Fifty years ago today, the woman was not yet a journalist. She was barely 24, a Wellesley College graduate, living in a thoroughly domestic life in a garden apartment in Norwood, getting used to days and weeks totally different from what she might have experienced were she born a generation later. She was surrounded by other, similar women, college educated, who had chosen to marry and start families when they were barely beyond adolescence themselves.
It was a sunny day. Her four-month-old son had just been fed, changed and was about to be put in for his afternoon nap, sweet with the smell of Johnson’s Baby Powder. She flipped on the television as she went about her tasks and was shocked to learn that shots had been fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, she had not been particularly enamored of Kennedy, feeling that he was too much the creation of his manipulative, scheming, isolationist, wheeler-dealer father, the former Ambassador to the Court of St. James. She didn’t trust the optimistic pictures the young President had painted of what people should do for their country. She and her then husband were working to carve out a secure future and struggling too hard to get a foothold in the economy to want to share more with those who had less. But the idea that someone would fire shots at the President’s motorcade rocked her sense of order and stability. Walter Cronkite shared the news as it became available. And then, in a flash, it was over. The esteemed newsman took off his glasses and shared the official pronouncement: President Kennedy is dead.
It still brings tears to my eyes today. My mother had grown up in Buffalo, NY, not far from the Delaware Avenue marker noting the spot where President William McKinley had been assassinated. But that was ancient history. JFK was now, and it just couldn’t be happening. I remember clutching my baby, crying, wondering what kind of world we were bringing him into. Five years later, lacking a babysitter, I would be dragging him and his baby brother to anti-war demonstrations, a reaction to the outcome of a terrible Vietnam policy advanced during the Kennedy Presidency.
Many years later, I would stand with other editorialists and my now-husband on the grassy knoll reflecting on how absolutely ordinary the location is, epitomizing the banality of evil. My sons would come to experience 9/11 and be concerned about their own children and the world into which they had been born. Someone recently observed that a tragedy is the gap between what was and what could have been. We don’t know what could have been if Kennedy had survived. We do know what was accomplished in his name by President Lyndon Johnson, part of the measure of the Kennedy legacy.
We also know that Kennedy, for all his failings, his vacillations, his lack of transparency, tapped a sense of possibilities in the generation of political activists that followed. We know that he sparked a fervent belief that government could be noble public service and further the well-being of all the people. And that he showed how the leader of one party could engage in constructive, even humorous discourse with his critics, in his own party, the opposition party, the business and media sectors. So we mourn again today, not just in memory of his death and the wistfulness created by the Camelot myth orchestrated by Jackie Kennedy, but for the elements we hunger for in the politics of today – and which we may well never have again.
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