It wasn’t until last week, when I was browsing in my local Barnes & Noble, that I was reminded this year marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It’s only January, but the current array of Kennedyana on bookstore shelves is growing geometrically, and TV documentaries hashing and rehashing the Zapruder film will appear with increasing frequency in the coming months.
I was a twelve year-old in 7th grade on November 22, 1963, and this was the first national trauma I experienced firsthand. I remember other landmark events of that time—the 1956 political conventions (only because they preempted “The Mickey Mouse Club”), JFK’s inauguration (because a snow storm cancelled school that day) and the flights of the Mercury astronauts—but this, of course, was entirely different.
My not-yet adolescent frame of reference was limited: my first reaction upon hearing the school principal’s announcement that the President had been shot was “Lincoln was shot. They don’t shoot Presidents anymore.” My parents’ generation, of course, remembered other incidents: Giuseppe Zangara’s attempt on Franklin D. Roosevelt ending in the death of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak and the shoot-out in front of Blair House, then occupied by the Truman family while the White House was undergoing renovation. And they had experienced FDR’s death in office, though as my mother told me during JFK’s televised funeral, the circumstances were very different. FDR was visibly ill during his final months, and it was wartime, when death was a constant event. The murder of a president in the prime of his life in 1963 was on another plane altogether.
Since then we’ve learned more than enough about JFK’s reckless behavior, his reliance on amphetamine injections from a shadowy Dr. Feelgood and other excesses, both personal and political, of his administration. The conspiracy theorists have run amok, fingering anyone and everyone from Lyndon Johnson to the Mafia to the CIA. I’ve come full circle myself, going from Oswald as the sole shooter to the existence of a grassy knoll gunman and back to Oswald alone. Occam’s Razor, people.
However, this year I think we need to put all this aside and remember the depth and commonality of loss the country suffered when its president was murdered. Not to wallow in grief, but to give full acknowledgment to the enormity of a nation’s elected head of state being removed from office through violence. Yet we also need to be reminded that in times of national tragedy, the country can and will endure. For all its being abused and misused by politicians and interest groups of all stripes, our Constitution is a marvelous thing, a document that provides structure and assures continuity when it feels like the world is falling apart.
So when November 22nd arrives let’s remember not just the man and the deed, but our ability to move forward, beyond tragedy.