There are many people reading this now who were not alive when John F. Kennedy died, and those who were too young to remember him, but that is insignificant in terms of the meaning his death had on their lives. JFK’s assassination – as the untimely death of any President of the United States – changed the course of history. It also changed people’s lives in rather personal and distinct ways.
I’ve always heard people talk about the first president they can remember. My father said, “Herbert Hoover,” and my mother said “FDR.” My father’s dad remembered McKinley and the day that he was shot, and I suppose I can connect with that because JFK is the first president I remember, and it was because of his being shot and the subsequent funeral procession that I watched on TV that I still can remember him all these years later.
I was only four years old, and my mother was giving me a bath upstairs in the house. I remember my grandmother screaming my mother’s name upstairs – mom probably couldn’t hear because of the running water in the tub. Finally she did hear and turned off the tap. “What’s wrong?” my mother asked.
Until this day I remember Nana’s voice as clear as can be. “The president has been shot!”
All these years later those words reverberate in my heart and touch my soul. I guess it would be the first time that I would make a connection of the world to my life. I became aware of something larger than the fun and games of my little world in my own home, and as my mother took me downstairs swaddled in towels, the TV screen was filled with people talking and looking very sad.
The next most powerful memory for me was when I saw the horse with no rider. I recall seeing that to this day and feeling scared by it, like it made no sense. “Where’s the cowboy?” I supposedly asked my mother. I don’t remember that, but I do recall the image of little John. He was basically my age, a kid I could play with if time and space allowed, but there he was in the harsh sunshine saluting his daddy. My mother and grandmother were crying, and as it happens with kids I cried too, but luckily my daddy was coming home that night.
All these years later I think we are all still affected by JFK’s untimely death. I have been watching so many different TV shows and reports about it, leading up to the anniversary that marks fifty years. Fifty years? Sadly, it seems we have learned little or nothing as a nation in all this time.
Looking back now it meant something inherently more to my family than just a president dying – he was our first Catholic president. Just as people will take pride in a person from their town or state being elected to the highest office in the land, it was perceived by Catholics that this was a monumental achievement. I don’t think after all these years people have fully understood this factor, but it was as big a deal then as Mr. Obama being the first black president is now. Whenever a barrier is knocked down, a prejudice overcome, it is a victory for not just those specific people but all people.
I will make it no secret that I have admired JFK most of my life. The fact that he was Catholic is barely a factor, but I do respect so much how he handled the nature of his faith as he dealt with the realities he faced. I think the best comment he made about his faith was this one: “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President, who happens also to be a Catholic.”
This should have immediately disarmed critics, but as we know that was and never is the case. We can certainly compare JFK to Mr. Obama in many ways – both being young, handsome, charismatic, and groundbreaking. We can also note (no matter how much guys like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly will protest) that Mr. Obama is subject to the most intense negativity, the most pernicious opposition, and the deepest disdain imaginable due to no other reason than his race. JFK may have faced the same things because of his faith, but back then it was not so glaringly apparent as it is today.
There were those who warned JFK about going to Dallas back in November 1963. He would not be welcome there it was said. This could have to do with many things, but let’s not forget that he was Catholic. Many of his opponents were against his policies, but the deep prejudice of that time also factored into the situation. History tells us what happened to other Catholics, as well as Jews and blacks, who dared to venture into unfriendly southern territory with a message people were not open to hear.
All these years later we see a president in his second term being attacked almost on a daily basis. You will hear it is about Obamacare now, or Libya, or the IRS, or whatever obfuscation his critics like to use, but Oprah Winfrey (and others) are right to point out that no president in recent memory ever had to withstand such negativity and seemingly pure hatred from the right the way Mr. Obama has had to do. Perhaps this wouldn’t be the case if things were different, if JFK had not died.
There has been great speculation in books and TV shows about “what if” scenarios. How would the world we be different had JFK lived? There are two ways to approach this: one is if he had never been shot; the other is if he had survived the shooting. I think they are different paths that we could explore ad infinitum.
The one salient fact would be that this would be a far different country. We could speculate that Civil Rights would have been embraced more passionately than ever. Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King probably would have lived, with the likelihood of RFK becoming president directly after his brother’s second term. Vietnam would have ended earlier; there would have been no Nixon presidency, no Watergate, no Gerry Ford (sadly meaning no Chevy Chase impersonation of him), and perhaps no Jimmy Carter or Iran hostage crisis. We could go on and on, but the point is that JFK’s death changed not just some things but everything.
I mentioned earlier that we have learned nothing from history or JFK’s death. I mean this not just in relation to the fierce opposition to Mr. Obama, but in every other aspect of politics as well. Everything is a battle in Washington these days. “Bipartisan” is a dirty word, and both sides of the aisle resemble people seen in the show Doomsday Preppers. Instead of concentrating on today’s business the politicians are worried about preparing for tomorrow’s disasters. It’s incredulous that they are talking about 2016 already; quite frankly, the whole thing is making me truly sick of all politicians.
Simon and Garfunkel once sang, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” and we can easily sing it and insert “JFK” into the lyrics. Was it a simpler time? No, JFK faced off against the Russians, the Cubans, and an array of slings and arrows even then, but he did not have a fractured Congress with half its members hoping to undermine his every step; he did not have a news media out for blood, and he certainly had no issues with the peanut gallery of Internet bloggers and social media hovering over him.
You mention JFK and you think of something as long ago and far away as a fantasy place, where the presidency was respected by most everyone, where the reporters would ask tough questions but with respect, and that the public would unite behind the man without regard to their own political affiliations. I remember my father saying, “Once elected, whatever party; he is my president.” I don’t hear anyone saying that today.
So now on this 50th anniversary we mourn the passing of a legend. JFK – the rock star president and political comet that soared ever too briefly across the nation’s sky. We should mourn not just his untimely death, but the loss of a time not tainted by the political charnel filled with minutiae that subsumes today’s Washington, turning it into a disgraceful bloodbath. Truly, JFK’s death changed the world as his election to the presidency promised to do. Still, whether we can remember him personally or not, his time in office remains a beacon of hope showing us how things should be, what we wish still could be.
We can only imagine now, but we are compelled to think back fondly about the handsome young president, his beautiful young wife, and their two children standing on the steps of the White House. Some people called it Camelot – a golden age – and for that moment, ever so briefly, his star shone brightly and now, as we look upward, there is still something notably missing in the firmament.
Photo credits: JFK-wikipedia; limousine-newsbusters.org; funeral-ny daily news