Forty seven years ago tomorrow President John F. Kennedy’s life ended in my home town of Dallas. It had completely slipped my mine until standing behind a man in the checkout lane of the grocery store this morning. As he was filling out a check he stopped to look up, asking today’s date. As soon as I said “11/21/10“, it dawned on me that tomorrow was our generation’s “day of infamy”. It surprised me that I had so easily failed to recall the historical event until this late date. In the past it would be on my mind a week or two in advance. Time does ultimately diminish such critical memories in our lives.
In a flash I was recalling as I do each year where I was and the events that transpired soon after I found out that the first Roman Catholic President had been taken from us by an assassin’s bullet. I was eleven years old when he was elected and was just a month away from my 15th birthday when he was killed. I was raised a Catholic and remember the excitement it brought all of us at St. Cecelia’s elementary school the day he was inaugurated. There were a few conservative kids whose parental influence had affected their view of the liberal Democrat. My friend Robert Foley was one and I found myself thinking years later how odd when I realized an Irish Catholic family hated one of their own.
JFK was a man for the youth of that era and the promise many of us saw in him and his brother Robert put our view of politics in a new light. It was indeed a day and time when service in the public sector first took on a serious state of mind for me. But that was all dashed on November 22nd, 1963. The junior high school I attended had let all those off at lunch that day who wanted to go downtown and see the President and his lovely wife ride through the streets of Dallas. I jumped at the opportunity but none of my friends at the public school I transferred to when I left St. Cecelia’s in the 8th grade were inclined to join me. I was one of the few Catholics whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to a Catholic secondary school so my new friends tended to come from conservative Protestant families.
I didn’t relish the thought of catching the bus by myself to ride downtown and mingle with crowds so I stayed home instead. Apparently I had informed my Mother at some point earlier that I would be leaving classes to go see the President because she wound up calling our home at a time of the day when generally no one was there. I was fixing myself a bite to eat and had not yet turned on our old black and white TV. My mother’s voice was strained on the other end of the line and she spoke quickly and painfully it seemed. “Have you heard about the President” she said. “No” I retorted and before I could explain why I decided to stay home instead she blurted out, “Turn on the TV son, he’s been shot”.
“Who’s been shot” I asked and then quickly offered, “the president?” Yes, she said, “Governor Connelly has been shot too.” I don’t recall if there was anything further we talked about. I only remember going to the tube and turning the set on. Since my parents watched the late news each night before going to bed the channel was still on CBS. Walter Cronkite came across my screen and his presence there at this time has always stayed with me. TV was our only source of media at the time for national news and there were only 3 networks to choose from. For most of my adult life I was dedicated to CBS because of how Walter and I connected that tragic day.
It was not clear at this time what state of health the President was in but it seems like only minutes after I started watching Cronkite’s reporting of the event that that fatal moment became clear on his face. Many of us who watched that remember Walter Cronkite looking up at the clock in his newsroom wall, slowly taking off his black framed glasses and alerting his audience that “President Kennedy died at 1pm, Central Standard Time, 2pm Eastern standard time, some 39 minutes ago”. As the tears welled up in Cronkite’s eyes, my whole being deflated. I kept hoping that the President was only wounded and would survive but when it became clear that he was gone I remember feeling so alone.
Like many Americans that day I stayed glued to the TV set to watch these events unfold. I became irked at my employer for my part-time job who ran a cafeteria and insisted on staying open that Sunday they were burying JFK. I found out later he was an ardent Goldwater supporter who hated the youthful and energetic Kennedy’s. In fact I discovered that many in Dallas hated the President. I didn’t know what a southern conservative was until this tragedy transpired.
Dallas had two daily newspapers at the time and several days before the President arrived both papers derided the President for his policies that included support for Black civil rights. To the credit of the Dallas Times Herald they expressed regret at holding such views after the assassination and gradually the paper began to reflect a more moderate editorial policy. Sadly the politics that evolved over time in Texas affected poor circulation for the Herald and it went out of business 28 years after Kennedy’s death.
It hurts even to this day to feel certain as I do that things would have been better for our country had John Kennedy lived through his presidency. The country was beginning to experience a middle-class income explosion that would fulfill one of Kennedy’s desires to see an economy that would “lift all boats on a rising tide” and the future prospects for black Americans were rapidly changing, albeit much slower in the South. The Beatles had yet to arrive on the scene so the youth of the time were still focused on the aspirations of Camelot coming out of the White House.
It’s hard to say but there is a likely probability that had our dreams not been destroyed in Dallas that day, the drug culture that eventually evolved with many young Americans may have been insignificant if it evolved at all. The depressed state that many found themselves in would look outside any promise that their past perceptions of America held out. What little hope may have remained was completely annihilated nearly five years later when Bobby Kennedy was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen.
It’s been said many times that actions have consequences. Could the actions that unfolded 47 years ago have helped create consequences for a country that was on the threshold of greatness but instead has slowly digressed into a partisan and ineffectual has-been? Rather than building democracies from within each country to share our values we have focused on Eisenhower’s foreboding of the military-industrial complex and the negative consequences of nation building through military might.
Not that John Kennedy’s Presidency alone would have avoided this creeping menace in our body politic. But his death effected a generation that was destined to gain the seats of power. They lost the strength of their convictions about an America that would create an equal playing field for all participants. Now we have become suspicious about each other’s motives and find satisfaction from material excesses while our democratic principles seem to play second fiddle to our own self-interests. But then maybe I am just over reacting to the deep loss I suffered that Friday autumn day, 47 years ago.