For many people who had developed or who were forming an adult world view 50 years ago, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 was a pivotal event, especially for those who had been inspired by JFK’s call to “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
As our friend David Townsend, a Sacramento political consultant, put it, JFK and his brother Robert F. Kennedy “taught me that politics is a calling — that it is our civic and moral duty to get involved in the governing of our country.”
But for even more of us who were younger then, the full meaning of the JFK assassination only became clear as part of a cluster of events that shaped how we grew to understand our country.
The Cuban missile crisis, attacks on the civil rights movement, JFK’s assassination, the murders of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, urban riots, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and the escalation of the War in Vietnam, all within the blink of an eye, conspired to signal the death of the American promise made to Baby Boomers by their World War II parents.
For many of us, it was later that we saw the assassination of JFK as part of the challenge to all we’d been taught: that America is the land of the free, the home of the brave, the bastion of truth and justice. Only after suffering a brief train of abuses that killed the bright, shiny image of American as the cradle of democracy did alienation and suspicion grip us by the throat.
The killing of President Kennedy was scary. It was sad. We were glued to the TV, watching first the murder of Kennedy’s assassin and then the procession of mourning, the widow, the brothers and the children who personified our grief. When, years later, we looked back at that moment as part of a string of tragedies, we were no longer sure about America the Beautiful.
For at least one of us, the immediate significance of the assassination was that it threatened the weekend football games. Fortunately, the Ohio State-Michigan game was not cancelled and the Buckeyes won 14-10; nor was the Browns-Cowboys games, which Cleveland won 27-17 at home, dealing, we felt at the time, some measure of revenge to Dallas for the assassination. Alas, the game wasn’t televised but when we went looking for it around kickoff time and we happened upon the live murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby.
Ah, but we were so much older then; we’re younger than that now.
Here are some thoughts from some of our readers and members of our consultant panel.
Kevin Eckery: I was 5. I remember our Irish-Catholic Mom making us kneel in front of the TV to pray when she heard the news. I remember the flag in our kindergarten class being draped with black crepe paper. I believe the assassination had less impact on our politics and culture than Vietnam and Watergate. JFK’s death got the Civil Rights Act passed, but the corrosive impact of the war and Watergate undermined public faith in institutions and continues to play a role in today’s polarized politics.
Ray McNally: I was in ninth-grade band class when the school principal came over the PA, saying the president had been shot. Then he switched to Walter Cronkite reciting Kennedy’s biography. We knew the president was dead, and sat in stunned silence. The following days were spent at home in front of the TV — watching the grainy black-and-white coverage of the assassination, seeing Oswald’s twisted face as he was murdered on live television, viewing the funeral procession with the rider’s boots turned backwards on an empty saddle. My Irish Catholic father was devastated, but promised me “the milk will be delivered tomorrow morning and the sun will come up. Life will go on.” He was right.
David Townsend: I have the “Kennedy for President….leadership for the ‘60s” poster on my wall next to the Bobby Kennedy for President “Kennedy” poster on my office wall. They are there to remind me on a daily basis why I got into politics in the first place. John Kennedy asked us what we could do for our country. He started the Peace Corps and VISTA as a vehicle for young people to give back to this country. I joined VISTA and served for two years in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY, which was one of Bobby Kennedy’s area of focus when he served as the United States Senator from New York. The Kennedy brothers taught me that politics is a calling. That it is our civic and moral duty to get involved in the governing of our country.
In rapid succession, we lost John, Bobby and Martin Luther King — Men that I respected intensely. They gave their lives for their beliefs, the least that I can do is to try each day in some small way to make a positive impact on the political process.
Bob Naylor: I was studying at Stanford’s overseas campus in Germany. I was returning by train from Stuttgart to the little town of Beutelsbach. When I got off the train, the Germans were very upset and I learned that Kennedy was shot. I went into a pub and watched on a little black and white television the feed from the U.S. It became clear shortly that he had died. I went back to our little campus and mourned with the other students.
One striking thing that day and the next few was how grief stricken the average German was about the loss. The “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech had made a huge impression. Kennedy was more beloved in Germany up to that time than in the U.S.
At that point I was backing Barry Goldwater for President, but no politics could overcome the shared sense of loss — he had stood for the kind of idealism and sacrifice for something bigger than ourselves that underpinned the civil rights movement in the ’60’s, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley the very next year, and that we now forget Arnold Schwarzenneger expressed in his campaign for Governor in 2003.
I am not really sure the assassination changed politics all that much, except to the extent a new generation of public servants was a little less selfishly motivated than the generation before. Remember Kennedy by today’s standards was center-right: anti-Communist to the core; an advocate of cutting taxes to promote economic growth. He did set the stage for the Vietnam War.
But his legacy is best summed up by his “Ask not” phrase in his inaugural address. That is a pretty good starting point for beginning to heal our national political malaise.
Sterling Clifford: I was born 15 years after President Kennedy was assassinated and I grew up in a conservative house where the Kennedys weren’t held in high regard. Kennedy’s assassination was introduced to me as a tragedy for the country but not the “end of Camelot.” Was it a cultural change moment? I guess those of us who weren’t there will have to take your word for it.
Rose Kapolczynski: We were at our desks, reading, when my fourth grade teacher walked in, clutching a handkerchief and staring into the distance and you knew something bad had happened. Finally she said “The President’s been shot.” We looked around, confused, like we couldn’t make sense of the words. There were no outbursts, no wailing. Later the principal announced that the President had died and school was dismissed. I walked home, wondering and worried about what would happen next. Our family watched the evening news together and for the next few days, the TV filled our living room with rumor and fact, shock and grieving. It was my first nonstop news experience and I was transfixed.
Mike Sicilia: I had planned to travel to the moon in Mrs. Neibauer’s Philadelphia, Pa., kindergarten class in 1963, but we were suddenly sent home. When I got home, my mother and sister were crying. I couldn’t understand why. The next day was Saturday, and no cartoons were on. Just boring news. Then I saw a man get shot in the stomach. They showed it over and over again. On Monday, there was a horse drawn carriage with a flag on it. I saw a young boy salute. I finally understood. He was just like me and didn’t have a daddy anymore.