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“OVER MY SHOULDER”

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"...And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you...but what you can do for your country!" This rallying cry heralded "The New Frontier", in January of 1961. Gone now were the malaise-laden days of the likeable, but avuncular, "caretaker president", Dwight David Eisenhower. That cold, bright January morning was a harbinger of bright new days ahead-of unfelt, unexplored potential. A brisk wind blew through the dais as if signifying "out with the old, in with the new". The United States of America had fought a global war to preserve not only our way of life, but Western Civilization as well. Oh, certainly, we Americans didn't do it alone. With the help of our valiant allies, the monsters of totalitarianism (whew! What a word!) were brought to their knees, but it was the valiant military of the United States that clearly led the way. The end of WW2 brought a newly-found prosperity to American families, and cast our nation in a reluctant role as leader of the Free World. America was the bastion of Democracy, forever aligned against the growing threat of monolithic communism. The great General who led our boys-for that is what they were-in storming the beaches at Normandy, had just kept our country on a steady course for eight years. He endured his own set of problems, such as the war in Korea, where he even temporarily gave thought to using nuclear weapons before the Chinese intervention. He held our hand while staring down the Red Menace that surfaced in the 50's, posing a new threat to our American way of life. His was the calming voice in the midst of turbulent McCarthyism. But there was an unrest-an underlying sense of a new and vital force that was about to burst upon the scene. One could see it reflected in the new music of the young-in the arts. Young America grew weary of the "kind ol' general's" presence as our national leader. We watched as he played golf, sympathized with and prayed for him as he underwent frequent hospitalization, but we longed for a new face-a face of youth-a bold, young, and valiant new leader who would take us to new heights, and be the very personification of this new youthful movement that was sweeping the nation, and that was about to overwhelm the malaise and status quo. That personage arrived on the national scene in the person of 42-year-old newly-elected, HAH-vard-educated President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who, upon taking the oath of office on that cold bright day in January of 1961, led us forward to The New Frontier, for a thousand days; Too quickly ended by tragedy, but time enough to engender in our nation's youth a new spirit of "Can Do"-an indefatigable feeling that, working together, we can achieve anything, whether it be the engineering feat of the century that was later ("in this de-CADE") to place a man on the moon-twelve of them, in point of fact-or the maturing social attitude that finally stood up to address the horrors and injustices of racism.
No sooner than John Kennedy had mounted the podium outside the nation's capitol building did the cult of personality begin its adoring emulation of our new leader's distinctively BAH-Stonian speech patterns, his sweeping hand gestures, and his posturing. Every national figure, from presidents, to movie stars, has had an imitator step forward to respectfully imitate his or her presence. For JFK, that person was then-unknown Vaughn Meader. (Pronounced: MEH-dor)
A native of Waterville, Maine, Meader experienced a childhood that would gag David Copperfield, being shunted back and forth from relatives, to a drunken mother, to a childrens' home, all before the age of five. He eventually graduated high school in 1953, enlisted in the Army, and was stationed in Mannheim, West Germany, working as a lab tech. He formed his own soldiers' band, and added impressions of famous singers to his clever, expanding repertoire. He married a German girl, and in two years was in New York working as a stand-up comic when JFK came to office. Meader quickly used his New England accent and personal resemblance to Kennedy, and a mastery of JFK's facial expressions, to hone his act to perfection. He even looked like Kennedy! His big break came on October 22, 1962 when he recorded the LP, "The First Family", which became the fastest-selliing album in the history of the United States, selling one million copies by Christmas of '62. By the following year, it had sold over 7.5 million copies-unprecedented for any album, much less a comedy one! ("And the money kept rolling in, from every side...") Meader, still in his twenties, became the most sought-after talk show guest, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show, and playing to packed houses in Vegas, as well as being profiled in Time and Life magazines. People everywhere could recite lines from his album; JFK, upon hearing his imitator's work, joked that "He actually sounds a bit more like Teddy then me!" JFK was said to have given copies as Christmas gifts, and addressed the Democratic National Committee once by saying "Vaughn Meader couldn't be here tonight, so I came myself!" Reportedly, though JFK himself was quite amused with all the hoopla, Queen Jacqueline was furious, even demanding that her husband keep Meader off radio and television-Ha!-like he could do that!
The album won a Grammy in '63, and Meader produced a second album, whose release was scheduled for Christmas of that fateful year. If any of these copies exist today, they are worth a king's ransom. After that fateful day in November, stores rushed to remove the suddenly-offending album from their shelves as the nation plummeted into mourning. Meader's act disappeared from its bookings overnight. Appearances on The Joey Bishop Show (a member of the famous "Rat Pack") were cancelled. Meader couldn't find work anywhere-he had become a pariah, a total victim of the assassination-and he faded from sight literally as quickly as he had once appeared on the scene, less than two years earlier. He sank into a deep and dark depression (small wonder!) as his income evaporated, and friends-even family-ceased calling. He quickly became addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and "horse". His great misfortune was that the American public-a large segment, anyway-revered their fallen King so much that it was unconscionable to have anyone make jokes-even reverentially-about John Kennedy. Later on, in 1981, he parodied-somewhat successfully, but never on the scale of before-President Ronald Reagan, but his career as an impressionist was clearly at its nadir. Eventually he turned to country music, in Maine, not exactly the headquarters of that art, and was married a total of four times. Successful comedians Rich Little and Jim Morris attribute part of their inspiration and success to Meader's style, and that style birthed sketches on Saturday Night Live. Mercifully, he died in 2004, a broken man who had "ridden the comet" of overnight fame and adulation, only to be taken down by the cruelest twist of historical fate.
Steve H Kehoe, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
"Let us go forth to LEAD the land we love-asking His Blessing, and His Grace-but knowing, that here on Earth, God's Work must surely be our own!" -JFK 1961