It is said that everybody over a certain age knows exactly where they were when they heard the news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.
I was twelve at the time and attending a meeting of the Boys’ Brigade (the Methodist equivalent of the Boy Scouts) in my hometown in the north of England. One of the men in charge arrived late and informed us that the president had been shot. It was about 7.30 British time (1.30 Central time). I did not learn until I got home that he had died.
At the time we had two television channels. Both dropped every scheduled program and talked of nothing else that day and most of the following day, Saturday. On the Sunday I was at my grandparents’ home watching a movie on TV when the film was interrupted to tell us that Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot.
Monday, if I remember correctly, was JFK’s funeral, which we saw live from almost 4,000 miles away, something new at the time.
Even though I did not grow up in the United States, and never dreamed that I one day would live here and become a citizen, I was well aware of what had happened on this side of the Atlantic.
Almost fifty years later, on a visit to Ireland, Irish people still talk about the Kennedy’s visit to their country. One Irishman informed me that for decades most homes had two pictures on the wall – one of the pope and the other of Kennedy.
Why is it that we remember the event so well?
Since Kennedy’s assassination, there have been other assassinations. Lord Mountbatten, the queen’s uncle, was blown up by IRA terrorists in Ireland in 1979. I actually do remember where I was when I heard that news, but I can’t recall the exact date. I remember, too, where I was when I heard the news that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards but, again, I don’t remember the exact date. I remember too where I was when I heard that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated, but would have to look it up on Wikipedia to get the date!
Kennedy’s assassination stands out. I remember the day (Friday), the date (November 22nd) and the time (his death was announced at 1pm Central time).
America was never to be the same again.
Why is that?
Kennedy’s accomplishments in office were not that great. He started the Peace Corps and set NASA on the path to the moon. His liberal agenda was not realized until his successor, Lyndon Johnson, took over as president. He is most famous for averting World War III over the Cuban missile crisis, but accounts vary on his role.
His self-deprecating humor remains endearing. He even joked about his own economic policies. He told the story of an invite to the White House for some prominent businessmen, at which he tried to encourage them to invest and grow to create more jobs. He added: “Why, if I weren’t president, I would be out there investing and growing my business myself.” At which point one of the businessmen said: “If you weren’t president, so would we!”
So, again, why is Kennedy remembered so well and with so much devotion? The majority of people in a recent poll said that JFK is their number one choice to be added to Mt Rushmore, alongside Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Part of the answer lies in the fact that Kennedy’s was the first presidency of the television age. The 1960 election was close, unlike Richard Nixon’s shave! It was said that Nixon’s five o’clock shadow cost him the election. It was a turn-off to the female vote. Losing the female vote cost Nixon the election.
Eleanor Roosevelt commented in a 1951 radio program that “all the great social reforms have taken place since women got the vote” (paraphrased from memory). This is not strictly true. Slavery was abolished by men. But she had a good point. It would also be correct to add that all those social reforms, fifty years later, are bankrupting the country. But she didn’t live to see it.
Kennedy changed the direction of America, from the conservative administration of Eisenhower, to the liberal-socialist reforms of LBJ. Big government got a lot bigger during the decade of the sixties.
Kennedy’s presidency was made by television. Until Fox News the networks were all very liberal – and those liberals idolized JFK and his attractive wife and family. They were young and glamorous, from America’s aristocracy, financially successful before they embarked on a political career. They were a stark contrast to the previous two occupants of the White House. Not since FDR had an aristocrat been in the presidential mansion.
I’ve watched a few programs in the last few days on the anniversary of the assassination and I’m struck by how nothing negative has been said about the man and his period in office. I doubt that any other politician would receive the same treatment. Certainly, no conservative politician would.
His successor came from the other end of the social spectrum. Johnson took over Kennedy’s agenda. Following the assassination, he had a lot of goodwill, easily winning the election less than a year later. 200 programs were approved in a very short period of time, programs that have contributed to the mess we are in today.
He continued to pursue the Vietnam War that had started under Eisenhower and Kennedy. This was his undoing. After all the chaos, confusion and upheaval of the sixties, America at the end of the decade was a very different country. Its traditional values were eroding fast. The country’s innocence was lost, never to return.
JFK gave people hope – hope that government could solve all the problems. Five decades later, many feel that government itself is the problem! But people remember that hope, the positive feelings they had inside and the awful impact on the collective and individual mindset when it all suddenly and tragically ended.
The years following the assassination are a blur – memories of race riots, Vietnam, more assassinations (Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy), changing morals, hippies, druggies, the list goes on and on. It’s no wonder that people look back on JFK’s period in office as a golden age.
The assassination left such powerful images in our collective consciousness, it’s difficult for there to be an impartial and honest assessment of the Kennedy administration. Instead, people are left with the idea that his was the greatest presidency and everything he stood for was good and proper for America and the rest of the world.
One final thought – in a few months it will be the centenary of the most significant assassination in history, that of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914, the event that triggered World War One, the greatest conflict in history, the repercussions of which are still being felt. Will our TV stations give it any attention?