Friday, November 22, 2013

On the 50th Anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination

Today we remember the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  This is one of those time stopping moments in a life when the initial shock is embedded in our minds and we remember where we were and what we were doing when it happened.  As it has been described by others, the assassination of President Kennedy is to my generation - the Baby Boomers - what the events of 9/11/01 are to the Milliennial generation.

Today former President George W. Bush, president during the 9/11/01 attacks and current resident of Dallas, issued the following statement:

"Today we remember a dark episode in our Nation's history, and we remember the leader whose life was cut short 50 years ago. John F. Kennedy dedicated himself to public service, and his example moved Americans to do more for our country. He believed in the greatness of the United States and the righteousness of liberty, and he defended them. On this solemn anniversary, Laura and I join our fellow citizens in honoring our 35th President."

On that day in Dallas, in 1963, I was in the second grade at Creswell Elementary School in Shreveport, Louisiana.  Being so young, I don't remember that we were told that the president had been shot as we were released to go home.  What I remember of that day is upon returning home from school, I walked into our house and as I walked to the back of the house to my room, I saw our housekeeper. She was sitting on the couch crying as her eyes were locked on the television screen.  Our normal routine would have her standing there in the room used as a spot for watching television doing the ironing.  She watched "her stories", the soap operas of the day, as she ironed.  I asked her why she was crying and she said that our president had been shot and she thought he was dead. Then she hugged me. 

That is how I remember that day in our nation's history. 

In school we studied American History and our nation's presidents.  Sometimes it was a surprise to re-learn how briefly President Kennedy was our president.  And how young his wife, in particular, was when he was killed.  

I'll say upfront that I was raised in a very Republican household and my parents were never Kennedy supporters.  They frequently tsk-tsked the whole storyline of the days of Camelot and the adulation the family received from so many, including the glowing press reports.  We know now that much was not reported in those days as the press covered the president.  Certainly none of the personal failings of President Kennedy were brought to light during his time in the White House.  

"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country." - This is the famous quote associated with the man.  He used it in his inaugural address,  January 20, 1961.

When remininiscing about the Kennedy administration, one of the first accomplishments mentioned is not really an accomplishment but a goal, a challenge, issued by President Kennedy.  He challenged our country to put a man on the moon.  He wanted to enter the space race and compete with the Soviet Union, in the midst of the days of the Cold War.

He is remembered for his handling of America's response to the Bay of Pigs crisis.  

As often happens, memories soften and sometimes history is simply re-written.  Today we listen as Republicans sing the praises of JFK for cutting taxes as he did or for his stand against Communism, etc.  Turns out, he was only mediocre as president.  
By almost any measure, John F. Kennedy was a middling president at best, and an occasionally disastrous one. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban missile crisis, setting the nation on the wrong course in Vietnam, his nepotism, the spying on political rivals — all must weigh heavily in our judgment of his presidency. And while Kennedy the president was a middle-of-the-range performer at best, Kennedy the man has been relentlessly diminished by the eventual revealing of the facts of his day-to-day life.
Though President Johnson takes the most criticism for the events in the Vietnam war, the other most distinguishing memories of the formative years of Baby Boomers, it was JFK who set those wheels in motion.

Kennedy famously appointed his own brother, Robert Kennedy, to the position of Attorney General - thus bringing blatant nepotism into the West Wing.  He did no favors for the presidency and the obligations of fairness to all Americans.  Kennedy opposed Civil RIghts legislation because Republicans supported it.  

John Kennedy looms large in the American imagination, but not for anything he accomplished in office. He was a handsome and vivacious man whose ascendancy coincided with that of television, a politician who was one part royal, one part movie star. That Americans found his celebrity and his pretensions to aristocracy appealing is beyond argument; however, it does not speak well of our political culture. But as created personas go, JFK was a doozy: He won the Pulitzer Prize for a book largely written by somebody else; his reputation as an intellectual was largely the creation of Arthur Schlesinger; and his family was figuratively and perhaps literally in bed with Joe McCarthy (who dated two of the Kennedy women), but the stigma of McCarthyism has never attached itself to his name. His pathological sexual appetites gave him the reputation of a charming rogue, when the truth is that he was closer to a mid-century Anthony Weiner. He was a veteran with an admirable military record, an unexceptional and difference-splitting senator with an Irish name: But for his celebrity, he would have been John McCain or John Kerry. 
One doesn't have to ponder for long to see many similarities today in politics with our current president.  Much like Kennedy, Barack Obama has coasted along in the glow of an adoring press and a strong fictional personal story. Both were mediocre U.S. Senators who rose to the presidency.  History repeats itself, that is certain.

Had President Kennedy not been assassinated, he would be remembered very differently today.  Instead of benefiting from the nostalgia of that horrible day - no decent person wishes those events on a nation or a family -  JFK would have been seen as a career politician groomed by an ambitious father to be president.  His own father, Joe Kennedy, a man made wealthy by rum running, was Ambassador to the Court of St James and a Nazi appeaser during the beginnings of World War II.  He resigned his post and returned to America determined to have a son in the White House.

Today the city of Dallas recognizes the anniversary of that tragic day 50 years ago, for the first time.  It is right to do so.  The Age of Camelot never really existed except in the eyes of the Kennedy worshipers.  It is something to be remembered today as the current American Idol sits in the White House.  

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