It was the signature moment of a remarkable evening.
A hundred guests had just finished dinner on Saturday, Nov. 9, in a tent outside the imposing house of Nancy Dutton, whose late husband, Fred, had served as secretary of the Cabinet in the White House of John F. Kennedy, and later as the de facto campaign chief of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 effort to depose President Lyndon Johnson. And there stood Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, with her arm around the waist of Lynda Johnson Robb, eldest daughter of the man Townsend’s father had sought to unseat.
“As many of you have heard, sometimes our fathers didn’t get along,’’ said Townsend, an understatement on a par with “the Titanic has stopped to take on ice.” But, she added, “they shared so much, and shared a love of country.” Robb answered with a passionate evocation of the guests’ shared sensibility, the idea that government could be a force for something more than resentment. And a look around the room offered powerful testimony for that belief.
Why had so many come at Dutton's invitation? In part, because everyone knew that this was almost certainly a "last gathering" of those who had served in the JFK presidency; the small talk brought to mind a quip of Ronald Reagan's that "there are three stages of man: young, middle-aged, and 'My, you're looking well.'"
But there was, I think, a more powerful impulse. With the 50th anniversary of President Kenndy's assassination looming, they did not come to mourn, but to celebrate — not just survival and endurance, but the spirit that was very much alive back then, and which has been under siege for much of the time since: a spirit that genuinely believed in civic engagement.
Part of it was in the glamour that Kennedy brought to the presidency; it is not simply mythology that he made the whole idea of public service glamorous. (When the Peace Corps came to the University of Wisconsin in 1962, the line of applicants, eager to volunteer two years of their lives for $75 a month thousands of miles from home, stretched around the block.) Part of it was to remember a time when the public's faith in government was strong: Back then, three of every four Americans believed that the decisions of the federal government were all or mostly right; within a decade, three-fourths of Americans believed the opposite.
There was John Doar, who as a civil rights lawyer in Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department had faced down club-wielding thugs to protect Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Ala., in 1961, who had confronted Mississippi’s white supremacist Gov. Ross Barnett when that state’s university was integrated a year later, who had prosecuted the killers of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo.
Charles Peters was there, the West Virginian who had helped Kennedy win as a Catholic in that overwhelmingly Protestant state (the Kennedy family money didn’t hurt) and who then came to Washington to help start the Peace Corps. Peters stayed to found the Washington Monthly, which continues to cast a clear-eyed, sometimes skeptical look at the workings of government — with the premise of making it work better, not dismantling it.
Peter Edelman was there, who went from clerking for Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg to the Kennedy Justice Department, to Robert Kennedy’s Senate office (where he was my patient mentor) and who has since spent a lifetime as a teacher, government official and counselor, grappling with the endemic dilemma of poverty.
There were descendants of the New Frontier — sons of Ted Kennedy and JFK campaign and White House aide Larry O’Brien, daughter of Interior Secretary Stewart Udall — and chroniclers of the time, CBS’ Roger Mudd and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, along with her husband, Dick Goodwin.
There was nothing funereal, nothing elegiac about the evening. And still, this thought that was never far away:
Decades from now, when the men and women who served Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush and (barring a malevolent act of fate) Barack Obama gather, they will have eight years of a presidency to remember. For good or ill, they will have had a full, fair chance to use their energy and skills in the service of their president.
That chance was denied those who gathered on Saturday; in the flood of stories, television programs, books and magazine remembrances that put JFK front and center, it is easy to overlook this stark fact: Of the 43 men who have served as president, only four — William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, James Garfield and Warren Harding — served fewer days in office than John Fitzgerald Kennedy.