Fifty years after JFK was killed, I still don’t get the popular fascination with him.
And until someone convinces me that it matters to our public policy today, I really don’t care who killed him or what was behind those fatal shots in Dallas.
I was outside the country and missed most of the Kennedy years. Maybe that’s why I don’t understand the orgy of assassination commemoration that degenerated into macabre entertainment on new and old news media last week.
In the same way, I don’t spend any energy on conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination, shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, Warren Commission, congressional investigation or the role the Illuminati might have played.
With senior government officials lying about today’s domestic spying and tens of thousands of Americans dead or wounded because of White House fantasies about weapons of mass destruction, Dealey Plaza might as well be the first location for Dr. Who … 50 years ago.
If there was anything useful in last week’s overkill, it was NPR’s Science Friday interview with top ballistics experts who explained how old and new tools help them understand how many shots were fired and hit the president and Gov. John Connally. There, I learned something: One bullet did all of the damage and survived to be studied.
Yes, Kennedy’s murder was shocking, a new generation’s Pearl Harbor. But to the historically challenged, Pearl Harbor got us into World War II. That really is a big deal. Obviously, I missed Camelot. My sense of America had jumped from Ike to LBJ without JFK.
Beyond JFK’s adroit handling of the Cuban missile crisis and initiation of the Peace Corps, his administration was distinguished mainly by omnipresent images of the president and his family.
The Kennedy clan was wildly photogenic. Looking back, I can see how photos and video were everything and adoring media, relieved of Eisenhower boredom, were the message.
It helped that JFK understood television. Nixon did not. Kennedy was attractive, Nixon hopelessly gloomy and, it seemed, perpetually in need of a shave. Polls bore this out. TV viewers thought JFK won the 1960 presidential debates while radio listeners thought Nixon was the victor.
Compared to the toothy, smiling, energetic and stylish Kennedys and their tasteful wealth, Dick and Pat Nixon appeared ordinary, even to Pat’s “respectable Republican cloth coat.” No one emulated her style. Flawlessly stylish, Jackie gave us the pillbox hat.
Continuing adulation seems undiminished by revelations of JFK’s obsessive philandering, drug dependence and the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
Then there was JFK’s cautious escalation in Vietnam and plagiarism accusations involving Profiles in Courage, the book for which Kennedy accepted a Pulitzer Prize.
I won’t even revisit the shame of anti-communist paranoia that allowed FBI eavesdropping on Martin Luther King Jr. while Robert Kennedy, who was JFK’s brother, was attorney general.
Maybe speculation of “what might have been” explains why JFK remains a demi-god for so many here and abroad. As Billy Joel sang, “Only the good die young.” If so, the shooter assured Kennedy’s reputation.
I’m no Kennedy hater. I’m a cradle Democrat. I was in grad school and my first presidential vote was for JFK. However, shortly after Kennedy’s inauguration, I headed overseas on my journalism fellowship and stayed four years.
That meant I experienced my country’s national grief secondhand and at a geographic and emotional distance of someone who wasn’t in this country.
I also missed how Walter Cronkite and other TV heavyweights helped Americans cope with an inexplicable loss. That was possible in 1963. Network TV news — CBS, NBC and ABC — was a trusted source of information to which most Americans turned in ways that are unimaginable today. It helped that network anchors were drawn overwhelmingly from WWII print reporters or “Murrow’s Boys” radio reporters.
By the time I returned to the States, LBJ dominated American politics, elected in 1964 after succeeding JFK as his vice president.
However, as with most Americans old enough to remember Nov. 22, 1963, I know where I was when Kennedy was shot: UPI’s London bureau.
It was early evening. I was back from supper at a Fleet Street pub when bells on our teleprinters went nuts. It was Merriman Smith’s scoop that someone fired three shots at the president’s motorcade. Smitty was UPI’s White House reporter and he’d win the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the assassination.
Minutes later, we got Smitty’s flash saying Kennedy died. I was sent to the U.S. Embassy to talk to mourners lining up to sign a condolence book. Some only knew JFK was shot. Others knew he was dead.
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