Fifty years should be enough time for America to finish mourning, to shake the pall, to move forward.
Yet America keeps looking back to Nov. 22, 1963. We see a 46-year-old smiling face, frozen in time. A hand waves at admirers, unknowingly waving goodbye.
A country also said goodbye that day, not just to a president, but something hard to define — something that cast a far bigger shadow and left a gaping hole in our collective psyche.
A half-century later, the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy remains a galvanizing and unsettling moment for America. Though any presidential slaying rocks a country, the Kennedy aftershocks remain palpable and resonant.
Why does Kennedy’s death still gnaw at the nation?
Perhaps we can point to conspiracy theories, which periodically spark renewed interest in the murder. But is that cause and effect? Do these theories refresh the focus on Kennedy’s death? Or is it the other way around? Are conspiracies a desperate attempt to explain inexplicable loss?
Or we could blame the shared shock at the sight of images left indelible on our national consciousness: a pink-suited First Lady scrambling onto the trunk of a presidential limousine, a dour vice president taking the presidential oath on Air Force One, a grimacing assassin taking a fatal bullet on national television, a 3-year-old son saluting his father’s casket.
But there could be a more painful and profound reason for the unyielding sense of loss. Something else died on that day in Dallas. Perhaps those three rifle cracks started a chain of events that killed more than a president.
The other victim: the hope for a better tomorrow through national service. That’s why we look back to Nov. 22, 1963. We wonder about all we lost, and what might have been.
Americans still want to make positive changes, just not as John Kennedy urged at his inaugural: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” To that, many people — especially today’s younger generations — might add, “Sure, as long as I don’t get even a whiff of politics.”
That’s the gist of a poll released in July by USA Today and the Bipartisan Policy Center. By more than a 2-1 margin, respondents said positive change can be best made in society through volunteer organizations and charities, not by being active in government. The poll also found just one in five people trust the federal government to do what is right. And Americans younger than 30 are particularly put off by politics.
Even worse, the paper reported: the cycle could become more dire, spiraling downward further and further, pushing more and more people away from a system considered rife with corruption and absent much hope.
That viewpoint jibes not in the least with Kennedy’s New Frontier. In his acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, he described “the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled dreams. ... Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”
These were no mere slogans to the young people wowed and wooed by Kennedy. These were sincere promises of a country and world yet to come, through hard work in public service.
Perhaps that notion seems quaint or unrealistic in this age of irony, even for diehards who punched a Democratic ballot in 1960. It seems like a fantasy, yet a decidedly unglamorous, workmanlike underpinning of Camelot. How did public service ever beckon so brightly to young people?
Before taking the White House, Kennedy, faced with countrywide calm, slowly stirred up an undercurrent of intrigue. He not only foresaw potential change, but embraced it. During a campaign stop at the Peoria County Courthouse just days before the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy addressed what he presaged as “the early revolutionary years of the 1960s.”
What did Kennedy glimpse on the horizon? He offered no details in Peoria, where he rode through the streets in a black convertible limousine, just as he would three years later in Dallas. But in 1960 there were no inklings of manifestations such as the counter-culture and generation gap. His foundational viewpoint, like that of the nation’s, was steeped in the comfort of the 1950s. In the three months before that Peoria stump speech, top Hollywood movies were driven by bankable box-office stalwarts such as Elvis Presley (“G.I. Blues”), Burt Lancaster (“Elmer Gantry”) and Frank Sinatra (“Ocean’s 11”), while the record charts were dominated by the easygoing pop from the likes of Percy Faith (“Theme from ‘A Summer Place’ ”), The Drifters (“Save the Last Dance For Me”) and Brian Hyland (“Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”).
Amid the pleasant placidity, Kennedy fought to paint the Eisenhower administration as fostering not a steady hand but dangerous complacency. He warned Peoria of a threatening global climate that would prompt a wise America to focus on “restoring its vigor, in restoring its vitality” — in the hands of an energetic, dashing 43-year-old like himself.
“People around the world have the image of America as a middle-aged society which has seen its brightest days,” he told Peoria. “I don’t agree with that view. I want Mr. (Nikita) Khrushchev to know, and I want Mr. (Fidel) Castro to know, and I want people around the world to know, that a new generation of Americans is going to lead this country.”
Peoria, Ill., native Ken Burdick, 22 at the time, eagerly joined the throng at the courthouse. He was drawn by Kennedy’s focus on the younger generation as a force for change.
“He was a hero of mine at that time,” says Burdick, 75, who still lives in Peoria and now tends toward more conservative views. “When he said (at his inaugural), ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,’ that’s still an appropriate thing to say today.”
Also there was Fred Filip, a homegrown Peoria and Bradley University grad who had recently taken a job as night-shift police reporter at the Journal Star. He noted that, unlike most campaign rallies of the time, the Kennedy stop drew legions of college students. Among them were what the press would deem “the leapers and screamers”: young women prone to shrieking at the sight of the handsome candidate, just as that demographic would do upon the Beatles’ arrival in 1964.
“All the young ladies were fascinated,” says Filip, 76, of Peoria.
For many reasons, the post-war generation was ripe for Kennedy’s message. For the first time in America, teens of the 1940s and 1950s had become a marketing priority by retailers. Kids whose childhoods were flattened by the Great Depression grew up to be parents eager to provide better lives for their children — and retailers were eager to feed their dreams for middle-class luxuries. Further, fueled by the freedom of automobiles and rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll, teens enjoyed an elevated economic status, which elevated their social importance. By the time Kennedy started stumping, young people — teens as well as yesterday’s teens — were looking for a voice of their own, someone who did not look or talk like their parents or Dwight Eisenhower or Richard Nixon.
Kennedy had Hollywood looks and a cool swagger. He became the first politician to fully recognize and harness the power of television, initially in debates with Nixon and later as the first president to televise live press conferences.
Watching along the way with a keen eye was Newton N. Minow, appointed by Kennedy as chair of the Federal Communications Commission in 1961 — the same year Minow would make his famous warning about television becoming a potential “vast wasteland.” Like many onlookers, Minow marveled at Kennedy’s charm and ease in front of the camera, reasons why he never hesitated to chat off-the-cuff.
Later, Ronald Reagan, after a career of honing his professional-acting skills, could connect with voters with ease; Bill Clinton, seasoned as a practiced politician, could exude a likeable, folksy warmth. But Minow, now 87 and still a practicing attorney in Chicago, says Kennedy — though certainly not without his own political adroitness, as honed by his political father and family — was uniquely equipped with an uncanny, innate savoir-faire, especially in the spotlight.
“He was a natural on television,” Minow says. “He always had a merry sense of humor. … It was so charming. Everybody liked him.”
The dashing swath cut by Kennedy did not end on the campaign trail, says Dick Stolley, a native of Pekin, Ill., who as a Life magazine editor obtained the landmark Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. For young people, Kennedy — with his kicky nickname of “Jack” — played to their strong urge to follow a public pied piper of their own.
“We never had a president like him: young, handsome, great speaker,” says Stolley 85, now living in New Mexico. “Eisenhower was undervalued in many ways as a president. But he was old. It was an amazing transformation in leadership that America realized it was under. … It was a new sense of America, a willingness to change, (with) young people in leadership. It was led by Kennedy.”
Young people saw this movement as no frivolous fad or campaign tactic. Kennedy’s repeated exhortations to public service, including his creation of the Peace Corps not long after taking office, pushed minds toward believing that truly anything was possible.
Though Kennedy knew his constituency, he was not just a politician with deep pockets and high ambitions, says Roger Wilkins, who during Kennedy’s presidency worked as an attorney for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the agency tasked with distributing civilian foreign aid. Wilkins, later a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for the Washington Post, describes Kennedy as a self-aware metaphor for his perception of an America: brimming with affluence and influence, and primed to unlock long-held potential.
“Kennedy and change came into the national purpose,” says Wilkins, 81, of Washington D.C. “ I think partly (the Kennedy camp) was adept at describing about how government should use its power and wealth — the kind of idealism that would take people and make them feel good.
“You felt good about your country. People felt good about themselves.”
That ended with three rifle cracks in six seconds in Dallas.
In fall 1963, Wayne Nowlan was a fifth-year architect student at Iowa State University. He had no real party affiliation — his parents always canceled out each other’s votes — but admired Kennedy. Nowlan believed in Kennedy’s call for justice for the under served, so much so Nowlan once joined classmates in driving 35 minutes to Des Moines to participate in a peaceful demonstration regarding the need to integrate housing.
“I think that was an important issue,” Nowlan says.
On Nov. 22, he had ventured back home to Toulon to visit his parents. About half-past noon, he was shopping with his mother in nearby Kewanee when they got the news about Dallas.
After following the news and funeral on television, he headed back to school after the ensuing Thanksgiving break. In a classroom, he spotted a flier: the Peace Corps sponsoring a special architecture program in Tunisia. With Kennedy’s death weighing on his mind, Nowlan applied.
“I wanted to do a positive thing,” he says.
He was accepted into the program. After graduation, he headed with 75 other young architects to Tunisia for two years, working for the public works department in the North African country. They were treated well, with much gratitude expressed for the program started by the late president.
“There was talk of Kennedy,” Nowlan says. “People were welcoming to Americans. (It) turned out to be a life-changing experience for which I will be forever grateful.”
Nowlan, now a 71-year-old, semi-retired architect living in Peoria, expresses doubt today’s young people feel as dedicated to that kind of public service — unless it were mandatory.
“I think every young person should be in public service,” he says. “Young men and women should have to choose whether they want to serve in their community or in the military.”
Burdick, the lifelong Peorian who was enraptured with the “ask not what” speech, says such a call might fall on deaf ears today.
“The younger generation (and) culture has changed a lot since then,” says Burdick, a grandfather of 10 and a retiree from the logistics department at Caterpillar Inc. “I don’t know how to explain it. It just seems things have changed so much in the last 50 years. People don’t work hard enough.”
And they certainly don’t want to work as hard or as much in public service, as born out by the USA Today poll. What disconnect occurred in the past 50 years?
First, there was the jarring effect of the killing — not just of a president, but in hope, says Wilkins, who worked as assistant attorney general for Lyndon Johnson.
“When President Kennedy died — just terrible, terrible, terrible — it hit in the places where Americans were feeling good about themselves. BAM, some idiot kills the president. That can turn people upside down.”
Stolley, the Life newsman, says grief didn’t ebb in the least along party lines.
“Even those who didn’t vote for him, they admired him and admired his style,” Stolley says. “And then it was gone. Young, handsome and vital, just suddenly wiped off, in a ghastly way, and photographed at the same time.”
Further, the loss helped hasten a disintegration of bipartisanship, says Minow of the FCC.
“While JFK was president, there was some humor left in politics,” he says.
Mind you, by fall 1963, major publications had cast Kennedy — seen by many voters as far more competent in foreign affairs than national issues — as beatable in the 1964 general election. Yet he and his likely Republican opponent, U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, already were discussing campaigning together: they would traipse from town to town, hosting civil debates at each stop.
“Today, it would be unheard-of,” Minow says.
Today’s party-line incivility stagnates governance and alienates voters, says Michael Dukakis. The 1988 Democratic presidential candidate — who walked many of the same footsteps as Kennedy: same childhood home (Brookline, Mass.) and same schooling (Harvard Law School) — now teaches at Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. By their nature, his students boast interest in public service, but he acknowledges not all young people share that verve. In part, Dukakis — no stranger to pit-bull politics — blames politicians who nowadays don’t dare play nice for fear of seeming soft to a disparate electorate.
“(House Speaker) Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan fought like crazy all day, then had a beer together at 6 p.m.,” says Dukakis, 79.
Plus, he says, media often ignore political compromise and successes, giving the public little reason to have faith in lawmakers.
“Media coverage tends to emphasize the negative,” Dukakis says. “That’s part of (a reporter’s role). But there’s an awful lot of negative stuff.”
Under today’s media scrutiny, Kennedy might have been flamed out in scandal, says Joseph A. Califano Jr., general counsel for the U.S. Army in 1963. Kennedy’s grand dreams never faltered for any personal shortcomings.
“The media didn’t cover Kennedy’s personal life,” says Califano, 82, who founded and runs the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. “Do you think there’d be any doubt that if he’d had an affair that it wouldn’t be on every newscast every 20 minutes?”
Califano, who helped Robert Kennedy pick the gravesite for the slain president, says today’s young people don’t respect government because government doesn’t respect itself. Politicians, even career politicians, cast themselves as valiant knights amid a villainous system.
“(Young people) have heard since the time of Ronald Reagan, ‘Government can’t work,’ ” Califano says. “We had all this promise with Kennedy. It should’ve changed this country dramatically.”
If not for Dallas, what kind of legacy could Kennedy have attained? Great debate there. Should he be heralded for staring down the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Or should he be faulted for the Bay of Pigs fiasco? Or both?
Many critics pan his perceived slowness or softness on the civil rights movement. Stolley says Kennedy didn’t have the congressional horse-trading power of Johnson, who later pushed through civil rights legislation.
But attorney-journalist Wilkins, whose uncle Roy Wilkins helmed the NAACP and himself a civil-rights leader, says Kennedy didn’t have the chance to develop working relationships on the Hill.
“There hadn’t been enough time to work with Kennedy,” Wilkins says.
The FCC’s Minow sees a domino effect triggered in Dallas.
“If JFK is not killed, we would have not had an escalation of Vietnam, which was followed by Watergate, which was followed by cynicism by citizens and journalists,” Minow says. “Unfortunately, that led to cynicism. We should be skeptical about the government, but we shouldn’t be cynical.”
Is that reversible? Is there a way to turn a collective peevishness into optimism? Maybe, if Americans allow themselves to believe again — in their country and their leaders, and in themselves and in tomorrow. And, as Califano suggests, it wouldn’t hurt if John F. Kennedy weren’t one of a kind.
“Kennedy was a glamorous character,” Califano says. “He remains that figure today. We haven’t had a charismatic leader since then.”
Phil Luciano is a Peoria, Ill., Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/philluciano or (800) 225- 5757, Ext. 3155. Follow him on Twitter at @LucianoPhil.
For further recollections of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, readers might consider the following collections of memoirs:
-- “November 22, 1963: Reflections on the Life, Assassination, and Legacy of John F. Kennedy” by Dean R. Owen, Skyhorse Publishing, 2013.
-- “Ask What You Can Do For Your Country: The Memory and Legacy of John F. Kennedy” by Dan B. Fleming, Vandamere Press, 2002.
50 years later, JFK’s death still affects us
Fifty years should be enough time for America to finish mourning, to shake the pall, to move forward.