1963 - History as tragedy

John F Kennedy died a mortal on Friday and was already a legend when he was buried on Monday in a ceremony that strangely mixed tenderness and dignity. The princes and presidents lent pomp to the final rites and the demeanour of his widow was, as one reporter wrote, like that of a queen in a classic tragedy. But what made the funeral unbearably moving was the uncounted tens of thousands of young people who came from afar as if by invisible command to Washington. At freezing dawn they formed most of a line far more than a mile long of those waiting to pass the President's coffin in the dimly lit dome of the Capitol. Until one stood with them, it was impossible fully to grasp what President Kennedy meant to the generation for which he spoke.

For four days, beginning on Friday, television carried nothing but news about Mr Kennedy's death, and for once without commercial interruptions. As from another world, there were glimpses of Dallas and that city's slack-jawed police, then the funeral itself, endless panel discussions, and throughout the tolling of bells and the muffled beat of drums. Friends sought each other's warmth; floors were littered with newspapers; there was a mingled sense of incredulity, indignation and remorse as most of us became aware in Washington how much we had taken for granted the singular man in the White House.

He came in with a snowstorm, and the setting was flawlessly right on Inauguration Day, 20 January 1961. There was no premonition of tragedy, but rather a sense of rebirth in a capital mantled in beauty as the oldest President yielded power to the youngest man ever elected Chief Executive of the United States. More than a change of administrations, it was a change of generations, a change of outlook - and most importantly apparent, a change of style. When John Fitzgerald Kennedy was sworn in, he appeared to fulfil Robert Frost's augury that an age of poetry and power was commencing in Washington. But the poetry is now hushed, and the promise of power wisely used is now an unfinished chapter in a volume entitled, "Let Us Begin . . ." None of us suspected that in retrospect the Inaugural snow would seem as a shroud.

It is too early to fix Mr Kennedy's place in history because so much of what he initiated was left for others to complete. But two of his achievements seem likely to take root. He was not a man given to easy commitments, but before his death he embarked on two major ventures - for the first time in this century, he placed the power and might of his office behind a dispossessed race whose second-class status demeaned all citizens; at the same time, he took the world to the precipice of a war but followed his unexampled personal triumph by deeds intended to eliminate the risk of a holocaust through madness or miscalculation. The special pathos of his death is that he seemed on the verge of broadening his commitment.

Something else, however, is irretrievably lost - the brilliance of his presence, the glow of his style. To Americans like myself who were near to his age, he renewed our pride in our country and gave a dignity to the political calling. If we fretted at his failures and reproached him for his excessive caution, it was because he seemed more a brother than father, and because we judged him in terms of his capacity for greater things. His unfailing wit, which he could turn on himself, his literacy, his physical grace and his sense of history were part of a harmonious whole. By virtue of television, and his superb performance at press conferences, he became in life an intensely personal figure to millions; in death he leaves a mournful void.

A prodigious reader, he cherished not only learning, but the learned. His ideal of government seemed to be half academy, half precinct headquarters. He opened the White House to anybody who could impart a ferment and his good humour as a host was legend. His favourite biography was Lord David Cecil's Melbourne, and the choice tells a good deal about the strengths and weaknesses of his self-definition. Like the urbane Whigs of Melbourne's age, he blended a studied detachment, broad if conventional interest in the arts, moderate liberalism, family pride and belief in reason. It is savage irony that this child of the Enlightenment was cut down by the very fanaticism that he sought to contain. The cause for which he stood remains in doubt, and the last page of his biography must be written with what Virgil called the tears of things.