A “loss of innocence,” one writer, and probably many, called it as the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy approached. But no florid descriptions can really capture what that horrible tragedy meant to the generations who lived it or those that followed.
Yes, innocence was one thing lost. So in a way was hope. Kennedy, young and handsome and seemingly indestructible, was struck down in his prime by a singularly unimpressive man named Lee Harvey Oswald, a man as unglamorous and unsuccessful as Kennedy was both.
The president was a man for whom the word “charisma” seemed to have been invented. The hundreds of thousands of Americans who, over his relatively short political career, saw him in person came away talking about his magnetism, his smile, his ability to make all those in his audience feel as if he were looking and talking directly to them.
Even reporters, normally cynical and even callous after long exposure to politicians who never seemed to mean what they said or deliver on what they promised, were charmed, it seemed, by the young president from Massachusetts. In his press conferences, a format for which he set a standard that has never been (and perhaps never could be) duplicated, Kennedy always seemed to evoke laughter.
He did in many ways seem to represent the very best of his generation, the Greatest Generation. He was smart, he was patriotic, he was brave. A PT boat commander in World War II, he once dragged a wounded comrade half a mile to safety – swimming with the man behind him, pulling the sailor with a strap in his teeth.
He was born to wealth, but like his brother Robert after him, he seemed to have an empathy for the poor and the oppressed, something people in those groups felt deeply. Of all Americans who cried after Kennedy died at Oswald’s hand in Dallas 50 years ago today, minorities and the impoverished shed the most tears. He had been, in their view, a champion, perhaps their only one.
It was a day no one who was old enough to remember it will ever forget. In Raleigh, those who today are in their 60s were in school. At some high schools, the news was announced and students gathered. At elementary schools, some teachers and principals waited until parents picked up their children and let them break the news. For the next three days and more, through Oswald’s own murder, through Kennedy’s funeral, with his son, John, saluting Kennedy’s casket as it passed, Americans were glued to their black and white television sets.
Day defied reality
It seemed at times unreal. How could it have happened? Assassinations were part of distant history or dictatorships abroad. They did not happen in a major American city with a president’s beautiful wife by his side.
And at other times, a nation worried: Was this the Russians? Fidel Castro? Was the nation in danger of overthrow?
Lyndon Johnson, who had sought the presidency, had perhaps his finest hours in the days following the assassination, a calming but commanding force. His rendezvous with disaster in Vietnam was some time away.
It’s estimated that in the 50 years since the assassination, 40,000 books have been written about John F. Kennedy. Some have been adoring, recalling “Camelot” and the “Kennedy mystique” and the president’s stances on civil rights. Others have savagely attacked Kennedy’s character, his womanizing, his father’s alleged manipulating of the election that put him in office, his secret illnesses that forced him to take heavy doses of medication.
But most Americans, in thinking now about their feelings toward a 46-year-old president, will if they were inclined to like Kennedy remember how he invigorated their interest in politics, how they were captured by his eloquence. For many, Kennedy really did cause the spark that drove them ultimately into public service. That included those who joined his Peace Corps, and it included many of those who would become senators and governors, including one who met him in the Rose Garden while a high school student. Young Bill Clinton shook the hand of JFK.
Inspiring, even now
If Kennedy’s power does not seem in hindsight to have manifested itself in legislative accomplishment, it most certainly was felt in a measure of inspiration. The civil rights legislation that Johnson succeeded in passing was driven by Johnson because of Kennedy’s image. Those men and women who went into public service because of him, just because of who he was, have done much for their states and their country.
And those who had never before felt enfranchised in American politics at last believed they had a voice.
All those things, we know now, did not die in Parkland Hospital. It seemed that way at the time to many, but Edward Kennedy’s famous speech at the 1980 Democratic convention really did have it right. The dream did not die.
Today, we mark a terrible day. Today we remember all that we admired and loved about President Kennedy. And, yes, we’ll be reminded as well of his faults, of his scandals, of his hypocrisies. But the eternal flame that burns at his gravesite at Arlington reminds us as well that he was a leader who prompted so many, who touched so many, to serve their United States, to indeed, as he said in his inaugural, ask what they could do for their country. He did not live long enough to do all he wanted to do. But many of those Americans did. And still do.