American Culture

John F. Kennedy is still dead: that much we know…

JFK and my-my-my generation…

John F. Kennedy in the Dallas motorcade moments before his assassination (image courtesy Wikimedia)

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.

At some point, perhaps, you just give up. One of my thoughtful colleagues argued that just recently. He noted in fact:

…maybe we should just go with the Wasted Opportunity Generation.”

It wasn’t always so. The oldest Boomers (if we use traditional dates) would have been 15 (although some experts would argue they might have been as old as 18) when they saw this:

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.

That he couldn’t actually do stuff never occurred to us.

That he screwed up left and right – let Khrushchev humiliate him in Vienna, made a hero out of Castro, damned near blew us all to hell and gone – made no difference. No. Difference.

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.

Except – except – one of our own then killed Lennon. To be cool.

It’s like one of John Lennon’s heroes said:

When you ain’t got nothin’/You got nothin’ to lose….

So here we are 50 years on, still asking ourselves the question:

How does it feel…?

16 replies »

  1. Tip ‘o the hat, Jim. Great choice for the closer: How does it feel? Decades later, it just sucks.

  2. I think too many boomers mingle the sex rock drug counter culture with President Kennedy and his pro growth policies of the early 1960’s. If not for the murder of JFK you would never have had the “sex, rock , drug counter culture” (exported to this country in the personage of the “Beatles”). There were two distinct histories wrapped in the 1960’s, two distinct and opposing axioms at play in the 1960’s. The optimistic Kennedy era of 1961-1963 and the dead end destruction of the United States that came in the shock of the aftermath of Kennedy’s murder. The Kennedy youth tucked their tail between their legs and ran to the drug sex rock sub culture like a moth to a flame. They were cowards.

    JFK represented a return to FDR and what he had represented. His dedication and belief in industry, science and technology, that development was the way to defeat poverty, disease and war. He was also major proponent of nuclear power.

    He was the last American System President, shot down by the enemies of humanity, which used the opportunity to take the baby boomers and turn them into a Jacobin horde of drug crazed loonies. The boomers betrayed JFK’s legacy and instead adopted every Malthusian policy they could find after Kennedy was murdered— the green movement, the post industrial movement, the drug movement and the do your own thing movement.

    John Kennedy was preparing the future for the boomer generation and those beyond that generation when he was killed. Unfortunately the boomers actually abandoned everything JFK stood for and it remains so to this very day.
    There in lies the real tragedy of the Kennedy murder. It destroyed the potential of the baby boomer generation and has lead humanity to the precipice of destruction.

    • Jack, but your apologia for Kennedy omits important terms like “missile crisis,” Bay of Pigs” and “Vietnam.” You seem intent on making him something that, at least up until the point where he was killed, he simply wasn’t: a good president.

  3. Wow, Jack, your revisionist reading of JFK is equaled only by your single minded determination to make this post a platform for your misguided attempt to indict the Boomers for creating the neocons.

    Instead, we forced an end to the Vietnam insanity, got Nixon out of office – disgraced, by the way – and helped move acceptance of African Americans and women as equals forward.

    Between JFK and Lennon, we got some shit done….

    • The neo cons were made up of boomers, have you forgotten?
      Sometimes they were called chicken hawks, draft dodgers and dope smokers from the 1960’s that loved war as long as it didn’t include them.

      • Jack, you seem to have boiled it all down to “Boomers were dope-heads.” I’ll just note this lacks a certain measure of nuance.

        Yes, Kennedy got some things right. And it hardly needs saying that his successors weren’t especially Rushmorian. But what, really, does this have to do with the post, which is about the cultural impact of a generation losing its most important symbol of hope?

        Let’s stay on topic as best we can, please.

  4. Sam,
    I suggest you read ‘Battling Wall Street” 1994 by Professor Donald Gibson as a starter to get rid of the false axiom that Kennedy wasn’t a good President.

    If you look at our history going back to Alexander Hamilton “ONLY” our good Presidents have been killed ( I know Hamilton wasn’t President). Bush and Obama for instance were/are abominations if not outright traitors and not a hair on their head has been touched. This has been consistent throughout our nations history. Lincoln, Garfield (and a few US Presidents died from eating bad oysters or some other bullshit) Kennedy were assassinated, and there was an assassination attempt on FDR in 1934. Kennedy in fact shaped his Presidency to follow in the tradition of his Commander and Chief during WWII Franklin Roosevelt. He launched the NASA space program, increasing our scientific capabilities , he pushed the Rover Rocket program, nuclear powered rocket boosters to get us to mars using the moon as a launching point.

    The economic facts of the Kennedy space program is undeniable. The Kennedy space program represented the largest government expenditure during peacetime in our nations history. The Kennedy space program returned $0.12 back to the economy for every $0.01 invested by the government.

    Let me ask you Sam did the United States ever make it to mars? In fact his enemies virtually shut down his science driver space program. They couldn’t stop the moon landing in 1969 but after 1972 the USA never returned to space exploration on the level initiated by Kennedy.

    As far as Vietnam the facts show that Kennedy was in frequent consultation with General
    Macarthur who advised JFK to “stay out of a land war in Asia”. JFK took that advise and would not commit US Military troops in Vietnam (you might look at history to see when the first 250K marines landed in Vietnam – I think it was Feb 1965 long after Kennedy had been murdered and forgotten). Kennedy was anti colonialist and he saw what happened to the French (De Gaulle also advised him to stay out).

    In short you are misinformed. Anyone that can look at the last 50 years of the post JFK era and can claim we have made progress is smoking something that prevents them from seeing the truth.

    Since Kennedy the United States has been destroyed, turned in to a post industrial junk heap with entertainment, drugs, and hedonism being the prominent features of todays US society.

    Kennedy did more in his 1,000 days than the all the rest of the US President since have done.

    The USA is headed for collapse and very soon. The lessons of JFK could very well be used to rescue our aching nation one more time.

  5. Two words utterly disprove your “good men” assassination theory, Jack: William McKinley. As for bad presidents not dying, the Native American butcher William Henry Harrison and the philandering corrupt Warren Harding?

    Kennedy’s lesson is more lost promise than actual performance. What haunts us all is what he seemed poised to do – not what he did.

      • No, Jack, your question was in no conceivable way relevant to this discussion. As pertains to the post it has no bearing I can think of and as posed and contextualized is was a clear case of ad hominem.

        • Sorry, Jack, that isn’t how it works, as I think the link I provide makes clear. If you have some relevant comment on THE POST OR THE RESULTANT DISCUSSION, please make it. The point you’d like to make is part of a potentially interesting discussion, but it is not pertinent to THIS discussion.

          And the author’s genetic lineage is of no consequence whatsoever. That you believe it is speaks volumes.

          Also, if you’d like to discuss the comment policy, please move it over to the post I made on the subject earlier today, where it belongs.