Presidents previously visited New Orleans. Franklin Roosevelt stopped by in April 1937 to dedicate the Roosevelt Mall in City Park. Dwight Eisenhower visited the city in 1953 to honor the sesquicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase. But no presidential visit, indeed no visit of any kind by any sort of celebrity, created such excitement as when John F. Kennedy landed here on May 4, 1962. By then Kennedy was in the second year of his presidency. The boyish president with the athletic good looks, the rich and glamorous family, the beautiful wife and the skill at speechmaking was a splash of color in the national psyche after years of men whose personas fit the black and white image the nation saw from their TVs. Kennedy brought effervescence to the presidency.
It happened that his arrival had holiday status. His motorcade wound from City Hall, where he waved to the crowd from the second floor vernda, and then up St. Charles Avenue, which was packed with school kids and onlookers of all kinds. Where there were schools with marching bands, music filled the moment. (According to a friend who was the member of a band, when the president passed by their band director was so excited that he ran to the street leaving the band to play on its own.)
Presidents still rode in open-top convertibles back then. JFK (sans Jackie) sat in the back seat acknowledging the crowd with his famous half-turn of the wrist wave.
For a city used to seeing float-filled Carnival parades and getting beads in return, waiting for the president offered comparatively little in exchange, although it did take time away from being in class and it did provide a brush with history. All in all, not a bad deal.
His destination was the newly built Nashville Avenue wharf, where he would deliver an address about trade. In true Kennedy style, early in his speech he resorted to a quip: This port of New Orleans is the second leading port of the United States. I would like to say that Boston is the first, but nevertheless…
Further down Kennedy made a point that still resonates even with Donald Trump’s inauguration:
After the battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson said that he was fighting for the re-establishment of the American character. And that, in our generation and time, is our responsibility: the re-establishment of the American character…
We know that Jackson’s reputation is forever tarnished by his relocation of Southern Indian tribes, as well as because he owned slaves. In other ways, though, he is regarded as an important president in that his election represented the movement of power from the East Coast elite to the common people. He spoke the same sort of rhetoric that we heard last week from Trump. Kennedy, the wealthy New Englander, spoke it too. American politics seems to be in constant search for the American character.
Kennedy’s presidency would last eighteen months longer, until that day when the image of him in an open topped limousine would forever be fixed in memory. The show ended in Dallas because of an assassin from New Orleans.
Fortunately, we have a happier image to remember him by. We’re a strong enough nation that there is reason to be optimistic, despite the occasional setbacks. That too is part of the American character.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.