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Fifty Years Later: A Reflection on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy

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I was nine years old when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago. It was a rainy November day in Chicago, and we had inside recess. Lunch was noon to 12:30, and, relegated back to our fourth grade classroom for the balance of the hour, we colored in coloring books and watched Bozo’s Circus on our in-class TV. I was sitting on the floor in front of the TV when someone broke to WGN’s programming to announce that “shots had been fired” in Dallas, where President Kennedy was in a motorcade.weeping-lincoln-mauldin

The moment registered with me enough that I still see it vividly whenever the Kennedy assassination is mentioned. It is the first thing that comes to my mind before the image changes to Jackie in her pink suit climbing out the back of the bubble-top limousine and John Kennedy Jr. (Jon-Jon) bravely saluting at the funeral. Those last two images, I am certain are indelible for having seen them so often in the intervening years: in Life Magazine, preserved in plastic by my parents, on television, on the Internet.

After lunch, I recall, we went to library at around 2:00 p.m. The librarian was reading to us when the school’s intercom broke in with its harsh buzz. The principal in tear-stained voice announced Kennedy’s death. Dismissed from school early, we all went home through the silence of the adults around us. We knew something terrible happened, but could not fathom what or how significant an event it was. Not in the moment.

Over the next four days, the entire nation stopped. Eyes glued to the television, whether watching Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, or other coverage, the adults were numb or weeping. Even my father, a construction electrician, stayed home the next several days, work on a major Chicago building project halted until after the funeral. I recall it raining the entire time. People argued incessantly (it seemed) about the bubble-top of Kennedy’s car and whether he should not have ridden with it down.

As kids we were bored by all the television chatter, but some of it rubbed off. We knew by the time the funeral was over and Lyndon Johnson had been sworn in, and Lee Harvey Oswald had been murdered by Jack Ruby, that the world had changed in some fundamental way.

My parents generation had lost much of its innocence during World War II, but the assassination of one of their own — the first president of that generation: young, idealistic, a naval officer turned politician — hit hard. There was much promise in Kennedy amongst my parents’ generation, hearing the call of “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” It was a call that formed the backbone of what my parents tried to teach me at the cusp of the New Frontier. And it wasn’t (only) about service and philanthropy. It was also about pushing our nation forward beyond its limits — pushing the outer edge of the envelope: space exploration, science, medicine, education, and (finally) equality for all.

quote-we-stand-today-on-the-edge-of-a-new-frontier-the-frontier-of-the-1960-s-a-frontier-of-unknown-john-f-kennedy-100775

The famous political cartoonist Bill Mauldin of the Chicago Sun Times probably best captured the mood of the nation during those days with his indelible rendering of Abraham Lincoln sitting in memorial, weeping along with everyone else. My father, the tough hard-hat came home from work one evening the next week after the funeral carrying with him copies — prints of Mauldin’s cartoon — one copy for each of us to remember the moment.

It’s hard to believe it has been 50 years, and I am that old. Older than Kennedy when he died, older than my parents who had to explain it to us. As I had to explain 48 years later to my then nine-year-old son how the world again changed catastrophically with the September 11 World Trade Center bombing.

As the nation remembers JFK fifty years later, I wonder what he would make of us now? I think he, like Linconln in Mauldin’s famous political cartoon would be weeping. Yes, we carried on with the New Frontier, we went into space and walked on the moon. An African-American now sits in the Oval Office. Yet, our highways and bridges are crumbling while in Washington, some try to discredit the President and dismantle many good programs began, and only dreamed of, back in 1963 when we were at the cusp of the New Frontier. Endeavor to diminish if not extinguish the great good government can provide, and the greater common good for which we have a government at all by choking off investment in education, infrastructure and the social safety net necessary to keep our nation moving forward.

“We stand today on the edge of a new frontier…a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils; a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.” How true and resonant are Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural words are still today. Do we relegate them the trash heap of a weary 21st Century or do we embrace them as a challenge for our age, and that of generations to come?

 

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Victor Lana

    His words, his promise, and his vision are needed more than ever now. Many, many people of different ages have told me (including those not yet born when he died) that he was the last president they could look up to. I don’t know if that is just sad or it tells us we (all of us) have a great deal of work to do and it had better happen soon.

    • http://blogcritics.org/writers/barbara-barnett Barbara Barnett

      They have a point. We were on the cusp of a greater America, full of promise and idealism. Kennedy inspired a lot of then-young people (not me so much, because I was only 9) to think of service to the country and to push the edges of the envelope of possibility. Even after he died, the impact continued.

  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    The Democrats carried Texas in the General Election of ’60, 64 and ’68. So there was quite a bit of debate as to whether or not President Kennedy needed to visit the area at all on that fateful Friday 11/22/ 1963. The year was filled with anticipation and change. For instance, Pope John XXIII died on 6/3/1963. Khruschev visited the Berlin Wall on 6/28/63. A mere 61 days later, Dr.King gave his famous “I Have A Dream Speech” on 8/28/1963. There was clearly a lot of tension in the air leading up to 11/22/63. The remaining question will always be whether or not the assassination could have been avoided with more vigilance.
    I doubt whether or not there will ever be definitive answers to these eternal questions.

  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    There are definitive things President Kennedy could have accomplished in a second term. Examples include:

    o convincing the Soviets to dismantle the Berlin Wall
    o ending the USA involvement completely in Vietnam
    o returning the CIA role to information gathering and not covert operations
    o expanding the Peace Corps
    o ending the military draft and instituting an all volunteer army
    o expand President Truman’s Victory Garden Program for inner cities
    o examine the National Health Care issue
    o fully implement the Civil Rights legislation as a Kennedy Administration effort

    These are just a few of the things that could have been done in a two term
    Kennedy Administration.