The Salem News
---- — No matter how old you are, no doubt you know that today marks the 50th anniversary of one of the great turning points in our nation’s history and our national conscience.
On this day in 1963, President John F. Kennedy was struck by two bullets as his motorcade passed through Dealey Square in downtown Dallas. Within a half-hour, the nation’s youngest president was declared dead.
It is worthwhile to consider how the death of one man in a world of billions could hold such fascination and emotion today, nearly two generations removed from the event. It tells us much about Kennedy himself and the values, hopes and myths that have been projected onto him.
JFK’s assassination swept a shock wave of horror and sadness across the nation and the globe. People who are old enough to remember recall exactly where they were when they heard the news. Those born later know the details, as the assassination and the unanswered questions surrounding it have never lost the public’s interest. Across the globe, many still have photos of Kennedy hanging in their homes, and Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery remains among the most-visited sites in the Washington, D.C., area.
Kennedy’s personal flaws are well known, but for many Americans, they cannot overshadow JFK’s accomplishments and the sense of a special time in American life that he has come to embody.
The nation had never seen a man of such youth and charisma in the Oval Office. His command of the newly invented television medium helped solidify his image as an energetic president and family man. His speechwriting was brilliant, and his humorous candor with the media won him many allies who perhaps overlooked his blemishes. Though his presidency certainly had its share of flaws, in more recent years, we have come to appreciate his intelligent response to challenges, particularly the Cuban Missile Crisis, and how he captured hope and fulfillment through policies such as the missions to the moon and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement.
It’s long overlooked that in late 1963, Kennedy felt he faced an uphill battle for a second term. Part of his rationale for traveling to Texas in November 1963 was to shore up support in a state that some of his analysts feared was vulnerable. He had won the 1960 election by the closest of margins; Kennedy was girding for another tough fight.
The assassination was the end of the hope and youthful optimism that JFK had so brilliantly fashioned. It was a moment that changed the world.
There is perhaps no other singular event, save perhaps the Sept. 11 attacks, that has been so emotionally captured by television images and photographs — Walter Cronkite fighting back emotion as he officially announced JFK’s death, Jackie Kennedy standing in her bloodstained dress with Lyndon Johnson as he is sworn in, John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting as his father’s casket passes by. The Zapruder film forever captures the gruesome and terrible moment when JFK’s life ends.
In the days immediately after the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy created a further projection that will forever be tied to JFK. She likened his time in office to a then-popular Broadway play, Camelot. The imagery of that play — hope, youth, and optimism in a brief but blessed time — has become the powerful and almost mythical expression of his days in office.
Of course, our morbid fascination with his death is a powerful motivator for our ongoing interest. For the past few weeks, television has been jammed with show after show reliving the assassination, exploring in minute detail every frame of the Zapruder film and every scrap of evidence. Even as they examine the same evidence, no two programs come to the same conclusion. It is that lingering doubt that makes the assassination itself such an unending fascination.
The list of monumental days during the nation’s past 50 years is short. The murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the resignation of Richard Nixon, the final evacuation at the bitter end of the Vietnam War, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the killing of Osama bin Laden are certainly days that captured the nation’s conscience and brought us together in a mutual reaction.
But none of them seem to linger so vividly as JFK’s assassination.