21 November 2013
Most of us of a certain age can remember what we were doing on 22 November 1963, the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. My own memory is especially vivid – hearing the news on the 7:00 am radio news on the Saturday morning, and going in to wake my sleeping parents, who dismissed me as having a bad dream. So, I went back to my room and waited for the next bulletin, by which time they were ready to believe me.
50 years later, President Kennedy remains one of my two enduring political heroes – by way of complete contrast, the austere, dour Eamon de Valera is the other. In virtually every way they were complete opposites. (Kennedy quipped to Ireland’s Parliament, the Dail, during his 1963 visit that had his forbears stayed in Ireland he could have been sitting that day with the TDs in the Dail, listening to de Valera, had he stayed in the United States.) Yet, between them, they possessed qualities I continue to admire and value.
Kennedy’s oratory and his ability to inspire his generation by the use and construct of his words was overpowering, as was his leadership, first during the steel crisis, and then most famously during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. His empathy, so evident in his 1963 visits to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, and to Ireland was simply extraordinary. But above all, it was his capacity, at the height of the Cold War, to articulate a vision of freedom and hope, not just for the United States, but for the world that marks his greatness. And the tragedy of his death made him a 20th century martyr.
De Valera, on the other hand, was the ultimate survivor, avoiding execution by the British after the 1916 Uprising (because of his American origins) to become President of Ireland in 1919 and – with many years as Prime Minister in between – to be President again until he finally retired, after a fourteen year term, blind and his 90s, in 1973, over half a century later. Whereas Kennedy’s appeal lay in his flair, charm and charisma, de Valera survived by stubbornness and sheer cunning, defeating many of his rivals and cementing the development of the modern Irish state along the way.
Both men had their foibles. Kennedy’s now notorious private life was in stark contrast to the often extremely narrow-minded approach of de Valera. While Kennedy’s flame burned brightly and quickly before being cruelly extinguished, de Valera’s flame smouldered on until the mid 1970s.
On a cold Sunday morning some 25 years ago, I stood at Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery and reflected upon the lives of my two heroes. I recalled Kennedy’s words and mercurial brilliance, and de Valera’s absolute steadfastness and wily determination.
As we mark 50 years since Kennedy’s death this weekend, I will be thinking of the good things my two heroes contributed to their two countries and the world of their times, and I will also be remembering afresh my grumpy parents, abruptly awoken by a precocious young child on that most extraordinary Saturday morning all those years ago.