JFK and my-my-my generation…
I’ll start by quoting myself – a typically Boomer act of self-absorbed self-reference. First, from an email discussion among S&R writers about whether or not we should write about the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination:
JFK is the story of the Boomers – so many advantages, so much potential, so little realized. That we ended as we did may be a psychological reaction to seeing a guy seemingly about to do big things get his brains blown out. And never, ever getting an explanation that didn’t have logic holes, political meddling, and scary implications about the lie we want most fervently to believe about life – that we can know anything for sure.
Then, from a piece I wrote in 2007 that tried to come to terms with yet another assassination:
December 8, 1980 isn’t just the day the music died, however. It’s the day Boomer opposition to the insidious evil that the we recognized in the Right and its standard bearer Nixon – and his heir Reagan – died. Reagan’s election a month earlier signaled a last desperate grasp at power by those hoary old manipulators of “the silent majority.” With John, who’d recently emerged into public discourse again after a self-imposed exile, to act as our conscience once again, we might have roused our sense of right and forced Kid Alzheimer out after one term – and reversed so much of the plundering he countenanced.
But after John was killed, all pretense of staying true to ideals disappeared and we Boomers either cocooned or yupped our way to Piggie-dom. And while we did Reagan broke the unions, carried on secret wars to benefit his and his cronies’ interests, and encouraged the ravaging of American business for the benefit of share holders (i.e., moneyed elites) at the expense of American workers.
We lost our voice, our conscience, and our will to resist the machinations of the Reaganites, the Clintonistas, and their successors the Busheviks. Each successor to Reagan has served capitalist greed ever more devotedly. The last two, disgustingly enough, are Boomers. They’re us.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the day the Boomers lost…something. The various historians, writers, poets, singers, film makers and ordinary people who have spent years, even decades, of their lives trying to help find answers about the JFK assassination have not said much about that loss. The loss Boomers felt. Still feel. Will. Always. Feel.
I gave it a try a few years ago in a series of pieces on my generation:
To understand the Boomers, however, it’s essential to focus on both history and significant dates in history. Truth is, two dates in the personal histories of Boomers matter so much as to have become mythic:
- November 22, 1963: Boomers lose the president they most closely identify with, John F. Kennedy, to an assassin’s bullet;
- February 9, 1964: The Beatles appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, on television (see Boomers, part 2 for discussion of TV’s validating power) and proceed to take the generation by storm, unleashing pent-up emotion and energy that will spin out of control over the next ten years and change America profoundly – for both good and ill.
Maybe those earlier quotes begin to resonate a little more now. The beginning and the end of the Boomers as forces for change (and maybe for good) may be traceable to two dates: November 22, 1963 and December 8, 1980.
…maybe we should just go with the “Wasted Opportunity Generation.”
For even those oldest Boomers, Kennedy’s signature call, “Ask not what your country can do for you/Ask what you can do for your country” might have triggered their existential moment. For those of us who were younger, Kennedy’s charisma was that of the perfect dad – hell, he was younger than Ward Cleaver or Jim Anderson. I remember vividly sitting in the music room of my elementary school (I was a 3rd grader) watching President Kennedy give that speech above on a slightly snowy TV screen and being amazed at the difference between the grandfatherly Ike and the dynamic JFK. I left that room thinking I needed to ask somebody what I could do for my country. And I suspect many of my generation felt the same way. We embraced his ideas – practicing physical fitness, joining the Peace Corps, going to the moon – as all equally doable. He – and we – were all young, vigorous, and ready to conquer the world – hell, the galaxy. Maybe even the universe.
This is the thing that Xers and even Millennials, our own spawn, don’t get – they all have come to consciousness post Watergate, post personal-as-public, post heroes. As far as we knew – maybe still know – JFK was a war hero/great author/great president. (That last link will surprise some of you.) When whoever killed him killed him, we were heartbroken – and angry – and disillusioned.
We’d had a hero – and our hero was dead. From Kennedy we got the idea that it was important to try to be great.
To take his place we got John Lennon. From Lennon we got the idea that it was important to try to be cool.
It’s like one of John Lennon’s heroes said:
So here we are 50 years on, still asking ourselves the question:
How does it feel…?