I must admit I was getting sick of all the Kennedy nostalgia before it even started. Clintons and Obamas huddled around the eternal flame trying to claim the cult of the Kennedys. And then National Review countering this with a cover story before the day even arrived.
Then yesterday it hit me. November 22 would fall on Friday. Friday, November 22nd. Who could forget? I was walking across the campus around noon at the beginning of my senior year when a guy named Roger Pitman shouted to me across the quad. “Did you hear Kennedy’s been shot? It was just on the radio.”
I rushed back to my dorm — a new “social dorm” where girls would be allowed to visit on weekends for the first time — and turned on the radio. Sure enough, the President had been gunned down while riding in an open car in Dallas. They had taken him to the hospital. It didn’t look very hopeful.
Then my roommate came in. He was a very bright, cynical kid from Long Island who had been enlightening me in the ways and means of radical left-wing politics all fall. I hadn’t quite gotten used to him yet.
“Did you hear what’s happened?” I said. “Kennedy got shot,” I told him.
“Oh, come on,” he said, waving me off in his usual way.
“IT’S TRUE!” I shouted at him, my voice almost losing control. I’ll never forget the look of horror that came over his face when he realized I wasn’t making it up. You saw that look a dozen times in the next few weeks. Life magazine ran their lead photograph of a woman on the New York streets recoiling in agony as she was told about the assassination. Nobody who was alive that day ever forgot what they were doing when they first heard the news.
We weren’t used to assassinations then. It’s hard to remember now but the first three years of the 1960s were an incredible time of innocence. “The Sixties” as we know them didn’t begin until a year later, in 1964. Those years that preceded them were a time of glistening optimism. Sure there was a Cold War going on and sure there was a Civil Rights struggle in the South, but we had a young President who seemed more than up to the challenge.
And say what you will, I think Kennedy had qualities that we haven’t seen in any President since — although Ronald Reagan certainly had other qualities that worked as much in his favor. John F. Kennedy was far above all the other “Kennedys.” Neither of his brothers ever came close. All those little other little Kennedys who go around running for Congress when the mood suits them — forget about it. Teddy Kennedy was nothing but a liberal windbag who disqualified himself for President in one interview with Roger Mudd. Caroline Kennedy did the same when she tried to run for Senate. The others are far worse.
But John F. Kennedy was something different. He had been through the war — part of the Greatest Generation — and had a fatalism about him that inured him to the nonsense of politics. I once saw a documentary about Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey’s duel for the nomination in 1960. It was highly instructive. Humphrey played to the camera, lecturing a car full of aides about how nitrogen gets down into the soil as they drove through Wisconsin farm county. But on the night of Kennedy’s victory in the West Virginia primary — a huge landmark since it showed southern Protestant Democrats would vote for a Catholic — a reporter comes rushing up to Kennedy and exudes in NFL-locker-room style, “Well, Mr. Kennedy, what kind of night has it been for you?” Kennedy cuts him dead. “Oh, like any other election night it’s been very interesting,” he says laconically. That was the voice of the man who faced down Khrushchev.
No, something happened on November 22, 1963 that I don’t think has ever been repaired in American culture. Whether you thought he was too liberal or too conservative, Kennedy was a man who embodied the Presidency as no other President except Reagan has done in my lifetime. “He seemed so right for the job,” was the comment of a British broadcaster at the time. And to think that this could all be brought to an end by some weasely little guy in Dallas.
For me, the point where the 1960s finally took a wrong turn was not at Kennedy’s assassination but a few weeks later when Bob Dylan was receiving an award from the ACLU. Dylan made a speech regretting Kennedy’s loss but then he started soliloquizing about Oswald as well. “I could see a lot of myself in Oswald,” he said. “I think he embodied what’s wrong with the times.” The ACLU booed him and for once I think I have to be on their side. It seems to me that America has spent the last 50 years trying to understand people who’ve fallen out of the mainstream that we’ve reached the point where you have to have something wrong with you to be of any interest. (See the New York Times’ current front-page series about the tribulations of people recovering from drug addiction for the latest iteration.) So many people have been liberated from their oppression that we’ve had to make up a completely new type of human being — transgenders — to find somebody else who’s still oppressed.
I don’t know why people have always had such trouble believing Oswald was a lone assassin. The simplest and best explanation was something I read in a magazine about two weeks after the Kennedy’s death. “Oswald did not have a father and hated everyone who had one.” So he assassinates the symbolic father of the entire nation. Any questions? Yet now that we’ve got a whole nation of young men who are being raised without fathers, it’s hard even to put that resentment in context.
Kennedy’s assassination brought out everyone’s worst nightmares. In ways I think the whole legendary 1960s was an acting-out fugue by a generation that had lost its symbolic father at too young an age. Kennedy had a normality that we haven’t seen since — except, of course, in Reagan, whose normality was so rooted it was a subject of parody. Kennedy was also filthy rich and today that might make him part of the reviled “1 percent,” although these rules don’t seem to apply to Democrats. In any case, in 1963 Americans didn’t mind other people being rich. Kennedy was the best man for the job and the nation was happy to be led by him.
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was
Known as Camelot.
It wasn’t all made up, you know.