It began with the promise of youth and then Camelot died…

November 22, 2013

A half century ago now President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and I look back:

I think I got my initial look at politics perhaps during the mid 1950s when I was just a little lad indeed. But I watched the political conventions and found them to be as entertaining as anything I had ever watched on TV. All those people wearing funny hats and displaying signs and chanting for their candidate. And that was back when the candidacy was actually decided at the conventions, rather than that endless string of primaries and straw polls we have today.

And then my mom let me stay home from school the day of Dwight Eisenhower’s second inaugural because the local high school band was in the parade in far-off Washington D.C. , and it was being televised.

Mr. Eisenhower was a grandfatherly old man. He of course had been the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, as Gen. Eisenhower.

But the election of 1960 offered something new. The old man could not run for a third term because a new constitutional amendment had just passed forbidding that.

So now, this time, no matter whether the Republican won or the Democrat, the new president would be relatively young — in his 40s. Comedians told jokes about the babyish candidates.

But there was no doubt that the more handsome and more lady-killer looking one was the Democrat John F. Kennedy, often referred to as “Jack” Kennedy. And we all know the story that Kennedy clobbered Eisenhower’s vice-president Richard Nixon in the televised debates, or at least the first one, because Kennedy’s makeup was better under the lights and he had a fresh tan, whereas Nixon either was not wearing makeup or it was bad makeup, and he was just coming off an illness. In actual debating it was probably a tie, and it is said that many who listened on radio gave Nixon the win.

As we know, Kennedy, or JFK, as he would become known, went on the win the election (Nixon got his turn a decade later). JFK wore a top hat to the inauguration but I think that was where he lost the hat — after that it was that bushy red hair brushed back (or was it forward?) on his head. And seemingly overnight the style of men in hats was gone — although of course many men still wore them, my dad included.

Glamour and youth took over the White House. JFK had striking good looks, and he had a charming and gracious and cultured wife, Jackie. And they had two darling children, Caroline and John John. While not everyone loved the Kennedys, overall they took the nation by storm. It was as if we had royalty in the White House and the public was taken in by the pageantry created by the forces supportive of Kennedy and the media in general I suppose. Jackie gave a televised tour of the White House showing how she was refurbishing it. The whole Kennedy White House and presidency took on the name of “Camelot” after a current play about a mythical kingdom where the days were sunny and happiness reigned.

There was a major foreign policy misstep early on. Kennedy had signed on to an ongoing secret operation initiated in the previous Eisenhower Administration in which the U.S. military would give some support to a band of Cuban exile anti-Castro forces who were to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and according to the plan spark a popular uprising against the communist dictator. It failed miserably from the start and seeing the sure disaster JFK cut the U.S. support. It was a major embarrassment when it soon became public.  But later he became a hero by standing up to the Soviet Union and forcing our arch cold war rival to remove missiles aimed at us from Cuba.

And Kennedy vowed to fight the communist insurgency in Vietnam by supporting the government there, although initially all the talk was about a country in the same area called Laos.

But all of that was in the background. We were not yet mired in a ground offensive in Southeast Asia. I doubt most people even knew where Vietnam was on a map yet.

No, then it was all goodwill via JFK’s Peace Corps sent all over the world to help those in developing countries live better lives — youthful volunteers spreading hope from the good ol’ USA around the globe.

And he urged the nation to get fit with 40-mile hikes. My dad and I even took one — not 40 miles though. Well that was one hike, actually my dad and a brother and I did take a hike that long and more into a wilderness area in the mountains.

JFK exuded the spirit of can-do for the nation. He vowed that we would put a man on the moon before the decade was out (and of course we did). And during his days in office we put our first men into space and kept up with the Soviet Union in the space race and soon surpassed that nation.

Kennedy seemed to be for all the correct things: he was strongly anti-communist and pro-civil rights. Night after night people were now seeing terrible scenes on TV of black people demonstrating to get equal voting rights in southern states, only to be beaten back by water cannon and dogs and police with billy clubs.

JFK was pushing for civil rights legislation. This of course was not popular in some circles.

And then he went into the south, to Dallas, to campaign for another term in office.

And on Nov. 22, 1963 he was gunned down in a motorcade on a Dallas Street.

(And while that city was a hotbed of anti-Kennedy feelings and even those making violent threats, I don’t mean to imply we know the motive for the assassination. We don’t.)

Fifty years later we don’t know if there was but one assassin or how many shots were really fired and whether there was a conspiracy and if so by whom. Theories abound, everything from pro-Castro forces, to anti-Castro forces, to the CIA, to vice president Lyndon Johnson, to organized crime, to anti-civil rights forces.

What we do know is that Camelot died on that day. The sun was no longer guaranteed to shine. But we also survived as a nation and there was an orderly transition of power.

And ironically a man from Texas, the state of the city of JFK’s death, Dallas, took over as president and pushed through JFK’s civil right’s legislation.

There has never been anyone like JFK since. We’ve had some charmers, Bill Clinton, at least, but he does not even come close to the JFK mystique.

I mean why do even Republican candidates often cite JFK as their inspiration?


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