Fifty years ago this week, time stopped. The world gasped. The very public murder of the most public man, shocked and horrified his nation, and the peoples of the earth.
So brutal and memorable was the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States, that every anniversary of the event draws attention. So awful were its consequences, direct and indirect, that people often dream of a world where JFK had lived. That world is usually sweeter, kinder, less bloody and more just. Look at Jeff Greenfield’s new political fantasy novel. Only someone like Stephen King could imagine a worse future with JFK than the world endured with his successors.
If JFK had lived. It is the question that haunts everyone who admired him, who saw him die, who lived in the cold breath of his passing, who felt the loss in their bodies. Those people really experienced it, but those people – and they are older than me – are disappearing.
That is why this anniversary, this 50th anniversary, feels and is different. Today there are millions of people who were full-fledged adults when bullets tore up the President on a city street. Millions more were children, their world shaken at their parents’ and teachers’ tears. The youngest of those children is now well into her fifties. And if you were the same age as JFK the day he died, congratulations, because you’ve lived to the age of 96.
From this week on, the assassination of JFK really begins to slip under the tide. It shifts gradually from the most shocking and momentous event of people’s lives (pre 9-11) to a shocking and momentous event in history. In 1915 there were still people living who could tell you what Abraham Lincoln’s voice sounded like, but now they and all their real memories are gone. The way our parents are gone, or will soon be gone; the way we are going, one by one, like soldiers dropping on a battlefield.
What did it mean that JFK was massacred in his car, driving through Dallas? Beyond the sheer horror of eyewitnesses and later billions of TV viewers seeing his head blown to pieces, all over his wife? Beyond watching her stand, glassy-eyed and coated with his blood, as the successor was sworn in? Beyond the insanity of the assassin’s assassination days later, live on TV? Beyond the endless gloom of the funeral. Beyond a winter when Ray Charles’ mournful “Lucky Old Sun” echoed inside people, or a Spring when everyone escaped into glee about four British rock and roll musicians?
If JFK had lived. We don’t have to live in a candy coloured dream world to see what it would have meant, if JFK had lived. First, there may not have been the civil rights legislation which Lyndon Johnson pushed through on the wave of grief and sentiment post-Dallas.
Second, we would not have seen the War on Poverty: JFK was a liberal but not a big-government guy. Unlike LBJ, Kennedy did not worship FDR nor did the New Deal represent salvation to the Kennedys. Medicare? Maybe, maybe not.
Most importantly, there would not have been a President Johnson. LBJ was a great politician but a really terrible man – an insecure, corrupt, maniacal bully, rotting inside from a lifetime of hardscrabble striving. LBJ was one of those people who made everything – everything – about himself. That is why Johnson walked at full speed into the swamp of Vietnam and, when up to his chin in that bloody quagmire, he wouldn’t get out. It was all about Lyndon.
It was never about Jack. JFK was a cool customer, acerbic and philosophical. He took his responsibilities seriously but never himself. JFK inherited the Presidency from his long lost brother Joe, who was supposed to be the one. Like George VI, accidental King in the wake of Edward and Mrs. Simpson, Jack Kennedy assumed the throne dutifully but was never shaped by the role. He casually broke the rules of bourgeois life because, frankly, he was born outside those rules – born to a company of princes.
It didn’t matter much to Jack Kennedy if people liked him – he liked himself just fine. What mattered to him was that we shouldn’t blow up the world. What mattered to him was that “the torch” of liberty – in opposition to the dark slavery of Communism – stay lit. That’s why he committed the nation to reaching the moon – to beat the Russians. That’s why he approved the Bay of Pigs, the Cuba Blockade and the assassination of the Vietnamese Prime Minister. That’s why he put Americans in Southeast Asia – and why he may have kept them there – so long as it worked.
But when something didn’t work, Jack Kennedy had a simple rule, and that was to get rid of it or get out of it. Vietnam didn’t work. JFK would have gotten out of it, one way or the other. A man who can share a mistress with a mobster yet be adored by his wife Jacqueline Bouvier was simply too smart to get stuck in a quagmire.
If JFK had lived. Something else might have been very different, if this President had not been slain. Kennedy inspired people – if we recall the feelings that emerged with the arrival and election of Barack Obama five years ago, we have a sense of what JFK meant to the generation of people called The Baby Boom. President Kennedy lit up a romantic, yet practical feeling of patriotism and hope in people. If JFK had lived, would that patriotic flame have broken up and lit the country on fire, the way it did in the mid-60s? I think not – even if JFK had kept the U.S. in Vietnam on some level, it could have been less divisive than it was under LBJ.
Kennedy was a Cold Warrior, but not because he was a war monger but because he believed in peace and freedom. Freedom first. In the early 1960s the Civil Rights movement had already erupted. Americans of all colours were joining the non violent army, as they joined the Peace Corps. JFK was the bridge between youthful idealism and true political engagement. LBJ drove across that bridge and accomplished things, but the weight of the war sent the span crashing down. Yes, Johnson did things Kennedy might not have been able to, but only because America and Congress were in a grief-soaked rebound with Lyndon. Ask yourself how many times you would have to wake up next to LBJ, before the romance ebbed for you.
There is no way to measure the cultural destruction which erupted when Americans – first young ones, then older ones – lost their faith in the will and capacity of the U.S. government to lead and inspire. The Vietnam War spawned a kind of low-scale civil war in America, splitting the hawks and the doves, the haves and have nots, the white and the black, the old and the young. The war raged on worse and worse, young people were disgusted, Watts and Detroit burned, Martin Luther King was slain, Bobby Kennedy was slain and the country was ripped apart by divergent ideologies and sheer exhaustion. The political establishment offered voters a three-way Presidential choice between two pro-war candidates and a Southern segregationist. Imagine how tired, disenchanted, cynical and divided a people had to be, to elect Richard Nixon as President.
It is difficult – impossible, really – to believe that America would have been that same country had President Kennedy retired after his second term in January 1969.
But now, fifty years after JFK’s death and with each day passing, the very people who believed back then in a different kind of politics – the people who started a cultural revolution in the wake of the assassination – are themselves dying off. Who will keep that hope alive, when they’ve never seen it, or heard about it first hand?
I am too young to remember John Kennedy, and my awareness of Bobby Kennedy began with the newspaper headline “RFK Shot”. But my political consciousness was formed when many people still believed in the romance of politics and grew during the time Watergate poisoned it all. People ten or more years younger than me, have never known that feeling, except in the brief burst of Obamamania in 2008. Keep hope alive.
It is probably hard for some people to believe that the post-Watergate President, Jimmy Carter (who said “I will never lie to you” – and who meant it) was in 1976 seen as a new incarnation of that old activist, optimist progressive American political spirit. More than once he was compared to JFK. Indeed, there was hardly a Democrat running for office in the 1970s and early 80s who wasn’t measured against JFK (including Ted Kennedy, of course) and found wanting. Ironically it is Carter’s successor, Reagan, who today is invoked as the true heir to Kennedy’s free market cold warrior legacy. Of course, America was only looking – is only looking – for another Jack Kennedy, because the first one was taken after just “a thousand days.”
If JFK had lived, who and what would have followed? Bobby? Loyalists believed that but the man they saw as President in 1968 was himself, in part, the product of Dallas. RFK was almost murdered with grief in the months after the assassination and, when he emerged, he did so chastened and cracked. RFK was etched with pain, in the manner described in the poem by Aeschylus which he called his favourite:
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart,
and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
Bobby Kennedy quoted that poem the night Martin Luther King Jr was slain. It described what the loss of his older brother did to Bobby. The “pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart”, burning wisdom into him. That agony turned RFK into a different and better man.
Perhaps that’s what it did to America, and the world too, although it is hard to see when the wisdom came. Perhaps the pain is still falling, drop by drop, upon the heart of America until, in its own despair, and against its will, wisdom will come. Through the awful grace of God.