JFK in Dallas: Fifty Years Later

My friend, Amanda, is twenty-five, and she asked me the other night why John F. Kennedy’s Assassination is still such a big deal, why Abraham Lincoln doesn’t garner the same idol-worship as JFK. To a young woman who was born in the twenty-fifth year since JFK was killed—who was twelve on 9/11—this is a valid question.

First, I explained that yes, Abraham Lincoln was a great president, but he died 128 years ago, and there isn’t a lifetime’s worth of film featuring him. Lincoln wasn’t a handsome man (except when played by Daniel Day Lewis), and almost nobody ever heard him speak.

John Kennedy had it all, everything a man would want to be: rich and handsome, charming and heroic. His wife, Jackie, was beautiful and elegant, all finishing-school grace. His two children were adorable.

More than that, though, he was the one to whom the torch was passed. Kennedy was the first of the World War 2 generation to be elected President, same as Bill Clinton was the first man of the Vietnam era to become the most powerful man on Earth.

JFK was a war hero, and Bill Clinton was a draft dodger. A little difference there.

The comparison between JFK and Clinton is an apt one, though, in that they shared certain traits, with different results. I think Bill Clinton was empirically smarter, a Rhodes Scholar and impressive student. In other ways, he was dumb, admittedly. He lied, when it should have been a given his lies would be discovered. He committed adultery, not just with Monica Lewinsky, but with a number of women. That came back to haunt him.

Then there was the draft-dodging thing. Bill Clinton was the first president to have to face that. Kennedy was in the Navy, the hero of PT-109. Nixon served with distinction, and Gerald Ford nearly lost his life in his Navy tour. Jimmy Carter graduated in the top tenth of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy, did graduate work in reactor technology and nuclear physics, and served on a nuclear sub, while George H. W. Bush was a heroic Naval aviator. The president before Kennedy?

Five-star General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the guy who orchestrated the Allies European victory in World War Two.

Kennedy faced different charges—that his father bought him the election with the help of organized crime, for example—but Jack Kennedy had enough charm to outweigh the sins of his father.

There’s another big difference between JFK and Bill Clinton.

JFK never had to face the scrutiny Clinton did. When Kennedy schtupped Marilyn Monroe, it would have been all over CNN, TMZ, and in all the tabloids. Add to that Kennedy’s long-term relationships, and that could have sunk him. Nixon? No questions there—he wasn’t exactly charming, handsome, or funny.

JFK’s father would have been raked over the coals for making his money through bootlegging and organized crime. Joe Kennedy, Sr., spent huge sums of money to get his less-smart sons (i.e., Teddy) into good schools, and keep them there. He was determined that his son—or sons—would be president one day (think about it: all the Kennedy home movies were shot with Hollywood-caliber cinematography; none were filmed by Uncle Ralph with his Super 8).

But neither father nor son faced that scrutiny. It was a different era, when reporters respected their subjects’s privacy. There are myriad other differences. None of these things really matter, though.

John Kennedy represented the beginning of a new era, one of promise and hope, a future of endless possibilities. He planned to bring all the U.S. Troops home from Vietnam by Christmas 1965. He opened communications with Soviet Premier Khrushchev, so that the world would never again be as close to nuclear war as during the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK committed us to sending a man to the moon before the decade ended. His was an administration of limitless dreams, an administration Americans could embrace. Other presidents—before and since—seem not to have been elected for their own vision, but to patch-up whatever mess his predecessor created.

JFK came to power when the Baby Boomers were coming of age. No longer were the World War Two veterans the country’s loudest voices. It was their children, and America’s young bought into the dream more than anyone.

That dream ended on November 22nd, 1963, fifty years ago today. Within hours of that horrible headshot, it was back to the politics of yore with stodgy old Lyndon Johnson. Nobody who was alive that day seems to want to let Jack Kennedy go.

I think that’s why there are so many conspiracy theories out there. The “official” government account—the Warren Report—determined that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, firing three shots from the Texas School Book Depository’s sixth floor. Maybe he did. Maybe he was acting entirely on his own. Maybe he fired the shots, but there were others behind him—the CIA or Cubans or the Mafia. Maybe there were two shooters—one conspiracy theorist claims there were eight people firing that day.

If you want a sampling of conspiracy theories—promulgated by the sane and the tinfoil hat-wearing contingents alike—go to YouTube, and type in JFK Conspiracy Theories. It will bring up tons of them.

As for this Fiftieth Anniversary, I have saved you a lot of trouble (and insanity). Over the next few days, I will present reviews of JFK books—some scholastic and well-documented, others a bit…not—as well as a collection of notes I made during the various online documentaries. (Y’all owe me)

We’ll also touch on some fiction based in and around JFK’s life and assassination, as well as films, including Oliver Stone’s rabble-rousing (but excellent) “JFK.”

I was going to present these other materials leading up to today, and use the actual Fiftieth Anniversary as the climax. Upon reflection, it makes more sense to me to start with this little essay noting JFK’s murder that horrible day in Dallas, then allow the books, films, etc., to follow. That’s how it happened in real life, after all.

I wasn’t alive when JFK was killed. On one hand, his Presidency was always something distant, something from a history class, like the French Revolution or the Defenestration of Prague. This story was different, though, because my parents were young and idealistic at the time. My teachers were Baby Boomers, and every November 22nd, we’d hear the stories of where they were, of how it changed their lives. It always felt like there were two parts to JFK: the history book facts, and the personal relationship so many Americans felt with the man.

Amanda’s question is pure and right: why does it matter today? She knows he was President, that he had his brains blown out, that his beautiful wife was Jackie, and—somehow—that he was Catholic. She doesn’t worry about conspiracy theories, about who shot from where. She was almost Kindergarten-age when The Cold War ended; 9/11 happened when she was twelve.

One historian wrote that 9/11 has supplanted JFK as the seminal tragedy for this generation. They don’t know about JFK, nor will they ever feel that connection. Their parents were too young to care, if they were even alive.

For millions, though, today will be a day of reflection and memories. Some will think of the tragedy fifty years ago; others will ponder what could have been. Still others will use today as a sort of time machine to that day, and remember what they were doing a few lifetimes ago.

In time, I’m sure JFK’s assassination will go the way of Lincoln’s, just with more videotape. The survivors—those millions whose souls were cudgeled that day—will remember for now.

For them—as at John Kennedy’s grave—that flame is eternal.


5 Responses to “JFK in Dallas: Fifty Years Later”

  1. excellent, as always, Tom
    Oliver Stone’s “JFK” can give pause to even the hardiest supporter of the Warren report and the “magic bullet”
    (tangent: “JKF” and “Salvador” are the two Oliver Stone movies I can stand)

  2. She knew he was Catholic because so few presidents are Catholic. I’m not sure why a person’s religion means a damn thing in a country with “freedom of religion,” but it does. (A lot of people think Lieberman couldn’t win a presidential nomination because of his Jewishness. We Americans are a weird bunch.)

    As for JFK, I know very little about him outside of his lofty space goals and his nuclear close call. I think I’d’ve voted for him. I don’t think his affairs mean at thing when it comes to a presidential legacy. (I don’t hold Clinton’s affairs against his “legacy” either — he lied just like every other man in his situation would, lol.)

    I’m going to do my best to keep up with your JFK blogs!

    • Kennedy’s actually the only Catholic president ever. I don’t think it matters as much today as it did then. Back then, many groups were very anti-Catholic–they thought The Pope would be calling the shots–which is why JFK had to win them over. We’ve had four Unitarians and two Quakers, but only one Catholic.

      I agree with you that it’s dumb, but Joe Lieberman cost Al Gore the 2000 election. He should have won in a landslide, but he picked “some guy who don’t believe in Jesus” as his running-mate, and he got creamed in the South. Gore did other dumb things as well–don’t get me started. I think he would have been an excellent president.

      I think Kennedy was a good front-man for an excellent organization. I doubt he wrote a speech in his entire life, and I’m not even sure he wrote his best-selling book, “Profiles in Courage.” JFK put on a cool face during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I think we’d all have been fucked without Robert Kennedy–and some other advisers, but mainly Bobby, the smart Kennedy–guiding him through the proverbial rough waters.

      His death was horrible and sad. When Jackie Kennedy climbs out on to the trunk of the presidential limo to retrieve a chunk of JFK’s brain…it’s one of those things you can’t fake.

      The reason this assassination sticks with us so much is two-fold: 1) all that Camelot/New Frontier crap that probably would have gone away in Kennedy’s second term, and 2) this was the first major story covered on TV. Take 89 minutes and watch this doc: http://youtu.be/yg0f_QHNSUw It doesn’t present any theory, pro or con. There’s not even any narration. It just follows news footage from that period. You can tell TV was still in its infancy–it was sure as hell not slick (people are holding old, clunky phones up to their ears, etc, and the cameras are huge)–but you can see how being able to watch things unfold live on TV would be fascinating to WW2 people, who had to rely on newsreels and the daily papers. I’ve watched this documentary three times, and while I have it queued up, I may watch it again. WATCH IT! You can do yoga while you do. (And you don’t see the head-shot)

  3. I was seven years old when Kennedy was assassinated. It seems surreal to watch the video footage played over and over again on TV with the anniversary approaching. I was old enough to understand the gravity of what had happened, but too young to realize the impact it would have on history or American politics. The Vietnam War was so abstract and distant: the oldest son of one family on our street was killed there, and I remember my parents sending his parents flowers. But again, I simply was too young to grasp the permanence of death. I thought death was what happened to old people, and what happened to Kennedy and the Garcia family’s oldest boy was kind of a weird fluke.

    A columnist in our local paper has been writing something to the effect of ‘Who cares about JFK? He was a crummy president.’ He wasn’t born when Kennedy was assassinated, either, but honestly, your post should be run in our paper, not the crap the local hack churns out every week. (He’s a fan of the Kings, and that’s all I’ve got to say about him. Boo!)

    • Thank you. You may have the Post hire me forthwith. 😉

      Like I was telling Christina, I doubt JFK’s presidency would have been remembered as lovingly as it has. Second terms rarely are. When JFK was shot, he became a part of American mythology. He was a handsome, charming man, and people will forever see him dressed sharply, sitting next to his elegant wife under the Dallas sun, smiling and waving to the crowd. He will forever be 46 years old, and he was followed by an inelegant man with the charisma and personality of a squashed rattlesnake.

      Who was the next president with any panache? Not LBJ or Nixon, not Ford. Carter? He lacked gravitas. Reagan? He managed to put a good face back on the Presidency after Carter nearly ruined the country forever, but his movie-star charm had faded. George H.W. Bush? Umm…

      You have to wait till you get to Slick Willie before you get another president with panache. I don’t think Dubya had it; Obama does sometimes.

      There will never be another JFK, because I don’t think anyone has ever studied Leni Riefenstahl’s god-making directorial style than Joe Kennedy. Everything from high-school on was mythmaking. I’m sure Joe Kennedy wouldn’t want his son slain, but I have no doubt the thought “This immortalizes him as a god” crossed his mind frequently.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: