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JFK Assassination Anniversary: Eternal Flame Flickers but Still Burns

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The answer – even though I have not been asked the question in perhaps 15 years – is high school chemistry class. My uncomprehending teacher tried to continue with the planned experiment involving a Bunsen burner even after word spread that John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.

Forty-seven years later, it all seems part of another world defined by black-and-white television, the black-and-white certainties of the Cold War and black-and-white racial relations. Even if he had served two full terms as president, JFK (born in 1917 and afflicted with Addison's disease) almost certainly would be long dead by now. Few remain who were close to John Kennedy (aside from his daughter, Caroline) following the deaths of Ted Kennedy last year and "ask not" speechwriter Ted Sorensen three weeks ago.

Today's Americans – no matter what age – have become hardened by the shock of wrenching events from the 9/11 attacks to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and the shooting of Ronald Reagan. But for teenagers born after World War II, this was not how it was supposed to be in 1963. Assassination meant John Wilkes Booth and Mrs. Lincoln's evening at the theater.

The visceral "where were you when Kennedy was shot?" memories of that terrible weekend in 1963 are an inescapable part of who I am today. The collective grief was different from the grief that followed the toppling of the Twin Towers because it was centered on a single man – a martyred president – rather than the thousands who died horrifically yet anonymously. At the CBS anchor desk, Walter Cronkite talked about Jackie Kennedy's blood-stained dress and showed the photo of a haggard Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One. A trip to the local newsstand for the latest papers (as if more news would erase the horror with a page-one "Correction" box) led to a conversation with a weeping middle-aged man holding the "Kennedy Assassinated" edition of the Daily News.

Unable to endure the claustrophobia of non-stop televised grief in suburban Connecticut, I somehow convinced my parents (Adlai Stevenson Democrats rather than JFK true believers) to let me go to Washington with a high school friend to mourn Kennedy. My first plane flight was the Eastern shuttle from New York to Washington, two days after Kennedy died. That bitterly cold Sunday we stood outside for more than four hours to be among the 250,000 to view Kennedy's flag-draped coffin in the Rotunda of the Capitol. (Honesty compels me to mention that my friend and I debated trying to pick up girls while waiting on line, but reluctantly decided that would be a breach of funereal propriety).

The next day, we were out early enough to snag a prime viewing spot along Pennsylvania Avenue to witness the cortege and the riderless horse Black Jack on its way to the funeral then Arlington Cemetery. The image, though, that stays with me is the diminutive Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, walking next to towering French President Charles de Gaulle behind the caisson carrying the coffin. Writing these words, I can hear the clicks of hundreds of Kodaks and the whir of a few Bell and Howell movie cameras as the mournful procession passed by. At the time, I was offended by the collective obsession with getting a picture for the family scrapbook. In hindsight, of course, I wish I had one.

For decades after the Kennedy assassination, there was an irresistible urge to rewrite the history of the 1960s without the accidental presidency of Lyndon Johnson. My friend Jeff Greenfield offers a fascinating twist on this perennial what-if question in his forthcoming book, "Then Everything Changed," to be published in March. But the question of whether President Kennedy would have blundered so deeply in Vietnam has lost its urgency with the passage of time and the march of folly in other wars like Iraq. Perhaps ultimately more important is the alternate question: Would the pragmatic Kennedy have ever matched LBJ's passion for civil rights, despite the political risks for Democrats in the South and among white ethnic voters?

John Kennedy's thousand days in the White House was re-imagined as an idyllic Camelot, a linkage first made by Jacqueline Kennedy in an interview after her husband's assassination. The words that haunted the president's widow were those of Richard Burton playing King Arthur in the Broadway musical: "Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot."

In truth, no presidency could live up to such a billing, especially one that was scarred by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the construction of the Berlin Wall, the initial Green Berets commitment to Vietnam and a domestic legislative program stymied by reactionary Southern Democrats in Congress. But JFK also displayed exceptional prudence in staring down the bombs-away hawks during the Cuban Missile crisis – and rightfully deserves an honored place in history as the president who averted nuclear war. And as an inspiration for a rebirth of American idealism (the Peace Corps, in particular) and as the most press-friendly of modern American presidents (JFK's press conferences were notable because he actually answered the questions), Kennedy embodied the jaunty confidant side of post-war America.

Monday, on the 47th anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination, I will set aside a moment to mourn the beguiling president who defined my coming-of-age years. And I will take another moment to mourn my own youthful innocence that died on that terrible day in Dallas so long ago.

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168 Comments

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barbadosbb

I went to school that day -- age 8 -- and became ill. I had to call home and get my father out of bed (he had worked until 2am) to pick me up. That was a "first" for me. He went home and back to bed after "setting me up" with water, juice, playing cards, etc. Within an hour, the announcement by Walter Cronkite came over the TV. I went in to wake my father back up to tell him. He never went back to bed. I had never seen him look so "haggard" before. The memory of my tired, mourning father and Jack Kennedy's death are melded as a moment in time in my mind.

December 07 2010 at 7:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Steve

Very well written, JFK was Martered that day, And The US changed Forever. We need more, TO THE FACT Presidents, Like him, truman, and FDR. If we had one like them again, we most likely wouldn't be having the troubles we are having today. Those three turned over in their graves WHen the BIG O bowed to the Saudi King. These three NEVER would have done that!!!These three would have put their hands out to shake his. And would have let the KING know they were president of the MOST POWERFUL contry in the world, and they bow to nobody. That is What our SUPPOSED BELOVED ( NOT!!!) BIG O should have done. but instead showed a sign of weakness.Caroline is the last of them, and when she is gone, so id the DYNISTY, And Yes I am Aware the KENNEDY Clan still thrives, I am talking about that branch, and their impact on History

December 04 2010 at 6:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sitokhan1

JFK was proud to be called a Liberal, the RICH were taxed at 90%, and neocons smeared him as a socialist foreigner Catholic.

November 28 2010 at 3:33 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Arnie

I was a 6th grader in Washington, DC on Nov. 22, 1963. That afternoon I was in the Silver Movie Theater in Silver Spring. It was a day of teacher's meeting, so we had the afternoon off. As my friend and I left the theater, we saw another student who told us the news. In my minds eye, that was a cold and treary weekend and I couldn't wait for it to end.I knew, however, that nothing would ever be the same again. I view that day as the true beginning of the 60s with all the turbulance it brought. And for all these years, I still hold out hope that in my lifetime, there will be another John Kennedy to inspire our nation to greatness once more through detemination, spirit of will and shared sacrifice.

November 23 2010 at 1:28 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Estevwin

I am a native Bostonian and grew up in the suburb of Everett. It was 1:30 P.M. (EST) as senior in high school walking home from school, we began to hear these bizarre stories that the President had been shot. It was unbelievable, it made no sense, it was a lie. Not to be alone, I ran next door to be with my neighbors just as Walter Cronkite announced that the President was dead. It is so imbedded in my mind that it still seems as if it happened yesterday. Those of us that lived through it still will never accept the Warren Commission report no matter how they try to makes us believe that Oswald acted alone. There are just too many inconsistencies to be believed. In 1978 one of the greatest honors of my life occurred. I was the first Navy Nurse Corps Officer to serve aboard the USS JOHN F KENNEDY (CV-67). The Kennedy was also was my first ship. On the 27th anniversary on 22 November 1990 aboard USS Nassau (LHA-4), we had Thanksgiving Day Services with President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush. All of which have became a very emotional and memorable part of my life.

November 23 2010 at 12:21 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Out In Ocala

I was born on November 25, 1943. On November 25, 1963 I turned 20. It was also declared a national day of mourning for the sudden death of JFK. I graduated from high school in June of 1961 at the age of 17 and joined the Navy in August 1961. I was on duty communications on my base on November 22, 1963, a very busy day for a 19 year old. JFK was my Commander in Chief. In those days you had to be 21 to vote in any election. If I had been 21 in 1960, I would have voted for him. But, since you only had to be 18 to drink in the bar in those days, after my duty communications shift, I went out and had a few drinks just to relax and reflect on what had happened earlier that day in Dallas and the change it made in my life for the rest of my life. I will never forget that day, and can to this day, recall it minute by minute. 9/11 has the same effect on me. Neither day will I ever forget!

November 22 2010 at 11:55 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Suzanne

I and my entire Catholic School were at Mass. The pastor's secretary actually walked up to the altar and interrupted the Mass. Unheard of in those pre-Vatican II days. He listened to her intently and then walked in front of the altar and told us President Kennedy had been shot. He led us in prayers that the President would recover. It wasn't until we were back in our classrooms that the news came -President Kennedy was dead. We felt a special loss - he was one of us, the first Catholic President of the United States. We were told that we were being dismissed for the rest of day. I collected my younger brother and sister and walked out the school doors. Then was our Mom, eyes red from crying, waiting in the station wagon to drive us home. The parking lot was filled with Moms looking just like ours - devastated. Over the course of that long, sad weekend I grew up. I lost my belief that my parents could protect me from tragedy. President Kennedy and later his brother Robert, for whose Presidential campaign I volunteered, helped make me the person I am today. History will remember President Kennedy as the man who saved the world from nuclear war. As the poet Whittier wrote "For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been.'

November 22 2010 at 11:16 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

Oswald was a malcontent. Russia didn't want him. Cuba didn't want him. His wife in her own words said he was an abuser. Her fascination with the Kennedy clan and their lifestyle impressed her coming from Russia. She claimed that she would buy magazines etc on the Kennedy family and that her husband was extremely jealous about her priase and interest of them. I think he killed JFK out of jealousy as an ineffectual husband trying to show his wife that he was a man. I think it was as simple as that. Although one of the mobsters girlfriends had a lot to say about the mob and their interest in losing casinos in Cuba, who knows.

November 22 2010 at 10:32 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
vjdanielprivate

I am the same age as Caroline, so I only barely remember my family crying at the news. I didn't understand what it meant, I only knew that something terrible had happened. As an adult I now have many books and articles that I have collected about President Kennedy and his family. It seems that the face of America changed on that horrible day. Although we went on and accomplished many things that President Kennedy set as goals, landing on the moon and other things, over the last few years it seems that America has lost its hope and drive. As we remember JFK and what his life meant, perhaps we can gain back some of the spirit and hope that he stood for. Vickie

November 22 2010 at 10:02 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
mwfsir

I was 4 and watching Quick Draw McGraw which was interrupted by the special news bulletin that president Kennedy had been shot, naturally, I threw a fit and screamed because my cartoon was interrupted. My mother came rushing into the living room since we only had 1 TV thinking something terrible had happened to me then realized that the President had been shot. She said that the president had been shot and that it was a very serious event, I screamed.....I dont care where's Quick Draw; I will never forget that day because that's the day that I thought they invented the evening news! Oh to be young and innocent. God Bless JFK even though he was a democrat.

November 22 2010 at 9:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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