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Gilbert: What JFK Jr. Taught Me

In March 1998, almost exactly fifteen years ago, Time Magazine celebrated its 75th anniversary with a gala gathering at Radio City in New York attended by 1200 of the biggest movers and shakers in the world. Speakers at the dinner included President Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Gates, Toni Morrison, and Steven Spielberg. A number of guests paid tribute to individuals they deeply admired. John F. Kennedy, Jr., whom America knew first as John John and I knew from being his high school English teacher in the 1970s, offered a heartfelt toast to Robert McNamara. McNamara had been Secretary of Defense for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson; he was perhaps the principal architect for America's involvement in Vietnam, which some people called Mr. McNamara's war. He was undeniably brilliant, but not always right.

That night at the gala, John Kennedy Jr. observed that after leaving public life and keeping his own counsel for many years, Robert McNamara did what few others have done. He took full responsibility for his decisions and admitted that he was wrong. Judging from the reception he got, Kennedy added, I doubt many public servants will be brave enough to follow his example. Kennedy concluded, So tonight I would like to toast someone I've known my whole life, not as a symbol of pain we can't forget, but as a man. And I would like to thank him for teaching me something about bearing great adversity with great dignity...

Kennedy was right that McNamara was for millions a symbol of the pain caused by that tragic war. When, in 1996, McNamara broke his silence and published his book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, many Americans were furious, looking on the book as way too little and way too late.

When John F. Kennedy Jr. toasted him for having done so and for having borne, perhaps, the adversity that comes from having to live with those mistakes, he, too, was excoriated. What could JFK Junior possibly have been thinking, some people asked themselves, to salute Robert McNamara, of all people?

Teachers, ideally, learn from their students as well as teach them. I learned something from my former student, young John Kennedy, but I confess it took a longtime. Only now, after the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, do I understand in a way I didn't fifteen years ago, that while McNamara's mistakes will be forever excruciatingly painful, it takes a kind of courage and a kind of personal integrity and a kind of patriotism, characteristics that I have long admired and that conservatives often espouse, for a person like McNamara to acknowledge his mistakes as he did. And a person, particularly a public person, acknowledging his or her mistakes is indeed something worth honoring.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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