I was seventeen on the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. That was 50 years ago this week. November 22 fell on a Friday in 1963, as it does, coincidentally, this year. I was a high school senior and had just completed a practice drive with two other classmates and our Driver’s Ed. teacher at 1:30 Eastern Standard Time. We had just pulled the car into the school’s parking lot and were about to turn off the car radio when a bulletin flashed. The teacher bid us to keep the engine running so we could listen to the bulletin, which announced that the president had just been shot in Dallas, Texas. No other details were then available.
Mr. Christie (our instructor) suggested as we left the car that we might keep that information to ourselves until more news came out. I said something to one of my classmates to the effect that even though I wasn’t a fan of Kennedy’s, I certainly didn’t want him assassinated. In truth, I was a conservative Republican in those days, about to cut my political teeth on my first presidential campaign in support of Barry Goldwater’s candidacy. Goldwater represented the view of America I most associated with: rugged individualism, a limited federal government, and opposition to anything that smacked of socialism.
I was, in short, in the infancy of the development of my political philosophy, and in that infancy, I had a most unattractive view of the brash young John F. Kennedy, who had, after all, defeated the much more qualified, and much less liberal, Richard Nixon by “stealing” the electoral votes of Illinois and Texas (or so the right-wing propaganda of the day would have had you believe, with rumors galore of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley having turned out thousands of unregistered and non-existent voters for Kennedy and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s running mate, having done much the same in Texas).
And then the newly-elected president, who had run a demagogic campaign claiming a missile gap with the Soviet Union (wholly untrue), had botched his first major foreign policy gambit in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the ill-conceived attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. All of that had occurred in some vaguely understood way to my adolescent view of the world. I was just beginning to gain an appreciation for the philosophical differences between the two political parties in the second year of Kennedy’s administration when the first jolt of reality struck me.
It was October of 1962 when the Cuban missile crisis grabbed my attention in a way that no other news event to that point in my young life had. But we were still very naïve in our view of the threat. Yes, we understood that nuclear war was a real possibility, but we didn’t really understand what that might mean. Our childhoods, after all, had been marked with school drills that pretended an atomic bomb had been exploded in our city. In those drills, unlike the fire drills in which we all marched outside, we were bade to crawl under our desks, as if the blasts of nuclear energy would somehow pass safely over us if we just closed our eyes and stayed under those flimsy tables.
Kennedy earned his stripes with his handling of that crisis, averting what could have been an apocalyptic war by rejecting the advice of his hawkish defense advisors to bomb the missile facilities on Cuba. Instead, he invoked a less confrontational military tactic: the naval blockade. And when the Soviet ships turned around, rather than respond with force, the way to a peaceful resolution was established. The U.S. promised to withdraw its missiles from Turkey, and the Soviets promised to stand down in Cuba.
Kennedy’s other major achievement had been on the domestic front, when, in the first year of his presidency, he had “jawboned” the steel industry to roll back its attempted increase of the price of steel, thereby keeping inflation in check (or so the pro-Kennedy camp claimed). What Kennedy had really done was threaten to use government reserves of steel to undercut the industry’s attempt to raise the price of its product, but the image of a president getting tough with big business enhanced the new president’s reputation, which needed burnishing after the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
Was the world really a simpler, less frightening place in those early years of the Kennedy presidency? I tend to think, in retrospect, that it wasn’t, but, rather, that my youthful naïveté made it seem so. There was, after all, far greater risk of Armageddon and presidential assassination then than there is now (not that we have escaped entirely the threat of either). And racial discrimination of both the de jure and de facto variety was rampant throughout the country. Homophobia was the norm, and gays were resolutely hidden in their closets, if they even acknowledged their homosexuality to themselves.
But these were also the days before the sexual revolution and AIDS and 9/11 and metal detectors and filibusters and gridlock and market-driven financial meltdowns and Great Recessions and PCs and NSA spying and Twitter posts and the loss of individual privacy.
John Kennedy’s assassination woke me up to the realities of life. A president could be assassinated. And then, days later, his assassin could himself be killed while millions watched on television. It wasn’t a far-fetched Hollywood movie. It wasn’t an Allen Drury novel. It was real —all too real.
I was just 17. The same age that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were on that fateful day. My generation came of age in the decade that followed, with the Viet Nam War, the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of another Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Watergate, and the forced resignation of a president all occurring in those ten years after Kennedy’s death.
Would those years have been different had he lived? All of us who were alive then have our view of what Kennedy’s death meant—for each of us, for all of us. For me, it marked the end of innocence—my innocence.