JFK Remembered on 11-22-13

John F. Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago today was one of those events that forever provokes the question-- Where were you ---- when the lights went out? When man landed on the moon? On 9/11? When Kennedy was shot? I was in sixth grade; we had just come back from lunch when my teacher, Mr. Weingard, shaken and pale, announced that the president had been shot. Shot! We were eleven years old—everyone was stunned and unable to fathom what had happened. We had early dismissal and by the time I got home, and went to my grandparents’ apartment, where the family had gathered around the television, it had been announced that the president was dead.

It was as if the world had stopped turning. We were glued to that TV set for the next several days, events unfolding live before us, dominating our attention in a way that no single news story had before; as Johnson was sworn in; Oswald was captured; the patrolman Tippit being killed by Oswald as Oswald attempted to escape; the Kennedy family returning to Washington; Oswald being shot to death by Jack Ruby as Oswald was being moved by the police; Jackie, the beautiful widow, the funeral; little John John saluting his father; the caissons; the drum; the final resting place by the eternal flame at Arlington.

For me, and I suspect most people around my age, and regardless of our politics, the assassination was a turning point in our political awareness and the beginning of the end of innocence. Oh, I remember the night Kennedy was elected; I knew my family supported him though probably with some misgivings. But most of the seminal events of the early 60s were things that I didn’t fully understand or appreciate yet; or simply didn’t fully sink in and my personal recollections have faded from memory. The year before was the Cuban Missile Crisis; the only thing that I remember first-hand about that was being annoyed that an Abbott and Costello movie was preempted by the news. Yet, I imagine the gravity of the situation sunk into my subconscious; the threat of nuclear war constantly in the backdrop of our lives, with test drills in school, mysterious bomb shelter signs; and the media’s constant reminders that we lived on the edge of nuclear disaster. In books, movies, comics, there was no escaping it.

For an earlier generation, the seminal event was the death of Franklin Roosevelt, which plunged the nation into deep mourning even as the war in Europe was winding to a close. He had led the country for over 12 years through Depression and war; many adults knew no other president. Yet, Roosevelt was elderly, noticeably ill. His death was like the loss of a parent, who took sick and whose time had come. It was sad, but it was a natural death of an elderly person and he had accomplished most of what he had sought out to do.

Kennedy was the first president born in the 20th century; a war hero and the youngest person elected to the presidency, he transformed the office and the country with his can-do spirit; his beautiful wife and lovely family; his electrifying call for public service; the idealism that he conveyed. It was Camelot come alive. He was dynamic, vibrant; his health issues unknown to the general public. And so his death, brutal and unexpected, shook the nation.

One of the soldiers in the honor guard that accompanied the coffin said that they had been training that summer in the event that Herbert Hoover, who was then 90, would die; not realizing that they were instead preparing for the death of the 46-year old president. The first president assassinated in over 60 years, the can-do spirit snuffed out, that distinctive Bostonian speaking voice suddenly silenced.

It’s not like dark things hadn’t happened before or that the winds of change weren’t blowing already. But Kennedy’s death, 50 years on, still feels like a transforming event. We didn’t know it yet but it was just the beginning of a roller coaster of a decade; of incredible heights of achievements in civil and personal rights; of radical changes in lifestyles and music; but also dark hours of war and further assassinations in which the optimism of the American public and confidence in its institutions—and leaders of those institutions—were shaken.

In a comic book story that eerily appeared on the newsstands the week after the assassination, Kennedy has helped Superman protect his identity. Superman notes “After all, if I can’t trust the president of the United States, WHO can I trust?” That may have been the last time that someone could have said that without cynicism or sarcasm. Sigh.

All too often, those who die by violence become defined by those deaths. The legacy of John Kennedy should be based upon his achievements and the things and people that he influenced.

Kennedy’s reputation has suffered over the years because of rumors or reports involving womanizing, the mob, health issues. Some seem to take glee in debunking the Kennedy image. And the endless speculation about who killed Kennedy has fueled conspiracy theories now for half a century. He did not immediately embrace the civil rights movement; his early actions in Viet Nam were destabilizing and helped lead to further involvement there.

No one knows what the future would have brought if he had not died in Dallas. Would he have continued to strive for détente with the Russians? Would he have avoided the pitfalls of Viet Nam? History, once written, is unchangeable, immutable. Still we speculate.

But for me, whatever might have happened, there remain many reasons to admire him and assess his record positively. First and foremost, was his ability to learn on the job; to grow in office. It is all too rare a commodity in our political leaders.

He set a goal of reaching the moon and striving for space exploration. The advances in science resulting from the space race have helped transform our society in ways that often go unappreciated.

While he was unable to get much of his programs through Congress, the bills eventually got enacted after his death. This included important civil rights legislation, which, he not only supported, but gave official voice to its moral imperative.

Perhaps what we could be most thankful for is for what he didn’t do. Another person, someone less secure or more aggressive, may not have stayed his hand during the Cuban Missile Crisis. War with Russia was a real possibility and the fact that it didn’t happen was because Kennedy remained cool and cautious. He had learned from the Bay of Pigs to distrust his military advisors and he kept his head.

And last, but hardly least, he inspired the youth of the nation, in his stirring words calling for action; his establishment of the Peace Corps; his appeal to higher ideals. There are few who cannot be stirred by his inaugural address, a clarion call for service to the country. Sometimes, it is not so much what one does but what one does to inspire others. In this regard, John F. Kennedy remains one of the most influential, and important, presidents of the 20th Century.

-- Paul Zuckerman Nov 22, 2013