The assassination of President Kennedy had a transformational effect on the nation and world, even more so for those of us who lived in Washington, D.C. at the time. In 1963 the nation’s capitol was always abuzz about all things Kennedy. JFK brought charm, sparkle and unbridled optimism to what was otherwise a sleepy southern city, more accustomed to the yawner days of the Eisenhower Administration, along with some dark, lingering vestiges of McCarthyism.
On top of all that, my Dad, who was born the same year as President Kennedy, was a fierce JFK defender from the get-go. Anyone who uttered the slightest criticism of our president (or FDR) was quickly lambasted as an idiot. He, along with most of our neighbors seemed shattered by the assassination, and even as a 16-year old, I could feel the city’s palpable anxiety about what would happen now. What was going to happen to that youthful spirit, the call to service and the sense of great possibilities that JFK embodied? No one seemed to know.
You didn’t sense any fear that the country was going to collapse – LBJ’s take-charge persona seemed to preclude any immanent disaster. But there was a feeling that the hopeful and optimistic spirit we had come to take for granted was suddenly gone, and it completely evaporated rather quickly. For my generation, the downer was somewhat softened by mid-sixties cultural excitement the Beatles generated, but the political atmosphere was nonetheless darkened.
It’s hard for me to think of JFK without thinking of my father. His political evolution after JFK was interesting to me in hindsight. A WWII Purple Heart vet, he supported LBJ, barely voted for Humphrey, then (ugh) Nixon, then Carter, then (gasp) Reagan, then Mondale and then all Democratic presidential candidates. He was sort of an emblematic Henry Jackson democrat throughout. My recollection is that he later regretted not voting for McGovern, and in the last months of his life he surprised me by saying he thought America needed more socialism. I suspect that the political path he trod was taken by many others of his generation.
I went through my changes, embracing aspects of 60s radicalism, but always voting for Democrats, not so much out of party loyalty, but more because the GOP candidates always seemed really bad and frequently hideous. Yellow dog Democrat that I am today, JFK’s shadow did not loom all that large with me. But I did join RFK’s California campaign, liked him a lot and was one of the crowd heads you see in the famous photograph of him campaigning in San Francisco’s Mission district a few days before he was assassinated. Yet I don’t think I ever felt quite as strongly about any candidate as my Dad and his generation felt about President Kennedy, which may be understandable, since I had to cast my first presidential general election vote for Humphrey.
Looking back, JFK pretty much defined charisma, and his photo probably should be in the dictionary to illustrate the term. He was great-looking, projected warmth and had impressive wit – he actually read serious books, hung out with intellectuals, and attracted flashy stars like a magnet. He was also politically-astute — I wouldn’t have bet against him winning in ’64, even though he was having some trouble in the polls.
As a center-left president, Obama is generally in the same political ballpark as JFK. But Obama’s prospects are dimmed by unprecedented GOP extremism, much of it driven by racism. There’s not much point in comparing their achievements, since the context is so different. It is hard to imagine, however, Democrats ever having another president with JFK’s charisma, artificially amplified in memory by martyrdom though it may be.
But as I look at the many photos of JFK in the news and read the articles about him, it’s hard to avoid the profound sense of loss his story represents. He had a great spirit, full of promise and hope, and we will always wonder what he may have accomplished, had he lived. With this milestone commemoration behind us, we will have our hands full trying to put America on a progressive track, and that is a worthy way to honor JFK’s legacy.