June 22, 2024

John Darling: ‘John Kennedy needed help. I helped him.’

Then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy speaks in Lansing on Oct. 14, 1960. Ann Arbor News photo by Doug Fulton
November 16, 2023

I got an autograph in return — and a laugh

Editor’s note: Wednesday, Nov. 22, marks the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas.

By John Darling

John Kennedy needed help. I helped him. He was trying to get off a stage after a speech in Lansing so he could shake hands with people. He asked if he could put his hand on my shoulder and get down. I said sure. He had a bad back. I didn’t. I was in high school. It was fall 1960 and he was the nominee for president.

John Darling teaching high school in 1967.

I asked for his autograph. All I had was a playing card in my wallet. I handed it to him. He flipped it over and laughed out loud. There was a naked woman on it playing strip poker and holding up her halter, smiling. “It looks like she’s losing, but not unhappy about it,” he said as he scrawled on the back. He added, “I don’t usually get handed things like this to sign.”

Then, off he went into history, the best years of our history. The best are the ones you scarcely remember because you’re happy, but it seems not much is happening. That’s what’s supposed to happen if you have a good president — nothing. Nothing bad, anyway.

But something bad did happen three years later.

Major McShane strode into the press room where I was a journalist. It was the Marines. It was Friday, gorgeously sunny for November. It was almost lunch. He had a look of terror, almost anger in his eyes. He was a decorated Corsair pilot from the South Pacific. Never seen him look this way. With both calmness and fury, he said, “Does anyone have a radio?”

“In the radio shack there’s one, sir,” I said.

“Kennedy’s been shot,” he whispered loudly. We all went with him and there were those words, read from the UPI wire, “… cut down by a hail of assassins bullets … motorcade in Dallas … First Lady was not hit … rushed to Parkland .…”

So began Four Days in November. Finally, TV caught up and got the anchors on their tacky cardboard sets and Cronkite would glance up at the clock to mark the moment, “… official now, at 1 p.m., Dallas time, President Kennedy is …” No, the mind screams, not that. Don’t say that. Heroes always get wounded in the shoulder, but they go on. Only the bad guys get their brains splattered all over the street.

Anyway, they picked up some runt loser in a torn T-shirt. He’d learned to shoot in the Marines. They were good at teaching that. I looked down at the crossed rifles on my chest, the expert medal. Then that horrid dirge music and the muffled drums, all but chanting the words: dead, dead, dead.

They swore in that person from Texas who would take us into Vietnam, wasting 58,000 working class American guys for nothing and 10 times that many Vietnamese and seeming to start a huge, unending period of alienation, conflict and broken heart for the nation.

Years later, as the war ground down, I would be interviewing Arthur Schlesinger. He was at the center of the brain trust of Camelot. I asked him, would Kennedy have gone in there? No, he said, he wouldn’t have. He would have found ways. That’s what he was good at. It broke my heart again to hear that, though I’d always felt it was true.

Why wouldn’t he have gone in there? Intelligence. That’s what he had. We don’t get that often. Listening to him talk and watching his mind move among the facts, the realities, it took your breath away. He would do some spin here and there, if his aides wrote it, but it wasn’t bombastic and disgusting and inherently non-credible, as it all has become since.

And always the humor running under everything — like being asked if he would recommend to young people that they grow up and run for president. The pause, the scanning of his own mind, the half smile — “No, I wouldn’t recommend it.” The whole press corps bursts into laughter.

His mind was spare, like the language of Greek drama. He’d already died and come back from it. The patrol boat getting run over in the South Pacific, the Addison’s disease, the endless back pain and surgery, the brother shot down in Europe. He’d been shredded already. He had nothing to prove. He wasn’t much of a liar. He took nothing personally. He made famous the saying, “Don’t get mad, get even.”

He loved reading and could do it fast, tossing out the extraneous. He read Ian Fleming’s 007 novels (this was before the movies) and Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” which detailed the immense folly of getting dragged into World War I — of thinking there were no options and that saving face was everything.

Fleming had the same spareness of mind and humor as Kennedy: “Bond took his usual place across the desk from M’s tall-armed chair. He noticed there was no file on the expanse of red leather in front of the chair. And the In and Out baskets were both empty. Suddenly he felt really bad about everything.”

Those words, like Kennedy’s, invite participation by their very subtlety, their insinuation, their beckoning to the unfolding fun. That sheer class, in our political process, all died with Kennedy. He was having fun. We talk a lot about self-love. Here, in Kennedy, was a man loving himself — and that’s why, to the disgust (read jealousy) of many, he was irresistible to women.

From the “Guns of August,” Kennedy said he took a huge lesson, just before the Cuban Missile Crisis, that you always have options. It may have saved our world. You always have friends, ways, choices — something can and will happen. There is magic here, in each person and in the society. You don’t make it happen — you reach, you wait, you work, you keep talking, you let it happen. But war is making things happen.

I get on the internet and find the IQ’s of presidents. There it is: JFK at 181, Clinton at 183. (No polemic intended, but did notice the present Bush, George W., last at 91.) What pattern emerges here? It’s a presence. Both Kennedy and Clinton had an amazing ability to take punches and keep their wits and focus. Their hearts, drenched in mishap and misery were disciplined instead to task — and to happiness. And with that they could take their battles to the highest level. And have fun doing it.

The killing of the man stole something out of our hearts — the mojo, the yeast starter in the bread, the confidence to reason, suggest and dream and not just work the system, with contempt for the adversary.

Once, 30 years after the act, I went to the Dealey Plaza memorial, up on the sixth floor of the book depository. There was a huge book you could sign and write your thoughts. I stood there and wept, reading it. We loved you so, it said, thank you for giving us so much hope, you were so good and beautiful, if we could only find someone like you again.

He was, finally, really making the country work for everyone. “Negroes” were on the bus instead of at the end of a rope. It was happening. So was the red phone to Moscow, the Peace Corps and the Test Ban Treaty. It was all going to be possible and no one was going to get left out of it.

I would go on to Oregon and travel with his brother Bobby, reporting his ’68 primary campaign here. He was beautiful, too. Everyone wanted to touch him. At breakfast once, I asked him who he thought killed JFK. He said the Warren Report summed it up fine, but history would show he thought the mob did it, because he and his brother pursued them so relentlessly — and why would he want to say that publicly and risk another hit?

But that was all gone and now, through his suffering, he knew the hypocrisy and hate were not in the mob. They were in the human heart — and he was speaking truth to that and going light years beyond his brother. And, of course, he would get his brains blown out too, as would the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Both of them could have been presidents, too — good ones.

It was hard for my generation to believe in much after all that, plus Vietnam and Watergate piled on it. You turned to your own life. What consciousness and hope were in the sixties, became kids and real estate in the seventies — and sickening profiteering in the ’80s. But there was a moment there, several moments, when, as Bob Dylan wrote, I “gazed upon the sound of freedom flashing.”

John Darling lived in Ashland from 1971 until he died at age 77 in January 2021. A US Marine Corps journalist, he went on to write for the Oregonian, Mail Tribune, Daily Tidings, and United Press International, among others, along with stints as a news anchor at KOBI, executive assistant to the Oregon Senate President and press secretary of campaigns for Oregon governor and U.S. Senate. is, with permission, publishing excerpts from his collection “The Divine Addiction: Essays Out of Oregon.”

For more photos of candidate John Kennedy’s campaign swing through Michigan on Oct. 14, 1960, click here.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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