WE FELT privileged that June day, that special day for those of us who hurried into the city centre to crowd the sidewalks along the appointed route. “Here he is,” an excited woman shouted as we got our first glimpse of the 35th president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
The motorcade had turned Paddy Barry’s corner and was coming towards us on Patrick’s Bridge. We strained to get a better view. The boyish-looking president in the back of the limo was relaxed, smiling and deeply tanned.
We didn’t know it then, but calamitous events in a faraway town five months later would ensure that never again would an American president ride in public in an open-top car. Security was scant that day in Cork in 1963. Yes, there were secret service agents at the back of the presidential limo, and some gardaí on the streets, but anyone could have taken a pot shot at Kennedy that day.
Strangely enough, though little or nothing was made of it at the time, a mystery caller to the Cork Examiner (as it then was) said he had overheard a conversation among foreigners the night before in the bar of the Metropole Hotel. They were talking about assassinating President Kennedy in Cork, and doing it from a window of the Imperial Hotel on the South Mall.
Was it some crank? Or a sick joker? The sub-editor who took the call guessed that it was, but as a precaution he rang the gardaí at Union Quay and passed on the message. That was the last he ever heard of it. The truth, of course, is that Kennedy would have been an easy target in Cork. There was little or no real security, not in the sense that we know it now.
The contrast, especially in terms of security, with the visit to Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary, of President Ronald Reagan in June 1984, which I covered for the Irish Press, could hardly be more marked. The secret service had swarmed all over the place for days beforehand, even insisting on manhole covers being welded shut.
In 1963 it was all very different. Some of us in Sunbeam, where I worked as a textile fitter, were given time off so that we could go into the city centre to see President Kennedy. He was our new clean-cut hero, the first Catholic to be elected to the White House, with the looks of a Hollywood star and a glamorous wife to match.
We knew nothing then, of course, about his reckless philandering, or that actresses such as Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson were among his conquests. All of that was conveniently covered up by a compliant media, in marked contrast to the situation today.
Yet the mystique of Kennedy endures. It’s one reason why an eight-part television mini-series about the Kennedys in 2011 caused such controversy that it couldn’t be screened in the States. Would you edit out Kennedy’s compulsive womanising? Would you argue, as some who felt obliged to safeguard Kennedy’s reputation and legacy, that all that sex was entirely incidental?
There was controversy even before filming started on the series, with the drama being attacked as “vindictive” and a deliberate attempt to damage the Kennedy family’s reputation. The series, entitled The Kennedys, opened in this part of the world on the History Channel, but pressure from former Kennedy aides and many Kennedy scholars forced the makers to abandon plans to screen the series in the US.
It starred Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes as the presidential couple and, over eight hours it covers the triumphant march to the White House that began with victory over Richard Nixon in the 1960 election, and ended with Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in November 1963.
Bringing history to the small screen (or, perhaps even more so, the big screen) is fraught with difficulties. Plans for a feature film about the life of Martin Luther King have already sparked controversy.
Like Kennedy, the hero of the American civil rights movement was a serial womaniser, but those who claim “ownership” of his legacy want all of that whitewashed. When it comes to our heroes, should it always be the unvarnished truth?
Back then, the unvarnished truth about Kennedy was all we knew. It was a different Ireland and indeed a different world. In Rome, just a week before Kennedy’s visit, Giovanni Battista Montini had been elected as Pope Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council was in session. Here at home, Éamon de Valera was president, and Seán Lemass was taoiseach.
In the North, the dominance of Ulster Unionism appeared unchallengeable, though Kennedy’s ascent to the White House had spurred a young man named John Hume to dream of things that were not yet, but one day might be.
The Cold War was something many were very conscious of in 1963, for we had been scared by the implications of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. In the eyes of many Irish at home and abroad, Kennedy’s stature as a leader had been enhanced by the manner in which he had faced down Nikita Khrushchev.
Kennedy was the good guy in our eyes. We had been taught that communism could only be bad, and the young Catholic in the White House was the champion of Western liberal values, though the American involvement in Vietnam — which Kennedy expanded — would in time change our perceptions.
Nor did we have any real inkling in 1963 of the moral flaws in Kennedy’s character. Here was a Catholic hero coming back to the land of his ancestors; here was one of our own who now held the most powerful and prestigious office in the world.
So there was an outpouring of joy and pride when he finally came amongst us. What struck us immediately were his youthfulness and his handsome appearance. Yes, of course we were prepared for this, for we had seen plenty of photographs and newsreel footage. But he seemed to us to be even better than that in the flesh.
Sitting in the back of the large limousine, smiling and waving, the contrast with his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, could hardly have been sharper. Incidentally, this was the same car that he was destined to ride in five months later in Dallas, Texas.
In Cork on that long distant day, we were joyful and proud, completely unmindful of the lax security and the fact that on Leeside a lone gunman, had there been one, could easily have killed Kennedy. It was how it was back then.
Things will be very different this time for the visit of President Barack Obama. The security arrangements will be of an entirely different order to what they were back.
The assassination of Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, led to a major overhaul of the measures intended to ensure presidential safety. A further thorough-going review was necessitated after March 30, 1981, when President Reagan survived an assassination attempt in Rosslyn, Washington DC.
Right now, the threat of al-Qaida reprisals following the killing by American forces of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan earlier this month ensures that, for the duration of his Irish visit, Barack Obama will be the most heavily protected US president in history.