A Dark Day A Long Time Ago

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Yes, I remember where I was: in Mr. McPhail’s homeroom at the end of the day. Seventh grade. The principal, Mr. Carson, came over the intercom to announce to the school President Kennedy had been shot. Then, a little while later, he announced Kennedy had died.

Tons of material – some of it ridiculous – has been produced about John Kennedy, his administration, and his murder. I am only adding a few thoughts, less about the event itself, but more about its ties to us Boomers. A fair bit has been written about that, too, mostly snark. NYT television writer and fellow Boomer Alessandra Stanley published a piece this past week, We Interrupt This Generation , , , that frames the event by musing on the impact it had on the television industry and, by turn, the impact television’s coverage of the event had on us.

She has a point–Kennedy was indeed the first television President. It’s well-known, for example, that people who watched the Nixon-Kennedy debates were so taken with the Senator’s good looks, energy and articulation they thought he won. People who listened on the radio, immune to the Kennedy visual charm, thought Nixon won.

More broadly, the assassination was the dawn of a decade in which television created an information and entertainment community that was, then, what the internet is now. The decade of often-violent change was brought into our homes every night by Walter Cronkite on CBS, Huntley/Brinkley on NBC, and Peter Jennings and Frank Reynolds on ABC. Civil rights demonstrations–and the violent response–Vietnam, riots in the cities, all of it was right their in front of you on your t.v. screen.

So, perhaps the medium was the message, but there’s still more to it.

As Stanley’s piece reminds us, Kennedy was able to project an image that made people feel a connection to him. He was inspiring; find me a single line in another Presidential inauguration address as powerful and well-remembered as, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Yes, part of the charm was clever media manipulation, but what was genuine was that his charm was put to service on behalf of the idea that government could and should do good, that there are higher aspirations to which people can strive. Fast-forward to 1981 and the next charming President, Ronald Reagan, of Kennedy’s generation, who put his skills to use for a darker agenda. Case in point: Kennedy, albeit belatedly, came to the cause of Civil Rights. Reagan held his first public appearance after his first nominating convention in 1980 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the murders of three young civil rights workers during Freedom Summer and announced his support for “states’ rights,” clear code for the dark days of segregation.

It was that inspirational image that causes us to attach such strong feelings to Kennedy’s death. Reagan survived an assassination attempt; does anyone actually think, if he had died, he would be remembered the same way as Kennedy?

I’ve heard some pundits claim the assassination was the Day American Lost Its Innocence. Bollocks. America, if it was ever innocent, had lost that a long time before. There were three presidential assassinations before Kennedy’s: Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Several other presidents were the targets of would-be assassins. The country tolerated centuries of slavery and the extermination of Native Americans. It had been through a Civil War, several Depressions, and fits of violent social change, particularly the rise of the union movement, as well as social oppression. It wasn’t innocence we lost as much as idealism.

Kennedy’s murder was different because Kennedy represented something different. Although he was a pragmatic, center-to-slightly left Democrat, he created, largely because of his youth, an aura of idealism not really matched until Barack Obama came along. Clinton, for all his efforts to mimic Kennedy and create a connection to him in the public’s mind (that famous handshake photo), came close, more as a relief from 12 years of Reagan and Bush, but he didn’t quite have it. We were used to presidents who looked and acted like our grandfathers; Kennedy was the mature big brother. Clinton, by contrast, was the big brother who got away with stuff you couldn’t.

Some people have referred to Kennedy’s assassination as our Pearl Harbor, the event that defined the Boomers’ experience for the rest of their lives. That’s close, but not quite right. It ushered in a decade dominated by a cycle of hope and disillusionment, of possibilities of change dashed by the powerful forces of the status quo.

Fifty years later, and I think, while Kennedy and his death mark us Boomers deeply, what happened on November 22, 1963 also changed the course of the nation, and not to the better. With Kennedy, we thought we could win. Since then, it’s been a long holding action.

Later,

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