The Colonel and the President


John F. Kennedy and Sir Denis Hamilton DSO

They were born
A year apart
Both became war heroes
The one a PT boat skipper
The other a colonel on D-Day

Both were journalists once war ended -
Roosevelt dead, Churchill soon discarded -
A new world beckoned
Them, and on that darkened tide
Both men prospered
Till two decades later
The skipper was world leader
The colonel editor
Of what was then
The leading Sunday paper
Of Britain's sharpest pens

Thus bemedalled and in their stride
They met in Washington
Both men tall and handsome
Looking to the future
Not born but bred
In war
Firm of purpose
Yet both now peacetime warriors
With a mission
Born of battle and their loss
Tempering words they wrote or uttered
The President a European
My father an American
So close their sharèd vision
How on earth to tame a fiery world
Yet not lose the very quality
That made a life of freedom
Worth the blood and treasure
They and others had expended
Give another generation
Hope and something even better
A chance each to make a difference
Whether in Nepal, Kinshasa or Peru

It was from that White House matrix
That, as Jack Kennedy had
Once been a second son, sent to distant Britain
It was arranged for me, my father's second son,
To go to Washington
And intern on the city's paper
Nineteen, a student, but very mild
There to learn my father's trade
And something else beside
Of which I wasn't yet the master
How to type and tell a story
Whether it was but simple murder
Or things more serious
How the nation's earth was rumbling
An earthquake in the making
Civil rights the cause

It was the summer
June, of Sixty-Three
Hot and steamy in the capital
The skies in darkest, darkest blue
Sitting at the city desk
Or out on busy streets, the park -
Covering Bobby Kennedy as he
Sought to tell the Negroes to be patient
So small, so frail
Standing on a ladder
His high voice scarcely
As he sought to tell himself
I will

I felt for him
Close enough to touch
Wanting to ease his burden
As so earnestly he sought to earn his brother's trust

The President was in Europe
Speaking in Berlin
A city he had visited
Before war came to Europe
And later, in its ruin
But now, without dictator,
Germans wanting something of his aura
To guide them through
Another war
Cold this time, yet threatening thermo-nuke disaster
As two ideologies
Fenced and strove
To gain acceptance of the young
To show who's boss
Who's weak
Or cowardly

And then that fall
Not intern more but
Interned back in Cambridge
Crossing college campus
Told the news
The President shot
No hope survival
Why I wondered with the thousands -
And would it end our youthful dreams?

I studied hard
Learned at last a little
How to think and write
Books that people
Might think worth the trouble
And some works later
Crossed the ocean once again
This time established author
Bent to learn a different story
Who he really was
The PT boat skipper
How he ever found his way
Earning fame and testing fate
To the wall that Khrushchev built
To stop men fleeing
In Europe's heart, Berlin

I'd learned, with three books on Montgomery,
To use a tape recorder
And so to scholar's seeking
In museums and archives
I added voices
Men and women who'd known the real Jack Kennedy
And were willing to describe
The second son
How reckless was his nature
Sicker too by far
Than anyone had known
Yet braver also
And with a sense of Irish humor
That made men smile
And women blush, inside

And so I traced his story
How he, a second son
Stayed his father
The Ambassador to Great Britain
Stopped him from defeating
Lend-Lease, the President's lifesaving measure
That kept the little island battling
When Hitler seemed invincible
Wrote from California a letter
To his father
Still a student but honor bound
To tell his father the Ambassador
Not to murder
Britain's chances of survival
By saying Britain's hopes were dim

A second son a generation later
Thus I told a second son's great story
How within
Flirtations with a host of women
He thought he could become
One day president of this great nation
Discovered love, then ran from it
And in the blue Pacific
Became a leader who men followed
His courage inspirational
His judgment, more important, sound and true

I wished my father'd lived to read it
A man whose expectations
I'd long defied
Yet whose early lamentations at my errors
Had turned eventually to pride
My father whom I'd come to love
As shepherd and my guide
My father whom I'd escorted
On his lonely journey
To life's ending
As the cancer ate away his hide

He'd have been embarrassed
By the revelations of sex and nightly sorties
To Nirvana
Yet too he would have recognized
As many, outraged, didn't
The power of that story
A son who by his West Coast letter
Saved my father's country
Then in war's great cauldron
Learned the lessons
That made him
Leader of his nation
And the world, beside

By circumstance and bullets
These two men of power and suasion
Long departed now
Fifty years the one
Twenty-five my father gone
Frozen in their photographs
Above my messy desk
They are still striking
Handsome faces I admire
And will love forever
Since of their courage
Behind the myths and questions
Films and television
The endless asking
Who pulled the trigger
What was lost
Would we be in Vietnam
Or civil rights unwon -
They rather speak to me
Telling stories
Of becoming
Those early years of trial and error
The treasure
From which we learn to be not better
But to our better selves
Not turn away, be true
And comes the time to face the Reaper
Show each other courage
When he comes to tell us
Our time, like theirs, is through

(Nigel Hamilton, born in 1944, moved to Boston in 1988, after Monty, his three-volume life of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had been published in Britain and the U.S., winning the Whitbread Prize for Biography and the Templer Medal for Military History. He was appointed John F. Kennedy Scholar, Visiting Professor UMass Boston, and a Fellow of the McCormack Institute of Policy Studies. His book JFK: Reckless Youth, recording JFK's early years up to his election to Congress in November 1946, was published in November 1992. It became a New York Times bestseller, and was made into an ABC television mini-series, starring Patrick Dempsey as the young JFK. His most recent work is American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, From Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush (Yale, 2010). Hamilton is currently Senior Fellow in the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, UMass Boston, where he is writing a 2-volume biography of President Franklin D. Roosevelt as U.S. Commander in Chief, FDR at War. The first volume, The Mantle of Command, will be published by Houghton Mifflin on May 13, 2014.)