Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fifty Years On

It was a Friday in 1963 as well. I know where I was. Unless we are too young to have been anywhere in 1963, we all know where we were. Specifically, I was in Mrs. D’Antona’s fifth grade classroom in P.S. 196, located then as now on 113th Street in Forest Hills overlooking the Grand Central Parkway. We had finished with lunch and recess was over; it was early afternoon and we were back in class. Our principal, Mr. Abraham Tauschner, suddenly appeared at the door with his assistant principal, Mrs. Natke, in tow. This was highly unusual. Mrs. D’Antona, responding to the unusualness of the moment, left us unattended for a moment and stepped out in the hall. When she came back, her face was ashen. We were, she said almost inaudibly, to close our books, to pack up for the day, and quietly to assemble in the auditorium where Mr. Tauschner was going to talk to us. I remember this like it was yesterday, just as I remember coming home from Hebrew School the following Sunday to find my parents still in shock after having watched—after actually having watched on live television—Jack Ruby murder Lee Harvey Oswald in a Dallas police station. I was ten years old. Even at that age, I think I can remember feeling the earth shifting beneath my feet.

John Kennedy was not our only American president to be assassinated. (To that club belong as well Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. And another thirteen, including every president since Kennedy’s day, were only not killed in office because they escaped credible attempts on their lives.) Nor was JFK the only president with a beautiful wife or with a family fortune behind him. And although Kennedy is to this day the only American president ever to have been awarded a Purple Heart after being injured in battle, there were many American presidents who served in the military with great distinction. (George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower come to mind first, but twenty-six of our forty-three presidents served in the Armed Forces of the United States other than as Commander-in-Chief.) So why is it that Kennedy’s death became the watershed moment in the nation’s unfolding sense of itself and its destiny that it clearly did become? That is the question I find myself pondering as I ponder the fiftieth anniversary of the president’s death.

Partially, I suppose it has to do with Vietnam. And, indeed, although the roots of our nation’s involvement in Vietnam go right back to the days of the Kennedy administration (if not even earlier to President Eisenhower’s decision to send 900 American advisors to prop up the Diem regime), the escalation of the conflict—and the way that the war tore apart the fabric of American society in a way that would have seemed unimaginable even a few years earlier—those developments need realistically to be assigned first to the Johnson years and then to the Nixon presidency. As a result, at least in retrospect, the death of John Kennedy seemed to mark the end of an age of innocence, of American contentedness, of national unity, of a sense of widely agreed-upon national purpose. The images that became indelibly etched in the national consciousness were part of this as well: even today when I think of the Kennedys I picture them playing touch football in Hyannisport, while the first thing I think of when someone mentions Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon are the massive anti-war protests that characterized my teenaged years and which tore many families, including my own, apart. (I’ll write about that some other time.) Is that fair to Presidents Johnson and Nixon? Probably not. But in politics, as in most things, perception is everything. Or almost everything.

And partially it has to do with the general Zeitgeist and the way things changed different so quickly and so irrevocably after President Kennedy’s death. The 1960s—the decade itself—was a kind of watershed in American culture in a way that the nation hadn’t experienced since the Roaring Twenties. American tastes in music shifted more from 1957 to 1967 than in the previous half century. The same could be said with respect to art or fashion, even to architecture. And, yes, accompanying all that cultural stuff was a shift in sexual mores that felt at the time, and which even in retrospect still feels, unprecedented…and which, particularly for people just a bit older than myself, really did change everything. None of these developments can reasonably be attributed to anything President Kennedy did or said…and yet it seemed to many, and still seems to many, that nothing that mattered was the same after the assassination as it had been before. (And the Kennedy years, at least in retrospect, feel far more like the end of the 1950s than like the opening years of the decade to which they actually did belong.) I read Profiles in Courage when I was in tenth grade and remember thinking that it felt as though the book had been written in a different era, not a mere decade before I got around to reading it in 1967. I couldn’t imagine Jimi or Jim or Janis reading that book…and yet I, who at fourteen related to those three as demi-gods, was impressed by what I read. It just seemed odd to imagine the four of them—Jimi, Jim, Janis and John—in the same room or on the same stage. I could imagine JFK listening to Frank Sinatra. But I couldn’t even begin to imagine President Nixon listening to Janis Joplin, much less Iron Butterfly.

But most of all, I think the reason that President Kennedy’s assassination became a watershed moment in our nation’s history has to do with the concept of heroes.

Just the other day, I read an interesting essay by one of my colleagues in which he mentioned that, when he asked a class of middle-school-aged children in his synagogue’s Religious School who their heroes were, they all answered with the names of athletes or pop singers. In and of itself, that isn’t so surprising.  Such people, after all, are endlessly hyped in the media, endlessly promoted as celebrities whose lives are well worth following. And the so-called “social media” have made it possible not merely to follow such people in the vague way people once did by reading about them in fan magazines, but actually to follow them around as they make their way through the days of their lives and report on details that would once have seemed too private (and too banal) to mention to anyone at all, let alone to strangers. But my colleague’s point was not to lament the advent of the age of Twitter, but to observe that not one single child who responded mentioned the name of someone who exemplified the values we all insist that we wish our children to embrace. There were no war heroes, for example, who risked their lives to make our nation safe or to do good in the world. No child mentioned anyone who had selflessly devoted his or her life to public service. There were no saints, no martyrs, no one who had sacrificed his or her privacy to serve the public weal or, for that matter, who had sacrificed anything at all for a greater and nobler goal.  In other words, somewhere along the line the concepts of heroism and celebrity appear to have coalesced so totally that young people, when asked about the former, responded with answers that presumed they had been asked about the latter concept.

For people my age—I was seven years old when President Kennedy became president—JFK was an old-school hero. He came from one of America’s most powerful families, but he put his life on the line in the service of our country and almost died in the summer of 1943 when his PT boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. He possessed unimaginable wealth, yet he chose to devote his life to public service. He could have fostered a cult of celebrity built around himself, but instead he published Profiles in Courage specifically—or so it seemed to the young me—to promote public service as the ultimate civic virtue and to vaunt the heroism of people who risked their reputation and in some cases their careers to act honorably and in consonance with their own sense of justice and moral rectitude. Was I wrong? Maybe I was. I am well aware of the widely-held theory that Profiles in Courage was ghost-written by Theodore Sorensen, but that was unknown to me—and to everybody—back then. Nor is it a relevant point: what I want to stress is how things felt back then, why President Kennedy’s death seemed so totally to change everything.

If I had been asked as a young teenager who my hero was, I would have answered instantly that it was John F. Kennedy. I was as besotted as every other young American with the Beatles—Please, Please Me, their debut album, was released in March of 1963—and with a thousand other pop acts. I knew my movie stars too and knew who my favorite baseball players were. (Mrs. D’Antona, for the record, was not just my fifth grade teacher, but at the very beginning of her teacher career also Whitey Ford’s, a detail I for some reason seem never to tire of mentioning.)  But I also understood the difference between a celebrity and a hero. I would have loved to have had really good seats to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965. I would have loved to have been present when the Yankees won the World Series in 1961 or 1962, or even when they lost in 1963 or 1964.But I didn’t really want to be a Beatle or a Yankee. I wanted to be like John Kennedy, whom I admired as the paragon of every virtue I hoped someday to emulate.  Clearly, I didn’t know the whole story. I was, after all, a child. I certainly hadn’t heard any talk of the president’s marital infidelity. I had a child’s understanding of the world, of politics, of what it really meant to win a presidential election. (I doubt I even knew that Kennedy won the popular vote in 1960 by a mere two-tenths of one percent.) But even as a child I knew  a hero when I saw one, someone who didn’t earn his fame by singing well or playing a game well but by exemplifying what then seemed to be as the finest virtues to which anyone could aspire.

By the time I became a bar-mitzvah, the universe had changed dramatically. I grew up. America itself grew up. As we made our way forward, the Kennedy years became recalled as Camelot. We learned all sorts of unsavory details about the past, some of which seriously altered the way we now understood things we had once recalled entirely differently. But the part, at least for me, that remained and remains unchanged is the concept of the hero, of it being worthy to look up to someone like John Kennedy who is someone to emulate not because of his good looks or his wealth but because he himself is a profile in courage…that concept of having a hero and wanting to become better and finer so as more closely to resemble that specific person—that is what I believe our country has lost in the half-century that now separates us from those awful days in November all those many years ago. I would like to think we could conceivably re-discover and re-embrace that specific concept of heroism. It would be a good thing for our country, and it would be a particularly good thing for our children. 

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