November is a sad month. Christmas is not yet here and we are between brilliant fall colors and crackling snow. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the death of President John Kennedy in November 1963, there is an added sadness. For those of a generation that remember him, it was a defining moment, a moment when we witnessed a national trauma that transformed us. Later, we would witness the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, but the death of John Kennedy was something unique that changed how we saw and continue to see the world.
There was so much hope associated with his presidency. After eight years of Dwight Eisenhower, the World War II hero from Kansas who had trouble articulating a proper sentence, along came Kennedy and a new generation. They were dashing – touch football in Hyannis Port - and cosmopolitan: Harvard, London School of Economics and Political Science, Pablo Casals at the White House. “Je suis le mari de Jackie”. It was not only that World War II and the Korean War were behind us, but there was to be a different leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War. We would not only land a man on the moon, we could also stand up to Khrushchev and the Soviets. As JFK said at the Berlin Wall: “Ich bin ein Berliner.”.
Before David Halberstam ironically wrote “The Best and the Brightest,” before Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara led the United States into the quagmire of Vietnam, before even the Bay of Pigs fiasco, we admired those around Kennedy - the Arthur Schlesingers and the McGeorge Bundys. They were the best and brightest, and we believed they would intelligently lead the United States and the world. Kennedy was as global as the 1960s would allow. He was the prince of Camelot, and we were all his admiring followers.
Before we learned about his possible mafia connections, before we learned about his constant philandering – Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy birthday Mr. President” to a packed audience in Madison Square Garden – before we learned about his hidden medical problems, we were in awe. There was so much promise. His death, followed by the many Oswald/Ruby conspiracies, the constant revisions of the Warren Commission Report, were all part of a loss of innocence. How cynical we have become.
The current counterfactual academic fad requires scholars to answer “What would the world have been like had Kennedy lived?” No one has yet to ask me how my life would have been different, or the lives of my generation.
November is usually a sad month. Reliving the assassination this particular November only makes it sadder. When CBS broadcaster Walter Cronkite removed his glasses and announced on November 22; “President Kennedy died at 1 PM Central Standard Time,” he announced more than just the death of the president.
November 6, 2013