That terrible afternoon I sat in front of the television in a room we called the den and watched the black-and-white images flicker by, not knowing that those images would remain with me forever; following the news with remarkable attention, not knowing that the news would become not only my avocation but my vocation as well; thinking about the president whose administration I barely understood, not knowing that the years 1961-1963 would mark me like no others.
Indeed, decades would pass and yet I am stuck on those three years, stuck like a broken record, even though that simile itself is stuck in that vinyl era and meaningless in this one. I have long believed that in life it is not very important how old you are, but it is very important when you were young. (It was on that weekend that Daniel Patrick Moynihan said to Mary McGrory that while they might laugh again, they would never be young again.)
And so the lessons of the Kennedy years, both the triumphs and the tragedies, have stuck with me, with a stubborn vividness, far more so than anything from the years of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, all of whose presidencies I witnessed firsthand as a reporter. I knew every one of those men, and Gerald R. Ford, too, and yet it is Kennedy, whom I never met, I feel I know best.
Those three Kennedy years are the son et lumiere show of my subconscious. When my brother Jeff and I fought sometime in the fall of 1960 — a 6-year-old beating up on a 4-year-old, not exactly a championship prize fight — my mother, who wasn’t even a native American, called us aside and said: Look at those Kennedy brothers. One of them is running for president and the other brother is helping him, not fighting with him. My earliest political memory is the Kennedy inaugural address, an occasion for our Canadian mother, who emerges in this tale as a bit of a political opportunist, to urge us to ask not what she could do for us.