The following was originally published in this space on 11/26/03, the 40th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. It has now been half a century and its sentiments still ring true.
“We stand at the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. It will deal with unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”
—John F. Kennedy
“…suddenly in sunlight he will bow and the whole garden will bow.”
40 years ago this week, the 35th president of the United States was brutally murdered in broad daylight. There were hundreds of eyewitnesses lined along the execution route. It was the first openly documented incident of the television age. Yet after volumes written, debates raged, and the endless dissection of that day’s events—the countless hours of legal wrangling and propaganda, documentaries and tributes, cries of conspiracy and calls for clearer heads to prevail—we are no closer to one accepted truth on the identity of the assassin.
However, this humble missive will abstain from piling on to my mother’s brilliantly snide, “Who Didn’t Kill JFK?” mantra. Instead, its aim will be to put into perspective what this seminal moment in American history has done to the landscape of my generation, and all others hence.
I was 14 months old when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. I recall growing up in the Bronx with its effect still palpable years later, especially on its anniversary, when cars would drive all day with their headlights on, flags were flown at half-mast, and school teachers regaled us on where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.
Almost immediately, apart from its war-torn history, no human drama had better crystallized America—its psyche, its message and medium, its resolve and destiny quite so completely and violently as what transpired that overcast autumn afternoon in Dallas, Texas.
On the level of raw emotion, there is something everlasting about a person of such limitless potential, power and celebrity cut down in his prime, forever frozen in indestructible youth, like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, or if Elvis Presley or Mickey Mantle had not gotten old and fat and drunk. It is a glowing tribute to dying young, before your time, unfinished business; no closure, no definable answers.
On broader levels, the severing of a head of state from its body politic is a trauma akin to the disorientation experienced by a living organism thrown from its normal environment into one of total confusion. This is especially stunning when a leader so distinctly engrained in the id of a free society leaping into an age of mind-bending change is slaughtered like a farm animal. As a result, what had been previously confined to certain pockets of metropolitan bohemia and smoky cafes or college campus conclaves; bitter dissent, counter-culture rage, a desire for eradicating atavistic symbols of tradition exploded into the mainstream throughout the ensuing decade of enormous unrest and social revolution.
People hate their deities to turn out mortal.
Like no one before or since, the image of Jack Kennedy was the epitome of 20th century iconoclasm. He represented the visionary generation, bloated with dreamers; always saying what needed to be said at the right time with the right cadence; a mutation borne of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, perfectly molded for his times and fully capable of rising above the petty tragedies of mortality to manifest infinitely.
Kennedy was the first American president born in the American century, a hero in its greatest of wars, rising from the dark annals of its recent past. He had come from mysterious money like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby; a raucous American invention of questionable origin, feeding off the decadent opulence of rabid capitalism. The second son of an ignominious father with his bootlegging millions and international intrigue, mob connections and dirty-scoundrel 19th century fortunes, JFK wore the mantle of promise as mighty amour.
The gargantuan political Kennedy machine would devour miles and blaze trails beyond the stuffy, buttoned-down plastic, two-dimensional Eisenhower cocoon. From the moment of his emergence into the public eye, JFK was sold as brilliant living color. In the campaign for president, this fit perfectly against the grain of Richard Nixon’s stony black and white.
The two entered the senate in the early 1950s, one from the dirt and grit of Californian poverty, the other from a New England golden chariot. Nixon stood for the pillars of America’s past; God and country, mom and apple pie, a Quaker in his lily white victorious post-war splendor. Kennedy represented uncharted territory, a young, bold Irish Catholic, a playboy, tan and brave, how all of America liked to think of its new decade. He was poised to strike forth from Hollywood illusions, fearless in the face of fast-changing times and the Red Scare. Contrarily, Nixon was the angry pit bull of the Eisenhower administration, reeking of passé dread.
But despite all the revisionist history about Camelot and “a land of hope and dreams,” Richard Nixon, and not Jack Kennedy, won the 1960 presidential election. But Daddy Kennedy stole it outright. Everyone knew it, but did not care. It had always been the American dream to bury the past, look to the moon, beyond the endless horizon. Every revolution has its causalities. Dick Nixon may have been Camelot’s first, but not the last.
Jack eventually paid for the sins of his father, the notorious Joseph P. Kennedy. He entered politics for the old man, won the Pulitzer with his connections and influence, became a senator from Massachusetts against all odds, and muscled into the role of youngest elected presidential at the age of 43.
There are always debts to pay for any man of power in a democracy fraught with dangerous ambiguities, but as president, Kennedy added to them by taking on the mechanism of government, the silent assassins in the CIA, the swollen power of the FBI, the imminent threat of the Soviet Union, and the fumes of Harry Truman’s Cold War.
Bullied by Nikita Khrushchev and haunted by Fidel Castro, Kennedy signed away an empty check for Viet Nam to solidify Southeast Asia for generations, and set the course for his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to build into a decade of war. Ironically, Kennedy’s victim, Dick Nixon, became its benefactor and finished the decade of the 1960s by plunging the nation into a cloud of paranoid madness.
Mostly, the truncated Kennedy administration—a mere 1,037 days in length—uncovered the demons of our government; the stranglehold of the Pentagon, the sinister nature of spying and assassinations, and the rabid abuse of the Bill of Rights by J. Edgar Hoover and his ilk. It also set the course to shine light on the civil rights movement, pushing the kind of sweeping legislation not seen in this republic since the Reconstruction a century before.
Mere days after November 22, 1963, the United States government may have appeared to roll along relatively unaffected, but the nation dimmed considerably. Whipping up the laughable fictions of the Warren Commission, escalating the fighting abroad and insulating the powers that be could not erase the sudden realization that the endless skyway of the New Frontier did, in fact, have tolls, and they were steep. The fabricated marketing of idealism and the voracious appetite of post-war America dove into a quagmire of brutal truths about the vicious nature of politics. No one seemed to know anymore who or what was running things. One thing became evident: JFK had been just another piece of a bloodless machine eradicated like a spare part.
Doubts about the conduct and make-up of America’s best and brightest would fester throughout subsequent years of presidential screw-ups including Viet Nam, Watergate, the Iran Hostage Crisis, Iran/Contra, Monika Lewinski, and now the furor over Weapons of Mass Destruction.
It has been chic to blather on and on about America losing its innocence in that most violent moment 40 years ago, a rebirthing of cynicism and a wariness about the definition of justice, and the gnawing questions about who holds the reigns of the richest and most powerful nation on earth. But the legacy of 11/22/63 is that America was never innocent, only blind, deaf and dumb to realities best kept hidden by more soothing fables of princes living happily ever after on streets of gold.
Eight presidents later the reverberation of 11/22/63 continues to quake the nature of news, politics, fear and vision. The New Frontier came apart like a house of cards and no Age of Aquarius could make it right. And all the Baby Boomer rhetoric about privilege and promise plays out quite nicely in the horrid memory of invincibility being shattered by bullets on a gray noon.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, “Midnight for Cinderella” and “Y”.