Monthly Archives: September 2013

That Was The President

jfk-wanted-for-treason

“In it’s shock and horror Americans preferred to remember their lost leader as a symbol, not a flawed human being” – Peter Dogget

by Casey Graham

In 1975 Phil recorded a public service announcement against drug abuse, yet used the opportunity to make a statement about his view of history: “Ever since the assassination of John Kennedy, things began to fall apart in this country. People started caring less for each other and thought less of themselves.” The assassination of Kennedy would prove a seminal event in Phil’s life, as it did for many of his activist contemporaries. For a songwriter such as Ochs, it would produce several songs, the first of which was That Was the President.

The bullets of the false revenge have struck us once again
As the angry seas have struck upon the sand
And it seemed as though a friendless world had lost itself a friend
That was the president and that was the man.

According to Alice Ochs, Phil first began writing That Was the President the night of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963. “I think I’m going to die tonight, Alice,” Phil said. “I think I’m going to die.” Kennedy got Phil his first guitar, the winnings of his bet with Jim Glover over the outcome of the 1960 presidential election. The energy of Kennedy and the ‘60s, both good and bad, had produced Phil’s first songs, like Ballad of the Cuban Invasion;

Why were they wearing my country clothes?
Why were they spending my country’s gold?
Who were the friends and who were the foes?
The headlines were lying, why wasn’t I told?

*
Everything he might have done and all he could have been
Was proven by the troubled traitor’s hand
For what other death could wound the hearts of so many men?
That was the president and that was the man.

The presidency of John F. Kennedy was the Age of Great Dreams in America. Nothing was impossible. Kennedy was progress. Kennedy was sex. Kennedy was brotherhood. The death of John Kennedy, in term, was the death of all of those things. In their place stood Lyndon Johnson: rancher, Southerner, racist extraordinaire. Yet, within Ochs’s own worship of Kennedy were various cognitive dissonances. Within the minds of New Left activists like Ochs, Kennedy could become a martyr of causes (such as civil rights) he spent most of his presidency professing only tepid support for. It wasn’t until June 11, 1963, after the Birmingham marches and Jimmy Meredith and Albany, Georgia, that Kennedy made a public address in support of a Civil Rights Act. In the earliest versions of That Was the President, however, Ochs described Kennedy in the following ways:

On a South Pacific ocean, on a South Pacific shore,
A legend was written on the sand,
For a man of peace was born in the middle of a war,
That was the president, and that was the man.
*
When the freedom revolution gave a rumble and a roar,
The world was shown on which side he would stand,
For the first time in a hundred years he opened up the door,
That was the president, and that was the man.

Kennedy was “a man of peace” who “opened up the door” to civil rights, despite his escalation of American involvement in Vietnam and reactionary support for civil rights. No one could argue that Phil was ignorant of at least one of these realities. In Viet Nam, for example, Phil rightly acknowledged not only the reality of American interventionism in Southeast Asia but attributed it to Kennedy: “No, I don’t really care to die for the New Frontier,” a reference to the term Kennedy used in his 1960 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. A couple of weeks after the assassination, Sam Hood, the manager of the Gaslight, was concerned with Phil singing several of his songs that were critical of Kennedy, such as Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet Phil sang the songs anyway, believing that the songs were even more important now, in the age of Lyndon Johnson and shattered illusions and, most importantly, the perceived absence of a voice for people like him.

*

The glory that was Lincoln’s never died when he was slain
It’s been carried over time and time again
And to the list of honor you may add another name
That was the president and that was the man.

In the aftermath of tragedy, usually-stubborn facts are less so. James Piereson, in his 2007 work Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, writes that “there was… a factual syllogism that might have rendered Kennedy’s death as intelligible as Lincoln’s—though its acceptance would have raised other challenges to liberal convictions.” If the possibilities of Kennedy were “proven” by the “troubled traitor,” that traitor must have in some way stood in opposition to them. However, if Kennedy, like Lincoln, was to be a martyr, to what cause was he a martyr when his assassin was a communist? Indeed, this would be as if Lincoln were assassinated by an abolitionist.
In the environment immediately surrounding Kennedy’s assassination, when the event was so shocking “even death was caught off-guard” – the one in which Ochs would write That Was the President – Kennedy could be a martyr to the cause of liberalism and progress, gunned down for his support of world peace and civil rights. Never mind the reality of his staunch Cold War anti-communism or leading-from-behind support for the Black freedom movement. In this way, That Was the President will forever be known as the second-best song about John F. Kennedy that Ochs would write. By 1965, the shock had transformed into inevitability. Rather than a martyr for liberalism, gunned down by a traitor, Kennedy would become he whom all of society itself destroys.

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