In Joy, Thankfulness, Praise: Remembering John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Ronald Wilson Reagan

Several years ago, during one of her visits to Oklahoma City for a speech, I spent time with columnist Peggy Noonan, a friend from my decade of work in Washington, D.C..

Ted Kennedy had died a few days before. Our conversation turned not to Ted, but to Ronald Reagan’s relationship with the Kennedy family in general, and respect for John F. Kennedy in particular.

Peggy, who can write better than just about anyone, remains in awe of Reagan’s writing and communication abilities during the years she served him in the nation’s capital.

One speech she helped Reagan with, in 1985, was delivered at Ted Kennedy’s home in suburban McLean, Virginia, at a tribute to JFK. 

Reagan said that night that President Kennedy always seemed “a man of the most interesting contradictions, very American contradictions. … He was both self-deprecating and proud, ironic and easily moved, highly literate yet utterly at home with the common speech of the working man. … He could cuss a blue streak — but then, he’d been a sailor.”

“As a leader, as a president,” Reagan said John Kennedy “seemed to have a good, hard, un-illusioned understanding of man and his political choices.”

Reagan did not seek false friendship in papered-over differences about things that matter. He knew that ideas have consequences. He never backed John Kennedy, yet grace found a way to bridge the gap: 

“When the battle’s over and the ground is cooled, well, it’s then that you see the opposing general’s valor.”

Reagan continued:

“Everything we saw him do seemed to show a huge enjoyment of life; he seemed to grasp from the beginning that life is one fast-moving train, and you have to jump aboard and hold on to your hat and relish the sweep of the wind as it rushes by. You have to enjoy the journey, it’s un-thankful not to. I think that’s how his country remembers him, in his joy.”

In the years they overlapped in the nation’s capital, the pride of Massachusetts, Democrat Jack Kennedy, had a sincere friendship with Mr. Conservative, Republican Barry Goldwater of Arizona. They had quietly reached an agreement, assuming each was the 1964 presidential nominee of their respective parties, to travel the nation and hold a series of one-on-one debates.

Those would have been substantive exchanges, we can be certain, on matters of principle and policy.

Reagan reflected on the two men. Their friendship demonstrated, among other things, the wisdom and character of his hero, whose presidential campaign redefined Republican politics.

In their respective eras as national leaders, first JFK, then Reagan, practiced a hopeful brand of politics. Their manners attracted me as a young man, comforted me in middle age, and now sustain me in my latter years.

They have become an armor against the disappointment, betrayal and heartbreak of “the real political world.” My politics are more like Reagan’s than JFK’s, yet often I ponder their common graces.

Some say Reagan was an ordinary man. My view, based on several meetings and other interactions, is that’s not quite right. 

He was extraordinarily kind — offering a coaster or a napkin or making some small gesture to those on each side, chatting about everything from the weather to last weekend’s ball games.

In moments of grace, he remembered (without note cards) little things about certain visitors that endeared him. I’ve encountered a few women politicians with similar disarming charm, but no other man quite like Reagan.

One of my most prized possessions is Reagan’s generous letter encouraging people to read my 1990 analysis of the failed effort to confirm Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The book I wrote was pointedly critical of my favorite president.
Reagan never mentioned the criticisms, and encouraged others to read my book, to learn lessons for the future.

Some things in life cannot be avoided.

The calendar comes to Nov. 22 every year, that awful day when, in 1963, a young president died in Dallas. When nuns of the Mercy Order at Bishop John Carroll School said Jack Kennedy had been murdered, my classmates and I went into shock. It was quite some time before we refocused on being children, and things were different when we did.

And, joyfully, the calendar each year comes to Thanksgiving Day, America’s celebration of civic religion, a time to hope that we can still find ways to celebrate, in respect and peace, the strength our varied beliefs and practices can bring to the public square.

On that long-ago night with the Kennedy family, Reagan waxed lyrical as he shared stories about the roll call of presidents who in some mysterious way still reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, including JFK.

The conservative president told a tender kind of White House ghost story:

“Walk softly now and you’re drawn to the soft notes of a piano and a brilliant gathering in the East Room, where a crowd surrounds a bright young president who is full of hope and laughter. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a story I’ve been told, and it’s not a bad one because it reminds us that history is a living thing that never dies. …

“History is not only made by people, it is people. And so history is, as young John Kennedy demonstrated, as heroic as you want it to be, as heroic as you are.”

Free people can preserve the Constitutional Republic that Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and the Founders gave us.

The Constitution forged in great minds, the heroic history that elevated George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams led to the trials and triumphs of Jack Kennedy and Ron Reagan, and to today.

I am thankful to have lived in the times of both JFK and RWR.

I study them, pondering their examples, more with each passing year.

With the benefit of hindsight it is not their faults that stand out, but their patterns of civility, amidst a fair share of policy successes. It is hard to discern similar graces or substance among those leading the competition to become the next president of the United States, but time will tell.

The Republic which Franklin promised survives. But can we keep it?

Both Kennedy and Reagan loved the blessed land in which Madison’s constitutional design functions. With such people in mind, may we lift our hearts each day in thankfulness and praise, petitioning our Creator to sustain the nation they served.

Note: Portions of this essay have appeared previously at the and websites, in The City Sentinel newspaper and at