NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. Today – from November 24, 2007.
Thanksgiving Day was the 44th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy. I didn’t want that to be my holiday post, though, so I’m writing about it today.** I was a senior in high school when our vice-principal, Mr. Hall, a huge scary guy (and football coach) came onto the intercom and announced, his voice breaking, that President Kennedy had been shot, and had died. I remember standing up and just walking out of my creative writing class. No one stopped me – or any of the rest of us. We wandered the halls in tears, then went home, riding the school bus in tears. I remember the next morning, taking the car out and just driving around — running in to my friend Jack Cronin on his drugstore delivery route – and standing on McClellan Drive in his arms as we both wept. I remember, Jewish girl that I was, going to Mass at St. Elizabeth’s Church that Sunday just to be with the people of his faith. I cried for four days.
Years later, working on the TODAY SHOW 20th anniversary of the funeral, I remember all of it rushing back as we cut tape and realized as adults what a gift Jacqueline Kennedy had given the nation through the dignity and completeness of the funeral. I know that many younger people find the Kennedys a little bit of a joke, thanks partly to the Simpsons, but it’s not possible to describe the grief and trauma of those days. Or the gratitude we all felt for his presence — and the profound nature of the loss.
Though only 13, I had the great good fortune to attend the Kennedy Inauguration, traveling all night on the train with my mom to sit in the stands near the Treasure Building and watch the parade go by. We stood outside the White House at the end of the parade, in the last of the blizzard, and watched him walk into the White House for the first time as president. I’d seen the culmination of all the volunteer hours my 13-year-old self could eke out to go “down town” and stuff envelopes — to respond to the the call to help change the world.
It seems so pathetic now; the loss not only of JFK but of his brother, so beloved by my husband that he’s never been the same since 1968, the loss of Dr. King and Malcolm X, the trauma of Vietnam and all that followed, later of the shooting of John Lennon, even. It seemed that all we’d dreamed about and hoped for – worked for – was gone. How could we have been so romantic – so sure that we could bring change? Believed it again in 1967 and 68 as we worked and marched against the war, for Eugene McCarthy or Bobby Kennedy, for civil rights and for peace, for better education and environmental policies, for rights for women, gay Americans and so much more. Most of us haven’t stopped but the American media obsession with America’s loss of innocence emerges from the pain of those weeks.
Now, to me, even the idea of innocence seems a bit — well — innocent. In our case, innocence came largely from a combination of lack of experience and of knowledge. We didn’t know that we stood for the take over of Central American countries and the support of Franco and Salazar as well as the Marshall Plan and remarkable courage and commitment of World War II. We were too close to the WWII generation to have the historic separation that’s possible today. So was much of the rest of the world: in Europe, South America, Africa — all over the world — the Kennedys had won hearts and minds. It’s almost impossible to imagine in light of our standing in the world today. And that’s part of the grief too. Even though much of the anger at the US outside Iraq is based on a warped version of political correctness, we know the experience of riding from the glory of having “liberated” Europe through the Marshall Plan and the glory of the Kennedy outreach to the rest of the world. Personally and publicly, John Kennedy validated all that we wanted to see in ourselves – all that we wanted ourselves, and our country, to be. And today, despite all the revelations of the years since, 44 years and two days later, that’s still true.