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.