A view from the New Frontier

Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy. — F. Scott Fitzgerald

Awash from the recent wave of reminiscences about the life and death of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, surrounding the 50th anniversary of his death, this perspective emerges to one who was part of the New Frontier.

My book about my work for Robert F. Kennedy in the 1961-1964 Justice Department, Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes describes Robert Kennedy's war against organized crime, an adventure I was involved in as a special prosecutor in the organized crime section at the department.

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I adapted the book’s title from a line in Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way, a book Jacqueline Kennedy gave to Robert Kennedy to help him find solace after the assassination. Former Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) told me he was called by the family when Robert Kennedy was shot and was asked to be at their home in Virginia early in the morning when the children awoke, to ease their pain about their father's death. Glenn told me he waited all night in Robert Kennedy’s study for daylight to come and noticed, then read at his desk, the pages open to Hamilton's book, including those lines of Herodotus: that in history there are only imperfect heroes, even when there are perfect villains.

That line came back to me when I attended a ceremonial viewing at a theater in Coconut Grove, Miami, of the 1964 USIA film "Years of Lightning, Day of Drums." Those of us attending were asked to reminisce about where we were when John F. Kennedy was shot and what his time in office meant to us. Everyone had touching recollections. Mine was haunting because I was at a meeting in Robert Kennedy’s office that morning in November 1963. When we went our separate ways after the meeting broke up, the world changed.

I see now that my title to my book, while not used at the time with this perspective in mind, captures what was special about the John F. Kennedy presidential years.

We know now, with information not available then, even to those of us who worked in the middle of the New Frontier, that John F. Kennedy was very imperfect, on professional and personal levels not known or dared to have been said then.

Not all remembrances of John F. Kennedy are admiring. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote in his recent op-ed in The New York Times that skeptics of the Kennedy "cult" decry how it "makes a saint out of a reckless adulterer, a Camelot out of a sordid political operative" and an admired world figure out of a president "whose fate was tragic but whose record was not terribly impressive."

But he did face and fight perfect villains then, however imperfectly: poverty, racism, nuclear threat, a needy country and world, along with crime in America. And he did so with grace and inspiration that made the world see America as an estimable leader.

The media froze the moment of his death, sacralizing his memory as Sam Tannehaus wrote in The New York Times recently. In his assassination coverage at the time for the New York Herald Tribune, the famous journalist Jimmy Breslin interviewed Father Oscar Huber, who left Holy Trinity Church in Dallas when he heard about the assassination of the president and rushed to Parkland Hospital. There he administered the last rites to the then-dead president while Jacqueline Kennedy watched and prayed with him. The priest absolved Kennedy from his sins, Breslin reported, there in the bloodied emergency room, and as the world has since. John F. Kennedy was an imperfect hero, for sure, but we remember him because of the villains he pursued, incompletely but memorably.

We were young and high-minded, working at what we could do for our country, as our young and glamorous president asked us to do, doing it genuinely, enthusiastically, if imperfectly. I didn’t realize it at the time that this spirit of government service was unique. I do now.

Goldfarb is a Washington, D.C., and Miami-based attorney and author. His book Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes has been optioned for a movie.