By Bob Pasco
November 21st, 2013
By far the biggest event of my late teens and early twenties was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I think that many of my contemporaries were also marked by this event in ways that may have had less impact on both older generations and younger ones. To say that I remember where I was when I heard the news is an understatement; I was branded by that moment.
During the period from 1945-63, things in the United States had seemed to be glorious. We had won World War II, we had fought to a draw in Korea and we were by far the most powerful nation in the world. Millions sought to immigrate to the U.S. Life magazine gave us our weekly fix of photos. Life in the Eisenhower-era was self-righteously fulfilled—for white people, anyway—with tail-finned Oldsmobiles in the driveway and “God on our side.” We seldom questioned our supremacy or our virtue (The Russians being first in space with Sputnik was the exception, but we responded by catching up in the 60s.) I did not remember the death of FDR. It seemed that all of our leaders were old people like Truman, Taft, Stevenson and Eisenhower. Nice grandfatherly people but hardly exciting folks.
To suddenly have the White House filled with a super-active, attractive and dynamic collective persona like the Kennedy clan caught the nation’s and the world’s attention. John Jr. was born at the White House. Baby Patrick died there in infancy. The public was riveted by anything that the family did. Brother Bobby, the attorney general, led people on 50-mile hikes on weekends. Jackie shared the remodeled White House with the public. Youngest brother Teddy became a U.S. senator. A comic named Vaughn Meeder put out a record imitating the whole family and it was an instant hit. It was like there was finally leadership for our new generation rather than that of our parents.
And in an instant, it was gone. The light went out. The world reeled with disbelief and grief. The Kennedy era was placed on an altar of what might have been. The successor, Lyndon Johnson, was of the old era; crass, somewhat vulgar and had none of the promise or pizzazz of the Kennedys (although he turned out to push through a load of progressive legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act, that Kennedy might have favored but likely would not have successfully gotten into law).
As we have sifted through the wreckage of that time, we have uncovered things that were less than glorious. Vanity, infidelity, shallowness and pettiness were also part of the Kennedy era. But for those of us who lived the first television presidency as emerging adults, the purity of our national character would be permanently stained. Subsequent assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and MLK verified that we had a character flaw that was to haunt the America dream from then on. We learned that individuals, or small groups, had the power to alter the course of our history as never before.
The morning after the RFK assassination in 1968, I tried to find a way to teach my students how terribly wrong these events were compared with what I had known before. I told my classroom of sixth graders, “Don’t ever get used to this. It is not supposed to be this way.”
Although we have not had a successful political assassination since that time, I suspect they got used to it anyway. I tried in vain to express this watershed event to graduate students born in the 1980s and they politely took notes. So I think that those of us who came of age 50 years ago have a unique perspective on this event. We had been sheltered from other events (I was eight months old when Pearl Harbor was bombed). The Kennedy assassination was a benchmark event. With apologies to Don McLean, “It was the day the music died.”
Bob Pasco has been resident of Williston, off and on, since 1975. Currently retired, he most recently worked at St. Michael’s College in the Graduate Education Department.