Of Kennedys and Kings
With the possible exception of the rambunctious 1920’s, no decade in twentieth century American life has been as celebrated and as scorned as the 1960’s. While every decade can claim to have had its moments of high drama and low comedy, the 1960’s seemed to produce more than its quota of such episodes. Like the 1920’s, the 1960’s often appear to defy adequate description or convenient summarization and may prove to be immune to the clarifying perspectives of time and hindsight.
Harris Wofford was not exactly a child of the 1960’s, but he was certainly a figure who moved through the period alongside some of its most notable personalities. A lawyer acquaintance of Martin Luther King, Jr., a campaign aide to John F. Kennedy in 1960, a White House staffer and Peace Corps organizer, and a noted educator, Wofford did more than merely brush against the human vanguard of American leadership during the decade. Unlike the typical historical commentator on the period, or even the casual citizen who struggled through it, Wofford was in a position to observe the idealism in its formative terms. Paradoxically, this vantage point is both the strength and the weakness of his book.
Of Kennedys and Kings offers a veritable avalanche of personal remembrances of the Kennedy years suggesting that Wofford may have drawn extensively on personal diaries. Unlike others, however, who enjoyed even more intimate contact with the Kennedys and King and who have written about their experience, Wofford is not simply attempting to reminisce. Of Kennedys and Kings strives through numerous vignettes of both a social and political sort to rekindle a genuine appreciation for the dream. It is a credit to Wofford’s fine writing style that he largely succeeds, but a clear prerequisite to enjoying Of Kennedys and Kings is a fondness for the policies being espoused at the time.
Wofford admits, in his Prologue, that he did not intend to conceal his own sympathies which are, perhaps understandably, highly favorable to the policy directions of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr. Additionally, however, there runs a current of awareness on Wofford’s part that the attractiveness associated with these views has not worn well. As such, Wofford attempts not only to retrace some of the memorable episodes of the Kennedy and King eras, but also to expound on the relationship between progressive liberal agenda and the personalities themselves.
The result from such an approach is a book which has among its most appealing features a gradually emerging series of portraits. In his various depictions of the Kennedys and King deeply emersed in the issues of the day, Wofford also produces an evaluation, however indirect, of their personalities. Because all three figures share the common denominator of tragedy, the author seeks out the classic drama in each of their lives. Through each man’s personal tragedy, what began as an inspiring reach for an almost secular utopia was transformed into an unfulfilled reality. By weaving together his assorted recollections, Wofford suggests that the stories themselves are the best explanation as to how this could have happened.
Through the various stories and personality-revealing quotations that Wofford offers on the three men, there results a conscious deflating of the almost mythical image that has come to surround them as historical figures. Wofford appears anxious to remind the reader that the Kennedys and King were, after all, human beings who touched and were touched by human events. In stripping away a measure of the transcendental quality that often surrounds heroic personalities from the past, Wofford intends to make their respective crusades all the more genuine. As an active participant in those policies and programs, Wofford is very conscious of the realities of the political process, and also of the need to equate ideals with the bluntness of the system itself. Regardless of the particulars of the outcome when pitting such...
(The entire section is 1,202 words.)