The day remains vivid; a sunny and mild Friday, typical Los Angeles November weather. I was a high school freshman. Eleven a.m. gym class over, I was showered and hungry for lunch.
As a group of us boys jostled and kidded waiting for the bell that would spark our daily dash to the food line, a kid came running up and said breathlessly, Kennedys been shot!
We stared for a moment. With what, a squirt gun? one of my friends snorted, receiving the reward of our laughter. Lincoln had been assassinated, but that kind of thing just didnt happen anymore. This was a very different era.
The bell rang. Giving no further thought to the disbelieved news, I ran to the food court and bought a hot dog. I took a bite, and then stopped mid-chew. That was odd: The most feared coach in the school was leaning against a wall, crying silently.
Then, the principals sad voice over the intercom announcing that the president was dead and asking us to pray for his widow.
I lost my appetite and tossed the dogbeginning a weekend horribilis during which I watched the accused assassin murdered on live television and a mournful state funeral that united and moved a grieving nation on Monday.
As I think back fifty years , it seems to me that the searing sorrow and shock of the assassination froze us Baby Boomers in time. The martyred Kennedy of Camelotnot the real manbecame the avatar against which we measured all other presidents. Our perpetual quest to recreate his magic hasnt been good for usor the country.
Dont get me wrong: I believe that Kennedy was a substantial president who left a generally positive public record as a Cold Warriormost notably, in the Cuban Missile Crisisand which domestically included strong economic management and advancing the cause of civil rights.
But it was JFKs dynamism and bold idealism that really hooked me. I remember happy talk of the fifty-mile march and the Kennedy Clan playing family touch football games to promote physical fitness. Establishing the Peace Corps was a major achievement in this regard. So was launching us toward the moon precisely because it would be hard.
JFK also brought class to the presidency. Oh, the man could speak! His press conferences were tours de force. The worlds finest musicians came to the White House in concert. Jackie Kennedys live televised White House tourwith a special appearance by the presidentwas a national sensation.
Then it ended in Dallas. For a long time, we Boomers were generally convinced that but for JFKs assassination, America would have entered a golden age. Kennedy was going to withdraw from Vietnam, we told ourselves as we protested in the street. Thats why the generals (or the CIA, take your pick) killed him. And in our increasing cynicism, many of us tuned in, turned on, and dropped out, surrendering the idealism Kennedy inspired to the solipsism, hedonism, and nihilism that ruined the 1960s.
But that wistful yearning for an era never completed, that sense of what might have been, soured over time. We learned that there was a perverse side to JFK that would have brought the White House down upon his head had it come to light. He was grossly immoral. Maintaining the façade of a happy family man, he was actually a manic adulterer, not only bedding Marilyn Monroe, but even more recklessly, Judith Exner , the mistress of Mafia boss Sam Giancanaamong many other dalliances. He lied blatantly about his ill health. He secretly taped private conversations with advisers.
Kennedy was also politically ruthless and personally corrupt. His Justice Departmentrun by brother Bobbybugged Martin Luther King. He was credibly charged by journalist Seymour Hersh (and Exner) with having ties to the mob. He tried repeatedly to have Cuban dictator Fidel Castro assassinated. He was deeply involved in the 1963 coup that oustedand killedSouth Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem.
Then there was the ruinous Warren Commission, for which Kennedy deserves some indirect blame. I once thought those tasked with telling the truth about the assassination were hiding a conspiracy. But it is now clear that the Commissions nationally damaging rush to pre-determined judgment was actually aimed at keeping Kennedys skeletons securely locked in the closet.
So, my perspective about JFK is now far more complicated. Indeed, my head tells me that for his real successes, Kennedys sins helped unleash American cultural decline. And yet, like many members of my generation, my heart doesnt care . There, it is always November 22, 1963, and I mournfully sing:
In short, theres simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institutes Center on Human Exceptionalism. He also consults with the Patients Rights Council and the Center for Bioethics and Culture.
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