A Writer Writes

Kennedy at Berkeley
by Chris Honore’ (Colombia 1967–69)

    IT WAS LATE MARCH, 1962. I was on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, walking alone, on my way to a small cafe on the north side to meet friends. I had heard that President Kennedy was slated to speak that day at Memorial Stadium (was it Charter Day?), and I could hear, just a few blocks away, the hum of cars and voices. The street where I was walking was strangely empty, absent traffic or others passing by. Across the way was a magnificent stone and timber resident hall, with a stretching green soccer field in front, and I saw no one.
         Then, unexpectedly, up ahead, several cars came around a soft bend in the road headed in my direction. A small motorcade of sorts. There were two police cars in front and one unmarked car in back, bracketing a gleaming black Lincoln convertible, the top down. I stopped and stood very still, for in the convertible was John Kennedy.
         Looking back, thinking about all that has happened since, I cannot imagine that I was so completely ignored, standing there, one solitary individual. But then, that seismic day in Dallas was more than a year away, a day that would change everything.
         Etched in my memory will always be the image of Kennedy, seated in the back, on the right, his elbow resting on the door. Seeing him, suddenly touched by the full import of the moment, I recall telling myself that I would not react; I’d remain cool, detached. I certainly wouldn’t wave. But as the motorcade drew parallel, I flung my arm into the air, and began waving wildly, excitedly, looking directly at the president.
         And then — and I will always remember this — he glanced to his right and looked at me and our eyes ever so briefly locked and he nodded, and smiled that incandescent smile, and I raised up, as if I were about to levitate, both my arms in the air. It was an unrestrained wave, a come-from-behind, stadium wave, and I felt a cheer reaching my lips. Mr. President. Mr. President. But then he was gone, and I recall that the men in a black station wagon, just a few feet behind, coolly glanced in my direction with disinterest as they passed and then they were gone.
         I heard later that President Kennedy gave a remarkable speech, one in which he said, “We must reject oversimplified theories of international life — the theory that American power is unlimited, or that the American mission is to remake the world in the American image. We must seize the vision of a free and diverse world — and shape our policies to speed progress toward a more flexible world order.”

    OF LATE, I AM OFTEN REMINDED of that moment as I watch our current president shift uneasily beneath the mantle of his office. And I wonder, how long has it been since America has had a leader that was commensurate with our ideals and our stature? How long has it been since we have watched and listened to our president stand before the world, be it at the United Nations, or at a podium abroad, and felt a surge of pride at his words and his presence? How long has it been since we have wanted to raise up and wave our arms with unrestrained joy because we sense immediately that the promise of our great nation is being fulfilled, and we are all being called to once again do great things in a common cause? I can’t remember.
         Watching the president over these last months and years, it has become all but impossible not to feel an abiding sadness at the opportunities that have been missed. And of course the tragedy that is Iraq. So much could have been achieved. What could this president possibly have told us in his recent State of the Union address that would absolve him of having failed to step forward?
         It isn’t that President Bush has failed to acknowledge certain problems; rather, it has been a failure of imagination and resolve and a startling myopia. How often has he appeared, as he did in on a dark night in New Orleans, and promised a new direction, made a profound commitment, and then walked away, finding shelter in the shallow rhetoric of “the terrorists.” Darfur, Katrina, the long suffering Gulf Coast come to mind, as do No Child Left Behind, children’s health care, global warming, and the list goes on.
         Truth be told, there is not much more to say about this administration, other than we are hearing foreign governments and our own Congressional leaders speak in terms of waiting for the next administration. Waiting for a president that will once again make us hopeful, and for some, perhaps, even levitate.

    Chris Honore’ lives in Ashland, Oregon and works as a freelance journalist.