President John F. Kennedy enjoys a moment of levity at this Rose Garden ceremony marking Columbus Day, 1963.
President John F. Kennedy enjoys a moment of levity at this Rose Garden ceremony marking Columbus Day, 1963. AP
Fifty years ago, President Kennedy hosted a Columbus Day ceremony in the Rose Garden, and I was there. Fourteen-year-old me, with my family. This was a fluke. The President had cracked a politically uncool Mafia joke a few days before. Not wanting to offend Italian-American voters, the White House quickly mounted a charm offensive — inviting government workers like my dad, with Italian surnames like Mondello, to celebrate a great Italian explorer, with the president himself.
He was expansive, I remember, in his welcome, introducing a few prominent Italian-Americans from his administration and speaking of his own fondness for sailing, and respect for Columbus as a great navigator. This was, let's note, a comparatively innocent era, especially when it came to the impact of Europeans on the American continent. My history classes did not mention Native Americans much in connection with Columbus, and neither did Mr. Kennedy. Instead he spoke of "first voyages" being "the more difficult, whether it's going into space, going to the bottom of the ocean, building a better country here."
There were many kind words about an Italian heritage I'd barely given any thought, and a good deal of laughter, despite the fact that it was an unwise ethnic joke that had brought us all together. He introduced the Spanish ambassador, for instance, with the quip about Spain having "something to do with this voyage."
Kennedy-era Bob Mondello.
Years later, I learned that what turned Columbus Day into a national holiday was a push by the Knights of Columbus, a mostly Irish-Catholic organization, to combat anti-immigrant (and anti-Catholic) prejudice in the 1930s.
None of this was mentioned that Columbus Day, though. Everybody was just pleased to be celebrating on a beautiful afternoon. Especially when he mentioned going upstairs to a reception.
This is the part my mom was excited about. The invitation had mentioned a reception with Mrs. Kennedy, which she figured was as close as we'd ever get to Camelot. So we trooped upstairs while the president went to his office. I remember a table filled with tiny cakes — barely a mouthful each — and secret service guys watching me and my brother and sister like hawks (probably so we wouldn't swipe spoons that said "White House" on them).
Mrs. Kennedy didn't show, so after a while my folks gathered up the family and we headed off across the White House lawn to our car (I don't remember there being a fence back then) only to be stopped halfway across by a familiar voice behind us: The president, now in shirt-sleeves.
"I've escaped," he grinned at Dad, "ducked out a side door."
We looked back and sure enough, secret service agents came rushing out, panicked till they spotted him. Then my dad made introductions — my mom (the president remarked on her unusual name, Omah), and my 12-year-old brother Steve, and 8-year-old sister Juanita (who mostly hid behind Dad).
And I, at 14 on the White House lawn, had what I now think of as my "Clinton moment," getting to shake President Kennedy's hand. He was about my dad's age, but looked much older close-up — skin tanned and crinkled from all that sailing.
Most of the other details of that day faded from my memory long ago — at least until NPR's librarians found the tapes recently. Tapes that reminded me of J.F.K.'s offhand grace — which I now recognize as a politician's gift — and the casual way that in the Rose Garden on that Columbus Day, he had made everything so upbeat and hopeful — with the White House a safe harbor we might all return to.
"We're going to do this every year," he'd beamed.
But that, of course, was not to be. Six weeks later, he was gone, claimed by an assassin's bullet. And that American voyage, that to my young eyes had briefly promised a glimpse of Camelot — that first voyage, always the most difficult — got a lot harder.