Writers on Kennedy

What we think about when we think about JFK

Richard Whittaker
Richard Whittaker

'Not Just America'

Writers on Kennedy

I grew up with a song from a TV show canceled six years before I was born. We British do love our political satire, and That Was the Week That Was, or TW3 as it was known, was in the vanguard. When JFK died, the comedians wore somber weeds, but they were not at a loss for words. Show composer David Lee and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer quickly penned "In the Summer of His Years." It became famous later in America through versions by Mahalia Jackson, sonorous with martial overtones, and in an elegiac, pastoral interpretation by Connie Francis. But it was first sung, the day after the assassination, by British comedienne Millicent Martin – back straight, lit in half shadow, eyes half-closed to hold back tears.

"The heart of a world weighs heavy," she sang in a clip oft repeated since. That was when I, years after the fact, got it. Kennedy wasn't the possession of a nation. He was heir to diplomats and plutocrats, but rejected the era of top-hat politics. He talked about universal civil rights. He stood in Berlin. He played smart brinkmanship with the Russians. He was everything that crusty old Truman and the simmering Nixon could never be.

For a generation, Kennedy was not just America. He was modernity.

Yorkshire native Richard Whittaker is a Chronicle staff writer, reporting on politics, education, and film. His Kennedy library contains two different printings of William Manchester's The Death of a President, still the definitive recounting of the day's events.

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