Mulling over the death of JFK
If you remember flash bulbs and the assassination of President Kennedy, you’re likely over 60. For the nation the ordeal was a “flash-bulb” moment, one that you accurately and vividly recall where you were, what you were doing, and those you were with.
On November 22, 1963, I was in Sr. Elenita’s eighth grade social studies class when the principal broke in with the news over the intercom. Even at that young age—thirteen—the profound enormity and overwhelming horror of the event was palpable. The next three days were surreal as we sat transfixed to our recently acquired, black-and-white, rabbit-eared TV mesmerized by every detail. The only difference between my mother and us young ones is that we occasionally went out to play, more to get away from the oppressive news than the desire to be out since it was late November and not very pleasant weather-wise. But even then, it dominated what we talked about.
Since then, Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, the space shuttle Challenger disaster, Columbine Massacre, and September 11th attacks have become etched in my psyche as flash-bulb moments. It’s likely many of you share those in addition to others.
I’m sure battle-scarred veterans have a number of such scenes embedded in their memories, so horrific they prefer not talking about them. My brother, a sniper in Vietnam with the Marines, refused to talk about his experiences. It was evident, though, the toll they took over the years.
Studies show that our memories are quite fallible. In the vast majority of cases, what we swear happen did not in the way we recall them with the exception of moments such as the JFK assassination. Those tend to be extraordinarily painful, searing events.
The problem is that if we don’t handle them appropriately, they have the potential eat us up mentally and often they do by migrating into our shadows and finding expression in other usually harmful ways.
Being tangential to the suffering, how close we are to the event, literally or symbolically, helps dictate its impact on the individual. Being on scene at one of the mass killings, from Columbine to the Aurora theater and Sandy Hook shootings, will cause individuals to suffer enormously until they can be open with their experiences in healthy ways.
For Americans a bit older than I, the JFK assassination might have had deeper effects: disillusionment, loss of hope, and fear due to the instability of the world of that day, the days of super-power nuclear threats. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a rather recent event when Kennedy died; hence, the plethora of conspiracy theories. They’re all bunk as surely is the one about George W. Bush masterminding the September 11th attacks.
With Kennedy’s assassination, Camelot died a second death and history was altered. My take:
Would’ve Kennedy gone as deep into Vietnam as his successor Lyndon B. Johnson did? Probably, for he too was a Cold Warrior who believed in the Domino Theory, though his World War II experience might’ve tempered his hand a bit.
Would’ve JFK defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964? Probably, for his anti-communist credentials were impeccable and his liberalism not as deep as was LBJ’s despite the irony of him being from Massachusetts and LBJ from Texas. It’s fascinating how the political landscape has changed fundamentally over the past half century.
Would’ve Kennedy pursued LBJ’s Great Society and civil rights agenda? Not as likely, for Kennedy was still the son of magnate Joseph P. Kennedy who was more about power than civic-mindedness.
Historians will argue forever about those outcomes, but undoubtedly Kennedy’s assassination did change the way we see things, both in perspective and in method for it was the Golden Day of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley, sober-minded newsmen and commentators not prone to hysteria. It was the epoch before the buffoonery of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk talk radio and cable have blessed us with.
When I talk to younger folks about Kennedy’s death, they’re more interested in the facts rather than the impact of that event has had. I couldn’t care less about the specifics anymore. What’s important is that it happened and its enduring effect upon the course of American history and us older Americans.
Technology has inexorably played its role from communications to weaponry, and as such, the world is very different. It’s not better nor is it worse. It just is.
Friday will offer the perfect opportunity to mull all that over. Take advantage of it.