I am one of those who can easily answer the most singular question of my generation: “Where were you when John F. Kennedy was assassinated?”
On this day exactly 50 years ago, I was a seventh-grader at R.H. Thomson Junior High School in Seattle. I was walking from the band room to another class when I saw a boy running in my direction through the crowded hallway. He was shouting something like, “They got him! They shot that bastard Kennedy!”
I remember the kid’s face was filled with a menacing glee. At the time, I didn’t think as much about his expression as I did about what he was saying. Was it true? Within a few minutes, the entire student body was called into the lunchroom. The principal somberly announced that the president was dead and that school was called off.
I rode a bus home, talking about the startling news with the girl who first taught me to dance. Much of the next four days I spent in front of a black-and-white television, watching everything, even more attentive than my parents and sister. I saw the new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, step off Air Force One in Washington. I witnessed the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. I listened to all the commentary, all the reporting. I did not miss a minute of the magnificent, woeful funeral pageant. The only time I did not watch was when there was nothing to see but a silent view of the White House at night (yes, there was once a time when, even with one of the biggest news stories of the century underway, the networks took a break to collect information and think about it before they said anything).
As a 12-year-old, I was already interested in politics and fascinated by history. I knew what I was seeing on TV was history at its most dramatic and politics at its most dark. I had not been a fan of JFK. My family was staunchly Republican. On election night in 1960, I went to bed praying that Richard Nixon would come out the winner. But we were not Kennedy haters -- not like that kid who had run down the hall of my school.
The memory of that boy is a useful reminder that the stream of bile and anger in American politics today is nothing new, it has only been magnified by the Internet, talk radio and partisan cable news. The unhinged right-wing vilification of President Obama may seem unique, but it is a direct descendant of the extremist hatred directed at Kennedy.
Dallas was a hotbed of that hate in 1963. Texas right-wingers looked at the war-hero president who saved the world from nuclear war and all they saw was a Communist tool who deserved to be impeached. That is why JFK’s advisors were reluctant to let him go to Dallas. They feared for his life. That he was killed by a Marxist malcontent is ironic, but, in those days, the left had its extremists too, as the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weather Underground would prove in the years to come.
It may be even more ironic that John Kennedy is the one Democrat today’s Republicans have adopted as a political hero and sterling example of what this century’s Democrats are not. Many contemporary liberals, on the other hand, are not entirely comfortable claiming JFK, not because of his policies, but because of his private life. Younger people who have heard far more about Kennedy’s sexual escapades than about his presidency must imagine him as a political version of Don Draper from TV’s “Mad Men.”
Yet, for all the myth and gossip that surrounds JFK, there is plenty that is real and admirable. The best candidate was elected in 1960 -- a serious, brave man who not only stood up to the Soviets, but also stood up to the truculent military brass and Cold War hawks who thought nuclear war was an acceptable option. Kennedy’s charm and capacity to inspire were not shallow attributes, they moved a nation and galvanized a new generation. When his life was cut short, something great was lost for us all.
We baby boomers were too young to fully appreciate how Kennedy’s assassination would send our Leave-It-To-Beaver lives in a new direction. We did not know Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy would also be gunned down (Bobby’s assassination being another event I would experience through television on the night of the 1968 California presidential primary). We did not know about a place called Woodstock or a campus named Kent State. We did not know men would walk on the moon so soon or that the Berlin Wall would fall so peacefully. And, way back then, Sept. 11 was just another day.
JFK’s death was the pivot on which our childhoods turned. It was the beginning of the end of our innocence. Even 50 years later, it feels like a promise unfulfilled, a dream stolen. Kennedy’s Camelot was more than just a story. It is golden thread permanently woven into the fabric of our American lives.