America's Darkest Novembers

A century separated JFK's assassination and the Gettysburg Address.

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Mourners line up to pay respects to the late President John F. Kennedy in the Capitol rotunda, where more than 250,000 passed by before the funeral service the next day. (AP)
Mourners line up to pay respects to the late President John F. Kennedy in the Capitol rotunda, where more than 250,000 passed by before the funeral service the next day. (AP)

Hope and history rhyme, as the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney told us. Yet American history is also cleft with a tragic rhyme that cuts deep to the marrow: President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in 1863 and President Kennedy's assassination in Dallas in 1963. These events happened exactly 100 Novembers apart, a century and three days. These presidents reach across time in a profound dialogue that goes on like the Mississippi River cuts through East and West.

Ironically, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy spoke soaring presidential prose, showed great physical courage and were loved for their quick wits by countrypeople. That their strength and tongues could be stilled suddenly broke the country's heart in the best and worst of times. "When a great calamity has befallen the nation, we want the sun to be darkened and the moon not give her light," Lucretia Mott, the Philadelphia Quaker champion of human rights, wrote in 1865 about Lincoln's April night murder. That's roughly how grown men, women and children felt as they wept 50 years ago.

Is it coincidence that the picture-perfect Yankee president, Jack Kennedy of Massachusetts, was slain on the other side of the Civil War, in the largest former Confederate state known for its violent swagger? Sorry, Texas, but it almost had to be you.

[JFK: 50 Years Later]

The presidents are compared in intriguing ways. Here's one more, a gossamer thread from the 1840s. As he got ready to run for Congress, Abraham Lincoln opposed admitting Texas into the Union because it was a slave state. Kennedy was keen to go to Texas to court the Southern Democratic bloc, which was uneasy he might be too soft on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s civil rights movement.

The president had to hold Jim Crow Texas on the American political map in 1964 for his second term. But in a way, he was travelling to another country - the past. As the novelist of the South William Faulkner has told us, the past goes on and on and never really ends. So you could say Kennedy's fate was a very late outcome of the Civil War.

Thus we hear an autumnal rhyme right before us as we mark Nov. 19th and the 22nd, dates which were likely the darkest hours of the 19th and the 20th century. At the midpoint of the Civil War, Lincoln's battlefield utterance practically saved the Union by redefining the conflict. In five minutes, it was suddenly about expanding freedom (from slavery) and preserving democracy. Lincoln underwent a shift, a personal sea change since the divided nation took up arms in 1861. For him, the Civil War was no longer just about preserving the map of the Union, but also about the new meaning of the same country. Kennedy is accused of coming late to civil rights - well, Lincoln also took some time to move forward.

As my friend, the historian Douglas Brinkley, said, "There will be a never-ending Niagara Falls stream of books about Lincoln and Kennedy. They are stakes in the ground of our shared folklore." Put another way, he said, "They are like rhythms in the American body politique."

[Check out our gallery of political cartoons.]

Standing on a ground of enormous human suffering before the war was lost or won, Lincoln had to somehow inspire the living and honor the thousands of Union soldiers who fell in the theater of war. The summer's "accidental engagement" of the blue and gray armies made it the saddest site in the nation's fourscore and seven years. On a day that turned dark early, brevity was the soul of eloquence for the man from Illinois. With the grapes of wrath and grief hanging heavy, Lincoln did the job - to honor, comfort and inspire - magnificently.

Looking back through the prism at perhaps the darkest hour of 20th century America - the bright shining day Kennedy was slain - we'll travel to a time when things were looking up after the dreary 1950s. New ideas were shaking and exhilaration filled the air in the early 1960s. The moment that slew something in each of us - a state of grace - is coming back to do it all over again on the noonday of Nov. 22.

As we live and breathe.

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