After John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago, The Atlantic published “Death of a Man,” John L’Heureux’s poem eulogizing the president as a “man of goodness” whose killing at 46 was permitted by God for reasons “we do not ripely understand.” Kennedy, a president with a sufficiently rounded appreciation of politics to call poetry “the means of saving power from itself,” had a particular appeal to the nation’s artists.
“Let mankind hobble home now on its knees,” L’Heureux wrote.
When we contacted the poet, now a professor emeritus at Stanford University, to ask whether we could republish his poem, he said that he had one condition: that we delete a line in which he described Kennedy’s “lifeless body cradled by his queen in life.”
L’Heureux, who was a Jesuit seminarian when he wrote these verses, told me he almost instantly regretted the line, and long ago stopped reciting it when he read the poem aloud. “It played into the whole notion of eternal trumpets and the planets stopping in their course—the exaggeration of the death of a superhero, rather than of a man who had good intentions,” he said. The poem, pruned of its one purple blossom, appears in this issue.
To accompany the new stories we commissioned for this issue, we drilled into The Atlantic’s archive and extracted what amounts to a core sample of views, from across the political seasons, of Jack Kennedy. New and old, the pieces collected here reveal the many sources—the glamour, the drama of his era, the shock of his death, the revelations over the years of his private pains, doubts, and cruelties—of Kennedy’s continued hold on the national imagination. They also reveal how contingent our judgments can be—the judgments not just of journalism, but of poetry and history.