Poem: 'The Colonel And The President'

Historian Nigel Hamilton moved to Boston in 1988 after the well-received publication of his three-volume history of British Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery. He was appointed a visiting professor at UMass Boston and a fellow of the McCormack Institute of Policy Studies. There, he began work on what was to be a three-volume history of John F. Kennedy.

The first volume, "JFK: Reckless Youth," published in 1992, described Kennedy’s difficult childhood in a dysfunctional family headed by an emotionally distant mother and a demanding, malevolent father who Hamilton devastatingly portrayed as a Nazi appeaser, anti-Semite, Wall Street swindler and philanderer.

Hamilton, who claimed to be “the most sympathetic and honest biographer JFK ever had,” wrote of Kennedy’s struggle for his father’s affection and then his rebellion. He wrote of the love affair of Jack’s life that his father crushed, the lifelong detachment and Kennedy’s inability to form relationships with women.

The Kennedy family, Sen. Edward Kennedy and his three sisters, struck out at the unauthorized biography on the op-ed pages of The New York Times. They called Hamilton’s allegations “grotesque” and “outrageous falsehoods.” The Times’ reviewer wrote that while the book sometimes read like “a trashy novel,” it was thoroughly and meticulously documented.

Hamilton’s relationship with the Kennedy Library, the keeper of the archives and the protector of the Kennedy reputation, deteriorated. He publicly complained about the library’s practice of removing or sanitizing “thousands of documents.” He was not the first of the Kennedy biographers to run into problems taking on Camelot. But facing, a difficult future — he was seeking medical records to investigate Kennedy’s Addison’s disease, a degenerative and debilitating illness, for his second volume — Hamilton brought his biography project to an end.

“I was only writing about his early life,” Hamilton said. “But I think people did feel threatened that if I went on with what was going to be a trilogy, I would uncover embarrassing material. And so, perhaps rightly, I was closed down. In my case, I was considered to be a threat to members of the family who were either in politics or were going into politics in the near future. So, in terms of possible votes, I was a threat. Also, to the terms of the family’s self-image. Arthur Schlesinger, William Manchester, there were a host of writers who actually admired, who loved JFK, got in trouble. And it might be over the most trivial things, like poor William Manchester putting into his first manuscript that Jackie Kennedy smoked and had size ten shoes. That, to me, is one of the inevitable aspects of high profile biography and certainly biography of celebrities.”

“I think what I could have done in terms of the ‘elusive president’ was make him less elusive. I think I did have a rather special feeling for him, and that’s based on the fact I had done hundreds and hundreds of interviews with people who were no longer alive, who had been there through his life, who shared their positive and negative experiences with JFK. I think I would have been able to paint a deeper picture and perhaps clarify this elusive president of the United States.”

'The Colonel And The President'

By Nigel Hamilton
In memoriam of John F. Kennedy and Sir Denis Hamilton.

John F. Kennedy, winner of the Democratic Nomination for Congress in the 11th Massachusetts District, relaxes with his dog, Mo, June 22, 1946, Hyannisport, Mass. (Peter J. Carroll/AP)
John F. Kennedy, winner of the Democratic Nomination for Congress in the 11th Massachusetts District, relaxes with his dog, Mo, June 22, 1946, Hyannisport, Mass. (Peter J. Carroll/AP)

They were born
A year apart
Both became war heroes
The one a PT boat skipper
The other a colonel on D-Day

Both were journalists once war ended -
Roosevelt dead, Churchill soon discarded -
A new world beckoned
Them, and on that darkened tide
Both men prospered
Till two decades later
The skipper was world leader
The colonel editor
Of what was then
The leading Sunday paper
Of Britain's sharpest pens

Thus bemedalled and in their stride
They met in Washington
Both men tall and handsome
Looking to the future
Not born but bred
In war
Firm of purpose
Yet both now peacetime warriors
With a mission
Born of battle and their loss
Tempering words they wrote or uttered
The President a European
My father an American
So close their shared vision
How on earth to tame a fiery world
Yet not lose the very quality
That made a life of freedom
Worth the blood and treasure
They and others had expended
Give another generation
Hope and something even better
A chance each to make a difference
Whether in Nepal, Kinshasa or Peru

It was from that White House matrix
That, as Jack Kennedy had
Once been a second son, sent to distant Britain
It was arranged for me, my father's second son,
To go to Washington
And intern on the city's paper
Nineteen, a student, but very mild
There to learn my father's trade
And something else beside
Of which I wasn't yet the master
How to type and tell a story
Whether it was but simple murder
Or things more serious
How the nation's earth was rumbling
An earthquake in the making
Civil rights the cause

It was the summer
June, of Sixty-Three
Hot and steamy in the capital
The skies in darkest, darkest blue
Sitting at the city desk
Or out on busy streets, the park -
Covering Bobby Kennedy as he
Sought to tell the Negroes to be patient
So small, so frail
Standing on a ladder
His high voice scarcely
As he sought to tell himself
I will

I felt for him
Close enough to touch
Wanting to ease his burden
As so earnestly he sought to earn his brother's trust

The President was in Europe
Speaking in Berlin
A city he had visited
Before war came to Europe
And later, in its ruin
But now, without dictator,
Germans wanting something of his aura
To guide them through
Another war
Cold this time, yet threatening thermo-nuke disaster
As two ideologies
Fenced and strove
To gain acceptance of the young
To show who's boss
Who's weak
Or cowardly

And then that fall
Not intern more but
Interned back in Cambridge
Crossing college campus
Told the news
The President shot
No hope survival
Why I wondered with the thousands -
And would it end our youthful dreams?

I studied hard
Learned at last a little
How to think and write
Books that people
Might think worth the trouble
And some works later
Crossed the ocean once again
This time established author
Bent to learn a different story
Who he really was
The PT boat skipper
How he ever found his way
Earning fame and testing fate
To the wall that Khrushchev built
To stop men fleeing
In Europe's heart, Berlin

I'd learned, with three books on Montgomery,
To use a tape recorder
And so to scholar's seeking
In museums and archives
I added voices
Men and women who'd known the real Jack Kennedy
And were willing to describe
The second son
How reckless was his nature
Sicker too by far
Than anyone had known
Yet braver also
And with a sense of Irish humor 
That made men smile
And women blush, inside

And so I traced his story
How he, a second son
Stayed his father
The Ambassador to Great Britain
Stopped him from defeating
Lend-Lease, the President's lifesaving measure
That kept the little island battling
When Hitler seemed invincible
Wrote from California a letter
To his father
Still a student but honor bound
To tell his father the Ambassador
Not to murder
Britain's chances of survival
By saying Britain's hopes were dim

A second son a generation later
Thus I told a second son's great story
How within
Flirtations with a host of women
He thought he could become
One day president of this great nation
Discovered love, then ran from it
And in the blue Pacific
Became a leader who men followed
His courage inspirational
His judgment, more important, sound and true

I wished my father'd lived to read it
A man whose expectations
I'd long defied
Yet whose early lamentations at my errors
Had turned eventually to pride
My father whom I'd come to love
As shepherd and my guide
My father whom I'd escorted
On his lonely journey
To life's ending
As the cancer ate away his hide

He'd have been embarrassed
By the revelations of sex and nightly sorties
To Nirvana
Yet too he would have recognized
As many, outraged, didn't
The power of that story
A son who by his West Coast letter
Saved my father's country
Then in war's great cauldron
Learned the lessons
That made him
Leader of his nation
And the world, beside

By circumstance and bullets
These two men of power and suasion
Long departed now
Fifty years the one
Twenty-five my father gone
Frozen in their photographs
Above my messy desk
They are still striking
Handsome faces I admire
And will love forever
Since of their courage
Behind the myths and questions
Films and television
The endless asking
Who pulled the trigger
What was lost

Would we be in Vietnam
Or civil rights unwon -
They rather speak to me
Telling stories
Of becoming
Those early years of trial and error
The treasure
From which we learn to be not better
But to our better selves
Not turn away, be true
And comes the time to face the Reaper
Show each other courage
When he comes to tell us
Our time, like theirs, is through

This program aired on November 22, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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David Boeri Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.



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