At the time of the assassination of President Kennedy, I was sitting in Sister Mary Mel’s class at Holy Family School. We were told that the President had been shot and led in prayer. My initial reaction was as follows.
The President lives in Washington. Washington was kind of up there near Alaska and Russia (I had Sarah Palin beat) and the President must have been on a reconnaissance mission across the border. He was probably winged in the shoulder. He’ll be fine.
After what seemed like a very short period of time, we were told that the President had died, prayed again and were sent home. I remember stopping to cry next to a birch tree that was then at the intersection of Cumberland and Hampton.
When I got home, I saw that the assassination was all so adult. Everyone was in suits. Of course I was old enough to know that it had to be that way and chagrined that I had thought otherwise. While I don’t buy much of the notion that American “lost its innocence” on November 22, 1963, the world did become a bit less enchanted for little Ricky Esenberg.
Although I did not yet know it, my parents were beginning the process of a divorce and a few weeks later, we moved to a small apartment in Cudahy. Life certainly changed for me. But what was the larger significance of the event?
Many of the narratives about that have always seemed overstated to me. To be sure, as a piece of personal and national tragedy played out in what was then the still new medium of television, it was unprecedented. It was sudden, brutal and public in a way that nothing like it had ever been. It was the first time we all huddled around our TVs to share in something horrible. Sadly, it was not the last.
But in terms of the course of the country, the impact of the assassination seems less clear. JFK was, at best, a middling President; a deeply flawed but extremely attractive personality who can be – somewhat anachronistically – either claimed or eschewed by both sides of 2013’s political spectrum. He was certainly a New Deal Liberal but not of the transgressive Left that has become mainstream today. He was a committed Cold Warrior, but often clumsy in its execution. Initially a reluctant advocate for civil rights, he did the right thing when he had to and, like Truman and Eisenhower before him and Johnson after him, deserves credit for helping to move America forward on race.
Kennedy was, essentially, the author of our involvement in Vietnam but had not yet escalated it, so historians are able to argue about what he would have done there had he lived. Committed to a larger government, he was the author of a supply side tax cut. He was hated by the extreme right (what became modern conservatism was only nascent in 1963) but murdered by a Marxist.
Kennedy was charming and, there really is no other word for it, glamorous. At the same time, he was the product of corruption and a reckless cheater. He portrayed a public image of vigor, but was in extremely poor health.
There is a sense in which JFK was, as National Review, recently put it, a “beautiful mediocrity.” While it is a bit unfair to call anyone who becomes President of the United States mediocre, Kennedy was largely a figure of style and sensibility rather than substance. His Presidency began as a metaphor for a post war confidence and ended in a tragedy that was achingly poignant. He was a vessel into which we could pour whatever we wish. Fifty years on, we continue to do precisely that.
Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin