Making it all possible
I have a theory that, when people ask of my generation: “Can you remember what you were doing when Kennedy was shot?”, the inquiry is about far more than it appears on the surface. (And, by the way, you won’t find mention of ‘theory’ or, indeed, ‘conspiracy’ again in this piece.)
I think that, inevitably, for anyone who lived through the twentieth century, their times were split between ‘before’ and ‘after’ Dallas. However, it’s entirely fanciful to talk of ‘the loss of innocence’ in respect of Kennedy’s assassination, and quite an insult to our elders who had already lived through the carnage of first and second world wars. Evil wasn’t invented on November 22nd 1963, but it did pay a fairly forceful visit to the minds of those of us who were pre-teen at the time. For my generation it was the first time we had even heard the word ‘assassination’. Those who ask if we can remember where we were when we heard of his death are really seeking to understand his impact and why his memory still resonates.
Two elements come to mind.
First, for post war babies, we were blessed to avoid war and even national service. If you were lucky, violence was associated with Teddy Boys wrecking cinemas, occasional front page murder headlines or the westerns and police procedurals we saw on television or in the cinema. In short, it happened somewhere else and to other people. And it didn’t seem quite real, even when it was. The idea of a political leader being killed, though it was happening around the world, was not one which we associated with the USA or the ‘familiar’ western world, at that point.
Secondly, we need to consider the impact of John F Kennedy on the world of the early 60s. Nearly everywhere, political leaders were men born in the 19th Century. They seemed ideally suited to the black and white television newsreels of the time – grey, drab and indistinguishable. They wore hats and overcoats, mumbled when they talked, and were, generally, boosted by wartime exploits which took place long before we were born and meant little to us in our childhood.
Enter John Kennedy: young, hatless, usually without a coat, with a glamorous wife and two young photogenic children. And in my household: Catholic – check, Irish – check. When he gave speeches, he inspired, when he told jokes they were funny, when he produced an aside it seemed to come from natural wit rather than a speechwriter’s pen. He valued the arts and sought advice from the brightest brains – be they political or not.
He captured the world’s attention because he was different, and because he brought vitality to a near moribund political scene. He entered a world which still had to glorify youth as opposed to age and experience; perhaps trailblazing in advance of the beat music explosion. He was often described as the first world leader to be born in the twentieth century. He was certainly the first to maximize the effects of new possibilities in communication.
In short, it was near impossible to imagine anything happening to him. Although Jackie Kennedy coined the idea of ‘Camelot’ after his death, the image he presented was one of hope and enthusiasm; it was certainly potent enough to suggest to folk of my age, just starting secondary school, that politics might be a possible agent for change, that it might be a good thing to aspire to a career of service.
Those who, retrospectively, point to his unfulfilled promise, his hidden failings, his manipulation of the media, are missing the point. Kennedy’s impact was to fuel an interest in politics, set a generation towards a new way of considering public service, aspiring to find words that would inspire. The future, especially after the Cuban crisis, became something to welcome, to grab, to shape. That was the feeling at the time, a feeling which directed many of our lives politically speaking.
It matters not if today’s generation, cynical in their political attitudes, ridicule the effect the young New Englander had on the world of his contemporaries. Those who lived through those times never again had political leadership and inspiration like that which was provided by JFK, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King. The times which followed their deaths, and the politicians who replaced them, militated against such hope and idealism. His death, sudden, awful, and totally unexpected, seemed to be a warning that reaching too high could only end in failure. The trauma of his death was exacerbated hugely by its shock, its unexpectedness, and the strength and influence of his presence in our world.
That is why, when I came downstairs on Friday November 22nd 1963, having completed my geography homework, the news of John Kennedy’s death felt like the start of my growing up.
Like many of my generation, I had been left with the hope and the idealism, but had lost the energy and charm of the man who seemed to make it all possible.