I cried when President Kennedy died.
My kids can understand this in theory and most years they call me or email a sympathy message on Nov. 22, the date of his assassination in 1963.
They think it's eccentric, of course, to get emotional over a historical figure gone half a century. It would be like choking up during a visit to General and Mrs. Grant in their marble tomb on Riverside Drive.
Maybe it is strange. But I'm confident I'm not the only boomer who goes through this every time television rebroadcasts the color newsreel of Jack and Jackie arriving at Love Field on that sunny Dallas morning. We didn't learn until years later that John Kennedy was a flawed human being. When he was alive he was the icon of our idealism. Millions of pages have been written to suggest he dragged his feet on civil rights or expediently delayed a decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam until after the 1964 election. Still, when he was alive, he inspired a whole generation. “More than one stranger,” wrote Kennedy aide Theodore C. Sorensen in "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History" in 2008, “has approached me on the streets of New York over the years, saying, ‘You bring back memories of wonderful times.’”
As far as I'm concerned, they were wonderful times. And when John Kennedy died, I grieved as when my parents died years later. I am not the only boomer who will tell you JFK's death was a deep personal loss that may have dimmed over the years but has never completely disappeared.
Sometimes when I'm wiping my eyes I'm surprised to remember: I never met the guy.
Like billions of people around the world, my only contact with Jack was the electronic flickering of a vacuum tube electron gun firing electrons on a fluorescent screen — and since only one electron gun was in operation, the images were in ghostly black and white. I didn't know for years after his death that JFK had chestnut colored hair.
It would be hard to count the number of hours I spent as a kid in front of our 12-inch Admiral TV. This was the miraculous device that brought Lucy and Desi, Fess Parker's Davy Crockett and Ed Sullivan into our living rooms. The screen was so small that you missed a lot of detail, like the frayed "S" on George Reeves' Superman costume that was clearly apparent when the programs were released on high-def DVD five decades later.
The black-and-white images on small screens lacked detail, so if you wanted to know what Jack really looked like, you had to check out the color displays in LIFE magazine or study the Fabian Bachrach official portrait in the post office. The JFK I knew and loved was not a flesh-and-blood human being. He was a television image, and a crude one at that. Is this the stuff of human companionship?
I recently watched a PBS documentary on President Kennedy and was struck by the excellent quality of the digitally restored films, many of them in color. There was the president in the full flush of youth: the quick toothy smile, the starchy Boston accent, tanned cheeks, blue eyes glinting with humor, deeply etched laugh lines and clearly discernible pores. It was more like a visitation than a TV program. I was stunned. John F. Kennedy is more knowable to my kids and grandkids who were born years after his death than he was to me. My adult children can turn on a flat-screen high-def television and see him more clearly than my contemporaries ever could, and with the benefit of historical hindsight we couldn't have.
Which raises a small philosophical question: what is the difference between meeting someone virtually and meeting them face-to-face? And which encounter has a greater impact?
My mother-in-law met John Kennedy in 1960 when the young senator was in New York's garment district campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president. She was a beautiful young Cubana then, and the family legend is that she caught the candidate's eye. JFK certainly caught hers. “He was tall and very handsome,” she reports succinctly, perhaps leaving out some details. But was the JFK she saw in person — busy, self-absorbed, working the crowd, grasping hands and casting his eyes in every direction — the same JFK I knew on an ancient black-and-white television screen?
I've seen other presidents in the post JFK period and was moderately impressed. I was on a DC-9 airliner with former President Ford once and watched him rise too quickly from his seat and hit his head on the overhead rack. I shook hands with President Carter on several occasions, once in the White House and later in his post-presidential appearances. Carter is a warm and gracious man but not particularly charismatic, and you could stand next to him in a buffet line and barely notice you had reached in front of a POTUS to spear a shrimp.
Somehow these guys seemed bigger on television.
It goes without saying, of course, that it is better to relate to someone in the flesh than to a virtual image. Sex is better than pictures. And video images of a departed loved one only exacerbate the sense of loss. A digitally preserved face or voice is not the same as a living smile or spontaneous laugh.
So perhaps we should stop watching television, turn off our computers, unplug our video games and seek out enclaves of our fellow human beings. Some church folks advocate abstinence from Facebook, for example, which they deplore as a fake — a virtual — community, not a real one.
Maybe so. Certainly Facebook and other electronic social networks can serve as conduits to community. Facebook has enabled me to reconnect with family and old friends I haven't seen for years, and a posting by my niece once alerted me to the fact that my sister had been hospitalized. An Episcopal priest friend of mine uses Facebook to advocate for his hockey team and test out his sermon ideas.
Clearly, virtual community is not the place you want to spend your life. But virtual reality can be a useful tool for helping you map out where you want to spend your life. Even the primitive tools of radio and black-and-white television can convey ideals that will change your life forever. People who never met Franklin Roosevelt were sustained and encouraged by his fireside chats. The message of John Kennedy's youthful idealism, with all its human flaws, transcends the media that transmit it. Martin Luther King's soaring rhetoric and moral integrity has galvanized those who knew him, those who met him on television, and will have the same impact on babies being born today.
The emotions, the comfort, the inspiration and the ideas you encounter in virtual community will change your life forever.
The trick is to know when to turn off your computer and live it.