In a few days, the American people will pause to remember the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States. A week or so ago, I read a Washington Post article lamenting the vast array of movies, TV specials and documentaries summoned forth each year to relive that fateful twenty-second day of November, 1963, and, particularly, observe this half-century marker. The author, who serves as the WaPo TV critic, asked why we so willingly absorb this deluge of coverage of an event that happened before most Americans were born—the median birth year in this country is 1976—and why we seem stuck in a “freeze frame”?
Why can’t we just move on?
As I read through the reader comments written below the article, I quickly saw I was not alone in my thoughts. This event was indelibly seared into the conscience of our youth, effectively ending our Baby Boomer innocence. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan so poignantly said at the time, “I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually. I guess that we thought we had a little more time.”
As a seven-year-old, I walked home from school that Friday afternoon knowing, even then, things would never be the same. The panoply and sad grandeur of the military funeral the following Monday assuredly planted the seeds of my own military career.
In the months and years ahead, there was an undeniable, societal letdown from the heady time that began on a frozen January afternoon when the young, handsome president challenged us to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” In the minds of so many young and idealistic Baby Boomers, we were forced to leave the Camelot of Jack and Jackie and move away, “deep in the heart of Texas”, with Lyndon and Lady Bird. We left Caroline and John-John for Lynda Bird and Lucy Baines.
We stumbled, shell-shocked, past the bizarre December kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr., into 1964 with the arrival of the Beatles, a suspicious PT-boat attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, and Johnson’s landslide reelection. Then came 1965, the Watts riots, the gathering unrest on college campuses, and the draft cards summoning young men to faraway Vietnam. 1966 brought the drug culture full-force to those campuses and the war full-force to the jungles of Southeast Asia. 1967 witnessed cities aflame with exploding racial tension, juxtaposed against the Summer of Love, “flower power,” and “escalation.” 1968 saw the world gone mad and ended with three astronauts quoting Genesis as they gave the world a picture of a fragile blue sphere in the loneliness of space, “earthrise” over a barren lunar landscape. “And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10). And Madelyn Murray O’Hair filed a lawsuit.
What might have been had Jack Kennedy lived to continue to stoke the fires of legendary Camelot? Would the Baby Boomer experience have been so marked by drugs, riots, and war?
Lyndon Johnson was a man who, although he lacked the “American royalty” charisma of Kennedy, surely knew better than just about anyone how to pull the levers of power in Washington. And pull them he did. Shunted aside and ignored as Vice-President “Rufus Cornpone” by the Harvard-educated Camelot elite, he suddenly found himself in the one most powerful position he had sought all of his life. He was a man on a mission, knowing his weak heart (he’d had two heart attacks already) would someday give out. And he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Robert Caro in his four-volume biography tells of “the Johnson treatment” and how LBJ would exert influence over others. The pictures here tell the story better than any words could. “Charm” was not a word often used in the same sentence as “Lyndon Johnson.
The assassination of November 22, 1963, which placed his hands in a vise-grip on those levers, led the nation directly to the Great Society, with its massive government programs, and inextricably deeper into Vietnam. It led to the “credibility gap” that our media high priest, Walter Cronkite, pronounced like a curse on the Johnson administration after the Tet Offensive of January 1968, when he told his national parish the war was “unwinnable.” The Baby Boomers, mortally disillusioned by the assassination, the war, and what they now saw as the lies of Johnson, McNamara, and Westmoreland, turned against the “establishment” and looked to Robert Kennedy or Eugene McCarthy to replace the president in the election of 1968. Johnson, yielding to the gathering storm, bowed out of the race the last day of March of that year, opening the door for Richard Nixon’s return. The credibility gap has not been closed since.
Indirectly, the assassination fed a collective ennui that quite likely led further to a hotel balcony in Memphis, a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles, a police riot in Chicago, a big field in upstate New York called Woodstock, a shooting of four demonstrators at a small college in Ohio, and the burglary of a suite in still another hotel called Watergate. Further indirectly, did it lead to the oil embargoes, stagflation, the Ford Pinto, the Chevy Vega, the Dodge K-car and bankruptcy, a few guys hacking in their garage to build something called a desktop computer, the foreign policy disasters of 1979, malaise, disco, the boat people, and on to the Reagan years? Would we have made it to the moon without the memory of John F. Kennedy’s challenge to get there by the end of the decade? Would we have gone back?
How much of this would have—or not have—happened had one of a hundred things gone differently that late November Friday? Jeff Greenfield of CNN recently wrote a book called “If Kennedy Lived” which explores the alternate history of America in the five years after November 22, 1963, if Kennedy had survived the shooting in Dallas. He mines the works of historians and the quotes of Kennedy himself leading up to that day, and projects several things that would have been dramatically different. Surprisingly, he predicts some things—racial and college unrest—would have been the same because they were part of much bigger trend lines of history.
Will our every-five-year rite of stoking the flame of the Kennedy memory pass from history with the Baby Boomers? Or is this now, much like the Civil War, part of our national, psychological imprint? Will it retreat into the domain of historians, aficionados, and conspiracy theorists? It’s likely the 75th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, in 2038, will be much like the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, coming up in 2016, or Normandy in 2019.
Precious few who lived it will still be there, but the sons and daughters who heard the stories, and lived the immediate after-effects of the event, will remember. In our increasingly time-crunched culture that has left Life and Look magazines in the dust and moved to Facebook and Twitter on iPhones and iPads, we will pause for a few moments, remember, and move on to the next story of interest. The imprint will move further to the background as has the “War between the States” or (to the South) “the War of Northern Aggression.”
But in the back of our minds, we will always wonder what might have been, and we will never know. At least in this life.