O'BRIEN: When this new series of rocket is launched, it will carry the largest payroll, excuse me, payload in history. Well, it will be the largest payroll too, and who knows that better than the folks in Houston.

SIMON: These days, presidents openly hire big-name comedy writers to craft jokes to sound self-effacing in the Kennedy style, but has any other president had the comic audacity to lampoon some of his own most solemn words? In his inaugural address, JKF declared: All this will not be finished in the first 100 days, nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let's begin remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. And a year later, the president told a Democratic party dinner that he hoped to pay off the debt his party had incurred during the 1960 campaign.

O'BRIEN: Our deficit will not be paid off in the next 100 days, nor will it be paid off in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor perhaps even our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin remembering that generosity is not a sign of weakness and that ambassadors are always subject to Senate confirmation.

SIMON: Conan O'Brien again reading the words of John F. Kennedy. Tom Wicker also served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and said that a war hero like Jack Kennedy would have learned that even for a man who'd been so blessed from birth as a Kennedy, life could be absurd, brief and brutal. Before he ever ran for president, John F. Kennedy had seen men die all around him, his boat was blown up, and he broke his back to save others.

He was in pain every day of his life from illness or injury. Tom Wicker said he once saw the inscription on a silver beer mug that President Kennedy gave to his old friend Dave Powers.

O'BRIEN: There are three things which are real: God, human folly and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.

SIMON: Tom Wicker wrote that he tried to find out who'd written those words. They were in no book of quotations. The Library of Congress could find nothing. He ended his article by saying: But I think I know.


SIMON: You're listening to Weekend Edition from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.