Friday, November 22, 2013


Today is a day that separates those in their mid-fifties and older from everyone else. We are the ones who can remember the day that John F. Kennedy was murdered. For us he is not simply a figure in a history book. For us November 22, 1963, is the quintessential “Where were you when…?” date.

A half-century later, my memories of the day are vivid enough, although I cannot be sure how much is real memory or how much is a memory of the memory. This is how I recall it. I was a student in Mrs. Hare’s fifth grade class. With no warning another teacher, Mrs. Ganz, popped her head through the classroom door and, to the best of my recollection, exclaimed, “Let’s all pray! The president has been shot!”

We were sent home for the rest of the day. It was a Friday, so our weekend started early. Normally, that would have been a cause for excitement, but the atmosphere in our house—and in every house—was somber. Television provided no escape since the three channels on our black-and-white set were running non-stop coverage of the assassination. I think it was the next day that our neighbor and family friend Elmer decided that he would escape the mourning and head up to his mountain cabin at California Hot Springs. He brought along his kids and some of us neighbor kids. So, unlike much of the country, I did not see Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder on television in real time.

The political tone in our house was set by my father, who was a lifelong Republican. He had not voted for Kennedy. Indeed, he considered the president’s father one of the biggest crooks of all time, whose money had bought—if not outright stolen—JFK’s razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon. But Dad was horrified and disgusted at the president’s murder. Everyone was, regardless of politics.

Given Kennedy’s youth, charisma, aspirational politics and the manner in which he died, it was inevitable that he would become the secular equivalent of a saint. And if he has been the object of hagiography in America, it is nothing compared to the way he is regarded here in Ireland, the land of his ancestors, where he was universally embraced and idolized.

The sad fact is that Kennedy did not have enough time to accomplish most of what he is sometimes credited with. History, in deference, has been more than willing to acknowledge his actual accomplishments (defusing the Cuban missile crisis), to give him full credit for things he set in motion (the Peace Corps, the Apollo space program), to discount embarrassments (the Bay of Pigs) and to give him the benefit of doubt for what he might or might not have done in a second term (Vietnam).

Kennedy’s image looms so large in American history that both major political parties do their best to lay their claim to him. Of course, he has always been held up as a standard bearer for modern liberals but, approaching today’s anniversary, you can also hear others arguing that his policy of tax cuts and tough foreign anti-Soviet policy stance showed that he was really a conservative.

The tug-of-war over JFK’s legacy extends to his death itself. It has been interesting to hear people like Kennedy’s niece Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Secretary of State John Kerry betray their lack of certainty as to whether Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin. In the wake of the killing, a theme quickly emerged—and was only amplified by subsequent political assassinations—of collective guilt, that there was something wrong or sick about the country which had made this terrible crime possible.

More than a few people have narrowed down this collective guilt to the city of Dallas. A prime example is a piece by James McAuley in Sunday’s New York Times which carries the head “The City With a Death Wish in Its Eye” and the subhead “Dallas’s Role in Kennedy’s Murder.” After doing a serious hatchet job on a city he knows well and clearly has issues with, McAuley does clarify that “Dallas is not, of course, ‘the city that killed Kennedy’"—before invoking “the environment of extreme hatred the city’s elite actively cultivated before the president’s visit.”

The theme could also be heard on ABC’s This Week on Sunday in an interview with Dan Rather, whose career at CBS was given a boost by his reporting on the assassination. “Everybody knew, if there was going to be trouble anywhere,” said Rather to Byron Pitts, “it would be in Dallas.”

So even people who actually lived though that time—let alone those who know about the murder only as a historical event—might be forgiven for assuming that some rightwing gun nut or a militia guy pulled the trigger. The hardest fact about the murder for people to accept seems to be that it was, in the end, a stupid random mindless act committed by a disturbed individual. It’s as though the lack of apparent political motive—or even a conspiracy—robs JFK of some of his importance. It doesn’t help that the country was denied the opportunity to hear Oswald speak for himself about his reasons in a courtroom.

All we have is what he said in response to questions he was asked after his arrest. The man who had defected to the Soviet Union four years earlier and who had applied for a visa to Cuba a month earlier was asked if he was a Communist. “No,” he replied, “I am not a Communist. I am a Marxist.” He declined all offers of legal representation, saying he wanted to be represented by the chief counsel of the Communist Party USA or by the American Civil Liberties Union.

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