THE WIT OF JFK
In the fall of 1963, President Kennedy sent a Marine Corps general and a State Department official to Saigon. The men soon returned with their reports. The president met them in the White House.
The general reported first. The US backed regime in Saigon was widely respected. South Vietnamese troops were winning on the battlefield. The Viet Cong were disgraced and disrespected. Stay the course.
Then the State Department man spoke: The regime in Saigon was corrupt and coming apart. South Vietnam was losing battle after battle. The Viet Cong were gaining respect. Disaster was imminent.
The president thought for a second, then said, "You two did visit the same country, didn't you?"
Romanticized, eulogized, sometimes over-inflated, the JFK myth is a part of American culture like that of no other president except, perhaps, Lincoln. His charisma -- a word rarely used before his election -- has even reached into the current generation. A few of my high school students fell in love with him during my recent class on the Cold War. So what is it about this guy?
Many cite his looks, his charm, his (and his wife's) elegance. But I go for the humor. The president of the United States is the most powerful man in the world. Given what the world can dish out, even to presidents, a sense of humor would seem a pre-requisite for the job. But presidents now hire comedians to make their speeches amusing. JFK was funny, off the cuff, off script.
"I've been back in touch with my constituents and seeing how they felt," he said after returning from Florida. "And frankly I've come back to Washington from Palm Beach, and I'm against my entire program."
Stepping to a switch he was to flip to activate a hydro-electric plant, JFK said, "I never know when I press these whether I'm going to blow up Massachusetts or start the project."
Before a crowd in Paris, where Jackie had been the talk of the town: "I do not think it's entirely inappropriate to introduce myself to this audience. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris."
If brevity is the soul of wit, then sorrow is its heart. By the time he reached the White House, JFK had lost much. A brother, Joe, was killed in World War II. A sister, Rosemary, was institutionalized after a botched lobotomy. He had been torpedoed and shipwrecked in the war. (Asked how he became a war hero, he said, "It was involuntary -- they sank my boat.")
And then there was his health, always worse than we knew. Every biography now chronicles the long hospitalizations, the chronic dyspepsia, back pain, arthritis, malaria, surgeries... Some might say these trials made his humor more remarkable but actually, they made it inevitable.
Speaking to a White House dinner hosting Nobel Prize winners: "This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
On the curious culture of Washington, D.C.: "A city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm."
On why he hadn't fired FBI director J. Edgar Hoover: "You can't fire God."
JFK aide Kenneth O'Donnell remembered that the president "was always asking all of us for a joke that he could use in his next speech." But O'Donnell added, "his most widely quoted witticisms were his own originals."
His wit was most in evidence at his press conferences. Somber journalists stood to ask questions about world affairs. The president gave reflective answers but refused to take himself too seriously. And soon the whole room was breaking up.
When a reporter noted that some said he would have to eat his words about negotiating at summits: "Well, I'm going to have a dinner for all the people who've written that, and we'll see who eats what."
When the US launched a chimpanzee into space, JFK told the press, "This chimpanzee who was flying into space took off at 10:08. He reports that everything is going perfectly and working well."
Asked about his ailing back: "Well, it depends on the weather -- political and otherwise."
Hemingway famously said that class is "grace under pressure." JFK knew the pressure well. "When we got into office," he said shortly after his inauguration, "the thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we'd been saying they were."
Presidents often succumb to the pressure, their smiles frozen, their eloquence drained. We remember JFK not just for his idealism, his youth, or his tragic end but because he behaved as we all would hope to in the spotlight, under the weight of the world. With style, with hope, with humor.
"There are three things which are real, "read a mug JFK gave a friend. "God, human folly and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third."