Magazine deadlines and other matters haven’t given me much time to check out the various TV and print commemorations of the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. But I did notice that last Sunday’s New York Times and Washington Post both included an advertising insert from the loopy History Channel headlined, with all appropriate tastelessness, “We Interrupt The Assassination Of John F. Kennedy.” Perhaps for those too young to recall or have been alive on November 22, 1963, that was a clever come-on, of a piece with the tawdriness of most things Kennedy since that time.
Do forgive me for taking this personally, but I was very much alive on that November Friday, all of 14 in Santa Barbara, California, sitting in a late-morning high-school French class when the girls’ principal walked in and in a stricken voice informed us that the president had been shot and it wasn’t clear if he was still alive. It was the most unbelievable thing I’d ever heard. She might as well have said the Russians had dropped nuclear bombs on New York and Washington. There was no way to accept or fathom the news. No one said anything. Our teacher, the kindly, officious Sister Mary Jose, led a quick prayer, and out of pure escapism and denial (no doubt) suggested we resume our lesson. I don’t remember what happened next, except that over the intercom we would hear the principal announce that Kennedy had been pronounced dead.
Gym class came right after lunch. Our instructor, who was best known for being a hard-assed JV football coach, felt it was up to him to help us come to terms with the meaning of it all. There we stood in a grassy field, in gym trunks, reversible T-shirts, and tennis shoes, while he delivered his sermon, something about our civic responsibilities. Our eyes wandered, mine toward the sky, the eucalyptus trees, and the mountains behind the school. The world looked the same, as if that meant anything.
That night, against my better judgment, I went with friends to the annual big game between inter-city rivals Santa Barbara and San Marcos High Schools. Twelve thousand locals packed the hillside stands of La Playa Stadium, right across from Ledbetter beach, next to the harbor. I have no idea who won, or if anyone cared or cheered, or why the game was even played. By the next day all fun and games would be canceled nationwide. On Friday evening maybe people still didn’t know how to react.
It would take days, weeks, months and years to sink in. Well before it became a cliché, one knew that America had lost its innocence. I often imagine that all the piling on on JFK ever since his death has been a payback for the misery it caused us. It’s what happens when recovery isn’t possible. And why would that be? Because for innocent Americans the loss was personal. Kennedy was as attractive and charming a public individual as we’ve ever had. Countless women were seriously in love with him. Men thought him classy, stylish and cool. And just like that he was nightmarishly gone.
Knowing what we came to know it was easy to reassess, to ask if we’d been had, if we’d sold our souls to a devil, if it ever makes sense to develop an emotional link to a politician? But what good is that if we forget what we were when he was president? Under his successor, the depressing LBJ, aide Jack Valenti became a kind of laughing stock for announcing that he slept better at night knowing that Lyndon Johnson was his president. The fact is that millions of perhaps naive Americans had done exactly that when they knew JFK was their president.
No offense to Eisenhower, probably the most under-appreciated great American of the twentieth century, but under Kennedy American life accelerated, conveying a sense that it was a great time to be alive. Whether he was responsible for that sense or just happened to come along at the right time is immaterial. All we know is that once he was gone there was no way to get it back.
And now there really isn’t much of him left. And maybe it was primarily style, though what’s wrong with that in the public arena? Recall one of his last characteristic moments, when a local in Fort Worth tried to hoist a ten-gallon hat atop Kennedy’s head. Hold off, buddy, Kennedy in effect told him, pushing the man’s hand or hat away. Then he told him to come to Washington next week and he’d put it on for him there.