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, “Kennedy’s 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 didn’t 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 principal’s 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 dog—beginning 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 Camelot—not the real man—became the avatar against which we measured all other presidents. Our perpetual quest to recreate his magic hasn’t been good for us—or the country.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe that Kennedy was a substantial president who left a generally positive public record as a Cold Warrior—most notably, in the Cuban Missile Crisis—and which domestically included strong economic management and advancing the cause of civil rights.
But it was JFK’s 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 world’s finest musicians came to the White House in concert. Jackie Kennedy’s live televised White House tour—with a special appearance by the president—was a national sensation.
Then it ended in Dallas. For a long time, we Boomers were generally convinced that but for JFK’s assassination, America would have entered a golden age. “Kennedy was going to withdraw from Vietnam,” we told ourselves as we protested in the street. “That’s 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 Giancana—among 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 Department—run by brother Bobby—bugged 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 ousted—and killed—South 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 Commission’s nationally damaging rush to pre-determined judgment was actually aimed at keeping Kennedy’s 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, Kennedy’s sins helped unleash American cultural decline. And yet, like many members of my generation, my heart doesn’t care. There, it is always November 22, 1963, and I mournfully sing:
In short, there’s simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here