Friday, November 22, 2013

Half a Century: The JFK Assassination

So, it has been half a century now since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, an event that itself seemed to hold the nation captive even since it occurred.

Ironically, I personally remember the 25th anniversary of the event as being somehow a bigger deal in some respects than the 50th anniversary has been now. There were more specialized television shows for it back then, and people were talking about it more. My guess is that more people were still around who could remember it. Half a century is starting to have been a long time ago, and that means you would have to be at least 55 years old or so in order to remember it, most likely.

Personally, of course, I not yet born. Would not be born for more than a decade yet, in fact.

Yet, there was something about this event that.....well, it might sound funny, but for a long time, I almost felt kind of jealous of the people who had been around back then. It was such a momentous event, and everyone that was around back then (almost everyone, anyway) remembers where they were when that event occurred. My own generation did not have anything like that. Then, there was September 11th, and I guess we all got a taste of what that shock of huge, world shaking news felt like.

The thing that made the Kennedy assassination instantly memorable was what the man represented. Now, true, I was not alive for it, so I cannot claim to understand it. But Kennedy did seem to possess a certain measure of mystique.  He was young, handsome, intelligent and articulate, and possessed much wit and charm. He was the youngest man ever elected to the nation's highest office, and he was taking the place of the oldest (at the time) in Eisenhower. The torch had been passed to a new generation, indeed.

His words had the power to move, to stir, and to get people excited and want to get involved in the process of building a truly better world. His image, and indeed that of the Kennedy family itself, was that of success, much like the nation he led and represented. These were the days of Camelot, some golden era of political enchantment. At least, this is how it was portrayed, and this is what the American people, especially young people at the time, believed. It was what the country wanted to believe of itself, and indeed, moreover, what the world likely believed, and certainly wanted to believe, about the United States in general.

No wonder, then, the shock value of such an assassination that seemed almost to stop the world for one weekend, and particularly for one day - this day, fifty years ago exactly. It was the literal killing of a dream, and the nation has not been the same since. In fact, on many levels, it can be argued that "the dream' was over for the United States in more ways than just that one. America has been in a state of decline for some time now. Some people cite the year 1973 as the beginning of that turnaround for the worse (I will have a blog entry about that sometime in the future, although I know not when just yet). But it seems to me that the tumultuous sixties were kind of an earthquake of sorts that startled people. And although the civil rights movement already had been coming to a head and gathering steam, the Kennedy Assassination would prove to be the first of some truly huge and momentous events of such enormity that would shock the country and, indeed, the world. In some ways, the real sixties, a time of hope and yet of extreme division and political instability, was born on that day, when violence struck down a President that seemed to represent peace and hope. It was the first of three major political assassinations that shook the world, and it was the first major event in a series of events that would truly undermine people's faith in government. It came first, then came Vietnam, then came Watergate. In the backdrop to all this were the divisions and racial tensions that came to the fore, as well as the anti-war protests as the Vietnam War intensified.

I have heard some people who lived through both talk about the Kennedy assassination as even more shocking than the events of September 11th. I was surprised by this, yet when asked, more and more people told me that same thing. When I would express that it was rather difficult to believe that killing one man would be more shocking than killing thousands by flying planes into buildings (and on live television for the second one), they told me that you just had to live through those times to understand. It was a different country, a different world. It would be hard, if not impossible, to picture the world that existed then nowadays.

And indeed, that is probably right. A Camelot probably could not exist these days. Perhaps the closest I saw to it was Clinton, who like Kennedy, was young and idealistic, who ushered in, and represented, a time of political change from the old guard that had existed before, to the dawning of a new era. Like Kennedy, Clinton also always seems able to conjure up stirring words. In his first inaugural address, he spoke of "forcing the spring", and seemed to touch upon grandiose themes not that different from what Kennedy had spoken of three decades earlier. But it was a different time, and Clinton, simply put, was not idealized like Kennedy. It was a far more skeptical age, and I remember, within weeks of Clinton taking office, actually, bumper stickers reading "Impeach Clinton".

More recently, Obama also seemed to represent that same idyllic spirit that Kennedy once held. he captivated the country, and his stirring words captured the imagination, and inspired youth. This young, handsome, and healthy man of great intelligence was going to bring something new to the White House. He represented change like no one else seemed to for a long, long time. For a time, he was received like something of a savior, and perhaps that is the closest to Camelot that we have seen in very modern times. Hell, they even had a similar name for it - "Bamelot".

It did not last. Political realities, infighting and stagnation and gridlock, reared their ugly heads. And Obama was not quite what he had seemed to promise he would be. Once in office, he focused more on what was politically profitable, which made him feel like more of the same, rather than some knight in shining armor meant to slay the dragon, or a captain come to take the helm just in time to right the ship. The shimmering dream of 'Bamelot" has yielded to the political realities of Washington today, and his low approval ratings, and the extreme skepticism with which he and his administration are met, serve as proof of that.

But the late fifties and early sixties were indeed a different time, and JFK managed to ascend to the highest office in the land without the crush of digging into the past and mudslinging that has come to be the norm in American politics today. Indeed, when you see the images and you hear the words and stories, it was a more innocent age. Sure, it had it's problems. But it also had it's promise, it's dream. it's faith in tomorrow.

That faith was shaken to the core on that day when Kennedy was assassinated, and the country has never quite been the same since.

This will be the first in a series of blog entries about Kennedy and the assassination. Admittedly, he always intrigued me on many levels. He was remembered so fondly by some when I was growing up, that there was a feeling, almost, like somehow, he still should be President. Of course, at the time, we had a President that some today felt the same way about in Reagan.

When you get past the myth and see the reality of the history for what it is, perhaps it is considerably less kind for both men. But the myth persisted and lives on.

I remember Reagan, because he was President while I was yet a child. But my parents disagreed with him politically, and indeed, the policies and way of thinking that he represented and advocated are the same ones that have largely helped accelerate America's decline. It might not have been immediately obvious at the time, or even in the present age, when many conservatives hold Reagan up as a model of what a successful president looks like.

It is much the same with Kennedy. Indeed, he is not all that he was cracked up to be. When you hear the stories of what the man did, and what he was, he begins to seem a lot less dreamy. In fact, there are times when he looks downright irresponsible, willing to take the nation to the brink, if only to prove the politically profitable point that he was no pushover, that he was not soft on Communism.

But those harsher realities were largely revealed since Kennedy's passing. At the time, he seemed to be a man with answers, a man that was leading a young and prosperous nation at the height of it's power, in what may truly be regarded as it's "golden age", to still better days ahead. Until this very day, fifty years ago, when the violence of a bullet struck this man, and all that he represented, down. Again, the nation has never been the same since.

Today marks half a century since that fateful day.

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