Saturday, November 9, 2013

Gaiety then and now

I suppose there could hardly be a better time to read historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s A Thousand Days, his 1965 memoir of the Kennedy White House, than this month. Schlesinger's combination of an observant eye and his historian's instinct for little-known facts lead him to paint a vivid picture of Camelot; we learn, for instance, that the core thought of "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do your country" is one that Kennedy had turned over in his mind for quite some time, but it also echoed a sentiment in a Memorial Day speech given by future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in 1884. We read that Kennedy caustically dismissed Eisenhower as disloyal to old friends and only interested in playing golf with "a bunch of rich guys that he met after 1945"; on the other hand, speaking of Barry Goldwater, whose politics and background were the polar opposite of Kennedy's own, Kennedy called him a man of character and decency.

I'm reading a description of the similarities and differences between Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson, twice the Democratic nominee for President and, later, Kennedy's Ambassador to the UN. Schlesinger says that visits to the homes of either Kennedy, in Massachusetts, or Stevenson, in Illinois, "had very much the same mood and tempo--the same sort of spacious, tranquil country house; the same patrician ease of manners; the same sense of children and dogs in the background; the same kind of irrelevant European visitors; the same gay humor"...umm, how's that again? Gay humor? Well, no, not *that* kind of gay (though just such rumors were floated, at one point, about Stevenson, because of his lifelong bachelorhood, but in fact, he was just as much a ladies' man as Kennedy). It's funny...this book was written only 48 years ago, but almost no one uses "gay" any more in its traditional sense, as Schlesinger used it. How the world has changed.

© Michael Huggins, 2013. All rights reserved.

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