Wow. Fifty years.
It’s hard to describe the relationship I have had with a President who died before I was born, or the way that relationship was shaped even as I grew up in Alabama. But there was, and still is, a relationship. It led me to make speeches in high school that evoked Kennedy’s own speeches on public service. It led me to defend JFK vigorously even when I was still a dumb young Reagan Republican. And it led me to make a point of visiting his grave at Arlington when I finally had the opportunity on a class trip. Where I wept.
Even though I would not be born until some seven years later, the assassination of President Kennedy remained something that was printed on my childhood in a huge way, largely because of my parents and grandparents. I am not sure of all the reasons why, but the Kennedys had made a huge impression on both sides of my family. Maybe it’s because they were all Catholic Democrats from Massachusetts, and as President he represented them in a way that no other President had. Or maybe it’s because my parents grew up in such a way that the timing of the Kennedy presidency was during some of the most important years of their lives, since they were both in high school (when he was their Senator) and then college at that time. Maybe it’s a combination of things. But the affection and respect was strong enough that both sets of grandparents had pictures of President Kennedy in their home on display, even when I was a kid in the 1970s and 1980s. And my dad’s parents had fond memories of when they met the young widow Jackie Kennedy in 1964. The Christmas card she sent them that year was something my grandparents treasured.
When I was old enough to read, my grandparents gave me a stack of books and magazines about President Kennedy and his wife Jackie, along with a few about Bobby Kennedy as well. A lot of these magazines were originals that my grandparents kept after the assassination(s). There was a whole suitcase full of them, and I still have it even today. So I saw many pictures of the entire series of events. The trip to Dallas. The assassination. The hospital. The swearing in of President Johnson. The President’s body lying in state in the White House. The funeral procession to Arlington. So in my own way as a little boy, I followed the story through the entire process, just as my parents and grandparents had.
And whenever I slept in “my” bed at my grandparents’ house, in the same homemade bunk bed that my dad’s Uncle Henry had built for my dad so many years ago, there was on a shelf above my head a picture of President Kennedy.
So even today, the events bring up a lot of sorrow, even grief, in my family. And as a historian, I am particularly grieved that we can’t have a real discussion about one of the most critical and pivotal events in the history of our country,without it degenerating into conspiracy theories, which seem to be digging ever further into the depths of utter absurdity.
But reading about these events also makes me think about how much the fundamental basis of American politics has changed in fifty years. One gesture that always stuck with me was when Senator Margaret Smith of Maine, a Republican, went into the Senate chamber early on November 23rd, 1963 and laid a rose (her favorite flower, so she was often wearing one) on the desk where Kennedy had sat while he was a Senator. Even if they didn’t always agree, people on opposite sides of the aisle had a certain level of respect for one another.
So remember that. It’s not a joke. Anytime anyone “jokes” that they would like to see the President dead or assassinated, I think they have some pretty poor judgment and taste and I am glad that the Secret Service investigates. I don’t care if it’s President Obama or President Bush. And the fact that so many people are willing to downplay one and screech about the other is a sign of just how stupidly partisan and petty we have become as a country. The loss of a President is not something to be taken so lightly. Assassination is nothing less than an attack on our system of government – a way to override the choices of voters – and it shows a great deal of contempt for our system.
And for us as a country, losing a President who had so many great ideas and had the ability to craft words in a way that was truly gifted, was a tragedy.