Fifty years. I haven’t been alive for half that time, yet I can’t escape the shadow of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. A macabre spectacle that still rivets, judging by the number of books and TV specials that have come pouring out in the run-up to today’s anniversary. His celebrity and his promise still captivate millions, to say nothing of the mysteries surrounding his death and the conspiracy theories that cannot themselves die, no matter how many government commissions try to shoot them down. There is just enough question, just enough suspicion, that even hardened skeptics can be forgiven a moment of doubt. (A teacher at my high school enjoyed telling us of how he’d once taught a year-long course on the Kennedy assassination. I have no doubt he had enough material to fill that year.)
It is never hard to eulogize a charismatic man. His family’s legacy has made him a hero of the American left, one who asked us to commit ourselves to the betterment of our country. He was a war hero, promised us a man on the moon, a more democratic world, and managed to cut taxes and reach out to marginalized groups at the same time. A few on the right have even tried to appropriate him due to his stance on communism. (Indeed, a Marxist Mexican professor of mine once dismissed Kennedy as “very, very conservative” because of the Bay of Pigs…) JFK still resonates because he was everything we like to imagine this country is: youthful, vigorous, full of hope and optimism while firm in the face of crises. Not that he was without his failings, but they were of the forgivable sort, born of well-intentioned ambition and a love of life.
Kennedy’s legacy is linked to the dream—and, in all likelihood, a delusion—that a longer life might have altered the course of the next two decades. Maybe he could have kept the U.S. out of Vietnam, perhaps been able to guide the nation through the Civil Rights Movement and the other changes of the 1960s without the violence and unrest that burdens their legacies. It is all too easy to use his death as the turning point that separates the booming post-war era from the tumult of the late 60s and the 70s. As 9/11 is for me, so 11/22 is for my parents: the day when all our illusions of a well-ordered world dropped dead. A fall from grace exacerbated by his youth, his glamour, and his family’s march toward royal status. Once again, as this superb New Yorker piece shows, we have a Greek tragedy on our hands.
In realms filled with love and wishful thinking, the cynics will emerge as well. Some paint JFK as the George W. Bush of his day, desperately trying to re-make the world in America’s image. They note his botched invasion of Cuba, the brinksmanship of the missile crisis, his elaborate aid programs in Latin America that were followed by a bunch of coups, and a refusal to look “soft” on Vietnam: American foreign policy at its worst, the hell-bound road of enlightened intentions. They point out his failing health and his sexual exploits as counterpoints to the slick image we tend to remember. (In Georgetown, one can go on a walking tour to visit all of the houses of his mistresses.) They label him a mediocre president, now exalted only because he was made a martyr by a mad commie with a gun. (Yes, yes, and maybe the Mob and the CIA and LBJ…)
From a distance, both stances appear wanting: Kennedy’s grade as commander-in-chief remains incomplete, cut short before anyone could have truly known. (Pick just about any prominent president and try to imagine what their legacy would have looked like if cut off after just two and a half years.) We’re bothered by that doubt, that uncertainty, that what-could-have-been. We like crisp endings to stories, the heroes and villains made clear. JFK did not leave us with a definitive answer, and we’re left fighting over the scraps.
The JFK remembrances come in the same week of the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, one of the few moments more important in American mythology. A speech by another president whose life was cut too short, though his legacy is a bit more secure. Most every president invokes American ideals; some live up to them, while with others, it’s empty talk. They emphasize a project, a plan for a nation that rises above all others because of what it allows its people to be. Whatever JFK would have become, he never got there, and it galls us to no end.
The sober part of my mind tells me that Kennedy’s allure is all wishful thinking; that our fascination with his unfulfilled promise and his troubling death lingers over something that should have been buried long ago. But burying the past comes with the danger of forgetting its lessons; lessons that we should be able to assess without too much pain, fifty years after the fact. And while the debates over the political lessons may never end, there is something else that should not be lost: the emotion. The rawness of the moment, the shock of death, the eternal struggle to make sense of what has transpired. That we cannot forget. As Roger Angell wrote in the aftermath of 9/11:
Now we’re all the same age together. None of us is young this week, and, with death and calamity just down the street, few of us vicarious any longer.
While that moment will fade in time, in turn overrun by the next great tragedy or shock, it lingers as one of those moments that made us react viscerally—and, hopefully, search our souls before thinking of the best way forward. This is what it means to belong to a nation, however much or little we may like what it stands for. We hope these moments are rare, but when they do come, it’s worth asking not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. A nation is its history, but that history lives on, and can be bent in any number of ways. Our choice, then, comes in how we respond to tragedies that take people from us before their time. Whether it’s the loss of a president or someone a bit closer to home, that time will come, and those choices can be the ones that define lives.