Like most people, I remember where I was when John F. Kennedy was shot. In class in high school, Math, I think. Unlike most people, it didn’t make a heavy impression on me.
I was vaguely aware of politics at the time, but it hadn’t made the impression on me that it apparently had on many people of my generation. I hadn’t fallen in love with the Kennedys, as many had. I knew they were more attractive physically than Richard Nixon or his wife, but didn’t really care. I hadn’t yet decided what side of politics I favored. I hadn’t been particularly afraid during the Cuban missle crisis. My world seemed very secure, so the possible danger hadn’t impressed me.
I became more politically aware somewhat later, but not a lot more. I didn’t like the war in Vietnam, I didn’t like when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, but wasn’t as devastated as many people. I must have been too self-centered for that.
It must have been around the mid-sixties that I decided I was a liberal, since conservatives seemed all to be racists. That may have been a superficial impression, but I can’t say that my impression has greatly changed since.
So when people characterize Kennedy as a mediocre president, I don’t disagree. Yes, he handled the Cuban crisis pretty well, after having handled the Bay of Pigs badly, and the missile crisis seems to have impressed a lot of Americans. But he got us into Vietnam in a bigger way than we’d been before, may have arranged for the assassination of the South Vietnamese leader (whose name I don’t recall), and while he seems to have been for civil rights, it took Lyndon Johnson to push the bill through after his death. Maybe he would have become a great president, but the question is open.
A lot of people were apparently disheartened after Kennedy’s assassination. I wasn’t one of them at that time. I took the hippie movement in San Francisco as a positive and exciting thing. I was generally in favor of the radicals of the Civil Rights movement and its offshoots, but didn’t feel particularly connected to them. My own depression, when it came, had more to do with personal issues than what was going on in public, though there were some pretty disheartening things happening there too. You might say I was sleepwalking all that time, and for quite some time after.
I suppose we have to wonder what would have happened if the assassinations hadn’t taken place. The sixties might have turned out to be even more positive than they did, but at the same time, we might have found that the Kennedy brothers and Dr. King had feet of clay, and were unable to put their visions into reality. Whoever killed them made sure that we’d never find out.
It still seems to be unpopular to believe that the assassinations were conspiracies. Conspiracy theorists usually get a bad rap, however convincing their arguments. It seems to be useful that most people believe that lone unstable gunmen were responsible. That view may be even more plausible now, when lone unstable gunmen kill large numbers of people at random. But those three people (and you might add Malcolm X, if you’re so inclined) seem to have threatened a great many people.
The mainstream media seem to consider it politically incorrect to consider that conspiraces MIGHT have been responsible for these three or four deaths. But from what I read, a LOT of people seem to have either been involved or to have known about a conspiracy prior to President Kennedy’s assassination, and a lot of them died afterwards, many violently. A mathematically impossible number, in fact, as Richard Belzer and his cowriter pointed out in a recent book. It would be nice to be able to believe that a crazy man was responsible, rather than a variety of people, some of whom may have been fanatics, and some of whom seem to have been connected with the highest reaches of government.
One article I read recently said that what was lost in that assassination was trust in the government, and that does sound accurate. Many people thought the Warren Commission report was a coverup from the beginning, and 50 years later many people don’t have any higher opinion of it.
Is it merely coincidence that we have so many people believing that government itself is evil? Of course the assassination isn’t the only reason, and there are other reasons for that feeling, some of them quite valid, but the feeling also contributes to certain people’s agendas.
Another article takes issue with the idea that we lost our innocence with the assassination. It points out that most adults of that time had lived through the Great Depression as well as the most destructive war in history, though that war affected our country less than most. I think that may be the time that we began to lose our naivete as a nation, though. Almost everyone believed in democracy then. I think fewer do now, and those fewer are also more vocal about it. They don’t say it clearly, but it’s increasingly easy to read between the lines.
One book, The Greater Generation, salutes my generation for, unlike the so-called Greatest Generation, fighting injustice at home, while the Greatest Generation mainly fought it abroad. True, as far as it goes. The Greatest Generation had a lot to overcome, between the Depression and the war, and did so successfully. And were rewarded for that, in quite a few cases, by their own children rebelling against them for inconsistency. No wonder quite a few turned conservative.
But my generation (not me, particularly) was right in a lot of its attempts at justice, though tactics were often poorly chosen and alienated a lot of people. That’s one reason for the conservative backlash of the last 30 years or more, which seems now to be suffering a backlash of its own.
Could the Kennedys and Dr. King have prevented a lot of this? We’ll never know, but it’s a shame they didn’t get the chance.
So, since it’s been 50 years, we’re memorializing John F. Kennedy’s death, with lots of books, articles and probably documentaries at least. I can’t claim to be that interested. I don’t need to know everything about his life, nor about the people around him. I didn’t dislike him, but I didn’t fall in love with him either, as a lot of the country seems to have done. The cult seems much like that of Princess Diana, who was certainly pretty, and didn’t have good luck with her marriage, but has little else about her to interest me.
The main regret I have about the loss of two white leaders (who happened to be brothers) and two black leaders is the loss of potential. If they had been spared, they might have made their country and world a much better place. But that’s only potential. It’s possible that they might have made mistakes or become corrupt. We don’t know what would have happened. So I have little interest in mourning the former president just because he was handsome and smart. Handsome and smart people aren’t immune to behaving stupidly, and we already know he did.
We can, though, mourn the dreams of that period that never entirely got realized. Some of us thought this nation would realize the dream of justice, but that hasn’t happened. Racism, as well as bad treatment for other minorities, is still with us. So are unjust wars. So are a lot of other things we were then just beginning to realize on a national level were bad for the country.
Improvements have been made, but some are trying to rescind them, and a number of things never did get fixed. That’s something worth mourning for. We might regard the loss of those leaders as a sacrifice to ensure the basis of our country was goodness. Some of it may be, but some of it certainly is not, and we seem entirely unable to get rid of the part that is dark. And mostly unable to look at it honestly.