Friday, November 22, 2013

The Kennedy Assassination: Fifty Years Later

We aging Baby Boomers have lived through amazing and often very turbulent times.  Those of us who recall the 1950's and 1960's vividly remember the excitement of the Beatles invading America as well as the trauma of the Vietnam War and the unrest it spawned.  But for many the Kennedy years embodied much of the ups and downs of our youth.

For me those emotions represented exhilaration, fear and sadness.  They were crystallized in three separate events related to John F. Kennedy, from the time when I was ten until I was thirteen.  The last event, of course, was the death of President Kennedy, which occurred fifty years ago today.

A politically precocious child, I remember those famous Kennedy-Nixon debates. For all these years the concern over the loss of the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, which Kennedy highlighted, has remained with me.  Of course, I had little idea what he was talking about, but it all seemed important.

But more importantly, I met Senator Kennedy at a campaign appearance in my hometown of Hazleton, Pennsylvania on October 28, 1960.  My aunt worked at a downtown hotel, where I was able to briefly talk with him and get his autograph on the Saturday Evening Post which featured a cover portrait drawn by Norman Rockwell.  

I also met my congressman that day, a flamboyant former Shakespearean actor, Dan Flood, who was decked out in his trademark white suit and bizarre handlebar mustache.  We talked about the Cub Scouts. An interesting historical footnote is that on that day, in Hazleton, Kennedy sent a telegram to Richard Nixon asking for a fifth presidential debate, a request that was not accepted.

All this sharpened my political awareness and I was riveted to the television broadcasts on election night as the black-and-white screen showed the slow, incoming results from around the country.  When Huntley and Brinkley eventually announced the winner the next morning, I was exhilarated because I felt that I “knew” the next President.

I would later attend several presidential inaugurations but for me the 1961 inauguration, which I did not attend, was the most memorable.  Perhaps this is because I expected to attend the inaugural ball, as I presented myself to my parents dressed in my Sunday best and asked when we would be leaving for Washington.  I was crestfallen to hear that we were not invited.  But I still remember that frigidly cold winter day and watching by television Robert Frost struggling at the lectern and, of course, the new President delivering his now-famous inaugural address.

The President and I went our separate ways—he to govern the country and me back to sixth grade and to a passion for baseball.  Our figurative paths really did not converge again for another 21 months, when the eyes of the world turned to Cuba. 

I suppose the scariest time of my youth was in October 1962 when it appeared that the world was headed toward nuclear war over the missile crisis.  I remember the worried looks etched in the faces of my parents and other adults.  I remember the famous Kennedy television address in which he announced the steps that had been taken to meet the Soviet challenge.

We all know how the confrontation was diffused.  But the psychological impact remains—at least for me. For the past fifty autumns, when there is a certain crispness in the air, my mind is transported back to that time and I never fail to get a chill up my spine.  We were all scared, and for many that singular event reverberates year after year.

Of course, the most traumatic experience of the early 1960's, one which represents the premier emotional jolt for millions, was what took placed on November 22, 1963.  Everyone who was of an age of reason knows where they were that Friday afternoon when the grim news came.  I was in an eighth-grade social studies class. We shocked students were sent home early to face a long weekend of unprecedented drama.

The Kennedy assassination was the first of the great television events.  History was unfolding fast, even in many ways by today’s standards.  The images remain in my mind:  the arrival of Air Force One in the early evening at Andrews Air Force Base; the brief comments by the new President; the various movements of President Kennedy’s coffin; the lying in state at the Capitol; and the unbelievable live shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald.

That weekend was the most somber of my life, even exceeding the deaths of family members.  I suppose it was the shock of it all—the idea of the murder of a young, charismatic President.  It seems as though the country came to a complete stop as all types of events were cancelled.  And people cried everywhere.

But the saddest day came with the funeral on Monday, when millions of us were glued to our television sets watching the procession, the riderless horse, and certainly the heartbreaking salute of three-year-old “John John” Kennedy, one of the iconic images of the 20th century.

When reflecting on a half century of crowded events, memories of all sorts flood your brain—running the entire spectrum of human emotions.  Some are personal and some are collective, such as the tragedy of September 11, 2001.  I have been fortunate to experience many wonderful things, including serving in three presidential administrations.  And yet, nothing seems to match my memories of the Kennedy years, especially their end.

Why does this time have such a hold on our memories, on my memory?  Surely, the nostalgia of youth is one reason.  But it is much more.  Many have spoken about how the Kennedy assassination marked the end of an age of innocence, of how the world somehow became more difficult, more complex, more unforgiving.

I don’t have an easy answer.  I simply know that those events of the early 1960's deeply affected my life.  A permanent prism was put in place that has refracted out through the years.  Even though I spent many years in government, those events transcended my politics.  It was all intensely personal.

Photo courtesy of Cecil Stoughton.  White House Photographs.  John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

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