Today is the day. Fifty-three years after the event. I remember it. Do you?
It’s weird watching the documentaries commemorating events I remember. It’s the Kennedy assassination this month. Just about every station, network and cable, are doing specials on John F. Kennedy. For us, it’s a trip down memory lane. Or nightmare alley.
I was 13 when Kennedy was elected. I watched the inauguration on television, the first of many inaugurations I would watch. It was the greatest inaugural speech. I was naïve enough to believe he wrote it himself. And I was impressed by his hair, the best hair of any President before or since. Especially after 8 years of President Dwight D. Eisenhower who was very bald.
In 1963 I turned 16 and started college. Kennedy was shot in November and the world changed. I’m sure every person old enough to know what was going on remembers where they were the day they heard the news. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was a landmark event, a turning point in history, a turning point in our personal histories.
I was in the cafeteria at school. I had a cup of tea in my hand and was about to sit. The public address system in the cafeteria went on. There was a lot of noise, but gradually it grew quiet. A news report. It took a few minutes to recognize what they were saying, to form a context. Someone had shot the President.
A few minutes later, everyone fell silent. Hundreds of undergraduates, sitting, standing. No one moving, no one talking. I stood at the table. Frozen. I never sat. I stood in the same spot for over an hour. Clutching that cup of tea, cooling in my hand. Until the voice on the loudspeaker said “President Kennedy is dead. The President is dead.”
Gradually, everyone drifted away. Subdued or silent. I found my boyfriend and we wandered around for a few hours. We didn’t do anything. Just roamed the campus, dazed. This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen, not in the United States. Eventually, when it was dark, I went home. My mother wanted to know where I’d been and I said “Just wandering around.” She didn’t believe me. She should have.
Kennedy was “our” president. He looked good. Young, attractive, different. I hadn’t been old enough to vote for him, but I was old enough to know what was happening. I watched the debates. My friends and I discussed it. It was exciting. My mother kept referring to him as “such a young man.” At thirteen, a 43-year old guy didn’t seem so young. Those were the days, eh?
For the better part of the next week, all the channels on television — there were only seven — 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13 — had wall-to-wall coverage of the funeral. Endless replays of the assassination. The subsequent shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. The beginning of the conspiracy theories that still swirl around this piece of history, though at this point I don’t care whodunnit 50 years ago. There are a many unsolved crimes in history. Just add this to the long list.
I went to hang out with a friend. We took long walks to get away from the endless, morbid reiteration of the life and death of John F. Kennedy.
Gradually, life returned to normal, whatever that is. Lyndon Baines Johnson was in office. It was all about civil rights and Vietnam. I finished college, got married, wound up in the hospital and had my first near-death experience. There would be a lot more assassinations in the near future. Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X. I never got used to them, but I stopped being shocked. Which is shocking.
The 1960s were not about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. This was the decade of war, the draft, anti-war protests and civil rights. When flunking out of college meant you were going to Vietnam and maybe you wouldn’t come back. Strange how quickly we forget, replacing history with mythology.
November 22, 1963 was the end of political innocence for everyone, Democrats, Republicans, everyone. An abrupt turning part. The beginning of the road we find ourselves on today.
A president — our president — had been assassinated. Kennedy wasn’t the only U.S. President to be assassinated, but he was the first in modern times. The first TV president. A young, handsome guy. Especially important to my generation, a symbol that the torch really had passed to a new generation. We took that call to arms seriously.
It’s hard for me to look at politics today, see how petty we’ve become. Kennedy’s assassination was an end and a beginning. He was the last President to get a pass on his personal life. The first president to use electronic media to win an election. It was the beginning of a political divide that keeps getting deeper with each passing year.
Politics isn’t about real issues anymore. It’s insinuation, innuendo, and rumor. How narrow-minded and hateful we’ve become. It will pass I suppose. All things do. But when? For more than half a century, we’ve been marching down this ugly road to which I see no end.