I first became aware of John F. Kennedy when our family lived in Santa Fe, NM. We were walking down a city sidewalk in either Santa Fe or Albuquerque. There was a small knot of men, all in gray or black suits, attracting attention. There were about five or six of them. It must have been 1960. My mother whispered to me, 8 years old at the time, that that was John Kennedy, candidate for president. I don’t remember any TV cameras or microphones, just a group of men talking and walking down the street.
I remember the Nixon-Kennedy debate. I’m pretty sure we listened on the radio. What I remember is that it seemed to me that Nixon was the one articulating the ideas, especially about the threat of Communism, and my surprise that Kennedy mostly agreed with him and then elaborated.
After his election, I remember my parents having a mild disagreement about him. Dad was skeptical; mom was optimistic. She thought he was going to do some good for the country. The Kennedys were very entertaining. There was this fascinating mix of celebrities and politicians swirling about the White House. We had a comedy record album that lampooned the Kennedy Cape Cod accent and the first family. It wasn’t vicious like the comedians of today; it was just funny. A year later, it wasn’t funny anymore.
Of course the assassination was a total shock. I was in sixth grade, and we received the news toward the end of the school day. The kids had a lot of insane things to say about it, like kids do. We were glued to the TV for a week. There were only the three major networks; I don’t think we even had a PBS station yet. It was wall-to-wall coverage on all channels. Oswald was shot and killed in the Dallas police station on live TV. I can’t swear I was watching it live; but I do know the footage was shown over and over again. We watched the funeral, and John Jr.’s salute to his father’s flag-draped coffin.
That Thanksgiving holiday we traversed the mountains to Olympia to visit family. I remember finding my uncle Ernie drunk in his travel trailer. (They had a nice home, complete with nuclear bomb shelter.) He was despondent over the assassination. I never saw him drunk before or after. We later picked up my great aunt Aggie, who was by that time living in a nursing home, and brought her home. What was supposed to be a wonderful family time was completely overshadowed by the assassination, still dominating the TV.
Fast forward 24 years. I was in a seminar in my first week of graduate school at Harvard, 1987. The seminar was on the comparative study of religion, with three professors. One of them, John Carman, talked about the Kennedy assassination. He said that during the brief Kennedy administration Harvard became Camelot. Kennedy was a son of Massachusetts, a Harvard man, and a war hero. All was right with the world. Carman went on to say that the assassination destroyed all that. He said he had never recovered from it. The assassination seemed to have embittered him, to have removed from him all hope for the world. Mind you, this was a seminar on the comparative study of religion, not political science or US History.
Of course we’ve learned so much more about JFK in the years since. What I want to convey here is that for a child in 1963, the assassination of JFK was a profoundly disturbing experience. There was no escape from it. It was a riveting, horrible story, unfolding literally before our eyes on the relatively new medium of television. I suspect that this disturbance was directly related to the enormous turmoil of the remainder of the 1960s in the US: the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. The riots. Kent state. The huge and costly expansion of the war in Vietnam. The emergence of drug culture. The transformation and ascendance of rock and roll. And on and on. It was a rupture in the psyche of the nation.