I WAS 9. I was in the locker room changing after a fourth grade gym class when the word began to spread that President Kennedy was dead. There was a brief period, perhaps only five minutes, between the first rumors and the imposition by adults of an official mood upon the day -- a period in which rogue, uncontrolled children's emotions were able to find full expression.
These were, I remember vividly, giddy and gleeful: in general because children raised on television see death by gunfire as exciting and without consequence, and in particular because in my part of the country, Louisiana, at that moment Kennedy was a much-hated man. All of politics was in our world reduced to the single question of segregation, which most white people were ardently for and Kennedy was against. Just five months earlier, his representative, Nicholas Katzenbach, had been faced down by George Wallace at the front door of the University of Alabama over the issue of admitting black students. The kids in fourth grade were sure that we would be next, that Katzenbach would soon be standing, arms folded in mock forebearance, at the door of our school. Kennedy being dead instantly meant that it would't happen after all.
We were soon summoned out into the gym, where, still in our shorts, we heard the principal tell us that the president had been killed. With the limitless adaptiblity of children we took on his solemn demeanor as our own and immediately laid aside the impulse to react as segregationists -- perhaps laid it aside forever. I remember holding some variant of the prinicpal's attitude for a long time. The string of grave commemoration seemed to play out infinitely: first the funeral on television, then the special issues of Life and Look, then the coffee table picture books, then Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorensen's worshipful biographies and a series of renamings of public institutions in Kennedy's honor. I can't remember anything ever being treated with complete reverence in American public life during my lifetime, except John F. Kennedy in the years just after his death.
It seems odd now that in that time when no claim on Kennedy's behalf could be considered extravagant, his death was not much seen as a turning point in American history. Instead it was a great man and a great age being nipped in the bud, almost too soon to have made a difference. That seems to be emerging as the thesis of the amazing outpouring of 20th anniversary material: Kennedy the young, Kennedy the glamorous, Kennedy the forceful. It makes sense. He obviously was magnetic; he was right in many of his instincts (like the instinct toward integration), and he did not have time to make much substantive difference in government.
But I find myself feeling left out by the anniversary commemorations, on two counts. First, it is very difficult for me to summon up much genuine heart warmth for Kennedy, or even anywhere near the measure of admiration usually accorded him. He seems a man of a time I don't know, who was loved for qualities that have since fallen into disfavor. Second, I think he did deeply affect American life, much more so than is commonly thought, but in a way that is unpleasant to talk about.
Alas, his assassination lingers, at least in my mind, far more stubbornly than his achievements. I think it permanently changed the tone of the country from light to dark, and in that sense it looks to me like the pivot on which the postwar age turned.
I think the reason I can't call forth more love for Kennedy hinmself is that I was too young for the crucial, electric moment between him and the public, though I have heard and read about it all my life. As it is told, the stultification and Babbitry of the '50s were lifted away in a magical instant on inauguration day in 1961. Government instantly became a locus of passion and idealism. The World War II battlefield generation took over the reins of the nation from the Word War II headquarters generation. The sleepy, golf-playing Eisenhower was out and the dynamic Kennedy was in.
I don't recount these tales to mock them. My first job was working for a man who had been in the Kennedy Peace Corps, and that moment radiated through his life, made him see a wondrous potential in politics and government, spurred him on to other achievements, and kept him fundamentally loyal to Kennedy. And he was one of thousands similar and too close.
But for me it was an abstraction that could not be made palpable no matter how much I tried. I spent the oppressive '50s in cribs and playground -- what did I know about oppression? When Kennedy took office I was just at the age when one begins to know things like the name of the president, and when he was killed I was just at the age when the adult world seems maximally heroic. So for me the years in which every person discovers that the world is a flawed place coincided exactly with the years in which the whole country found out that Kennedy was a flawed man. In other words, I missed all of the rise of the Kennedy reputation, became aware of it just when it was at its peak and was able to see all of its drift downward through the years.
It seemed that every twist and turn of events had the effect of sending something Kennedy stood for into disrepute. Chief among these, of course, was the Vietnam War, which was the forge of my generation even as most of us didn't fight in it. The common view of the late '60s and early '70s that Vietnam was Lyndon Johnson's and Richard Nixon's war was gradually corrected (most notably by David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest") and more blame laid at the feet of Kennedy and his circle. In particular Kennedy's attachment to quick, surgical action as a form of military policy -- trying to kill Castro, sending in the Green Berets -- fell into well-deserved disfavor, on both practical and moral grounds.
That the revelations about Kennedy's sex life came out at the same time as the reassessments of his foreign policy seemed not at all peculiar. If you were raised on the civil rights, peace and feminist movements (and even if you veered off into the self-fulfillment movement), you were taught to value idealism, gentleness and moralism. The rise in reputation of these qualities boded ill for the reputation of the tough, pragmatic, sharp Kennedy. He lived and governed according to a version of masculinity that became much scorned. It looked as if the explanation for Judith Exner and for the Bay of Pigs was exactly the same.
It went on. The Kennedy who dramatically called Coretta King during his campaign turned out to have been probably complicit in the FBI's bugging of her husband, who, by the way, is now judged to have been the real towering figure of Kennedy's age. It began to be written that the flip side of the famous Kennedy style was a tendency to snicker at those who didn't have it. He now looks like a child of Palm Beach far more than of Irish Boston, and in the years since his death social snobbery has come to be viewed more and more as a mortal sin.
The most attractive figures of the Kennedy administration, by post-Vietnam standards -- men like Adlai Stevenson and Chester Bowles -- were, it's now clear, constantly derided within the administration as sissies. Kennedy himself went to some lengths to see that Stevenson would be presented that way in a magazine article on the Cuban missile crisis. In matters of domestic policy, the one group that today lionizes Kennedy for his achievements is the supply-side economics crowd over on the right wing of the Republican Party, who like his income tax cut. Elsewhere on the political spectrum, the line for years has been that Kennedy's heart may have been in the right place, but Lyndon Johnson delivered the goods.
Nowadays I see members of the generation that's too young for me to understand adopting Kennedy-esion sque clothes and haircuts with an air of . . . what a goof! What once looked like dash, flair and -- favorite Kennedy word -- charisma now looks, at least to them, like the style of a long-ago age, as silly as all long- ago styles are. Kennedy' particular ethos had less staying power than he could ever have known. He had the just-barely-outsider's fierce drive to sit at the head of the Eastern Eastablishment, a self-conscious ruling elite; surely it would have surprised him that he, an Irish Catholic, would go down as the last of the last president from the Establishment, which the rest of the country has since delightedly and repeatedly kicked in the shins on election day.
Anyway, is charisma what we want in a president? I think the large consitutency that still adores Kennedy must be mostly liberal. Doesn't it pain them to see the admirers of Ronald Reagan praise Reagan using Kennedy language, saying that he has brought style and glamour and personal magnetism back to the White House? Star quality can be a great tool for a president, if he uses it to rally the public and the Congress around his program; but the argument that star quality is admirable as an end rather than a means seems hollow. For a time the country rebelled against any hint of charisma, which produced the brief shining moments of Presidents Ford and Carter, loved for being plain folks. Now the pendulum is swinging back -- but still, to see the case for Kennedy being made so completely in this anniversary month on the basis of his star quality does not help at all in convincing me that he was great president.
By an accident of location, I was more often confronted with the facts of the Kennedy assassination than most people. In 1967, our young, reform-minded district attorney in New Orleans, Jim Garrison, announced that he was investigating the question of who really had murdered Kennedy. There followed a terrible stretch of years during which Garrison, who was either crazy or very cynical, possibly both, was the dominant figure in the public life of my hometown. He was a master of the art of staying in the headlines without ever having to show his cards, and a magnet for what seemed lik the entire world supply of conspiracy theorists and journalists interested in writing about the dark side of America.
Eventually Garrison settled on and indicted a suspect, a businessman named Clay Shaw who by virtue of being gay lived a life of some slight mystery. The trial was an embarrassment to all conerned, if you're willing to grant Garrison the capacity for embarrassment. One star witness' sighting of Shaw and Oswald together had occurred just at the moment when he had a heroin needle in his vein; another said on the witness stand that spies had hypnotized him on the street hundreds of times. Shaw was instantly found not guilty and the circus disbanded, though Garrison is still a popular politician in New Orleans.
It was a strange event to grow up with, and perhaps it skewed my line of sight; but to me a certain habit of mind that Garrison expressed in extreme and ugly form became quite common in American life. One was not supposed to see the United States as an entirely rational and sunny place. Conspiracies and espionage operations were part of the game -- look at Watergate, look at the FBI.
Doubt, suspicion, they had of course been there all along, but now intelligent political discourse had to account for them. The degree of faith that things were as they seemed, that events could be trusted to proceed along linear, rational paths, diminished greatly. Of course many other events contributed to this feeling, but wasn't the Kennedy assassination the starting point?
From that habit of mind grew a way of looking at the country and its place in the world. The notion of the American Century, vague as it was, pretty clearly died the day Kennedy died. The smooth progress forward from 1945, of which Kennedy's election was an important part (a quickening of the pace, a confident stride into the fion uture), came to an end, at least in the popular perception. One looked at America as a country with deep problems and divisions, not so necessarly better than other places.
The assassination induced an arrhythmia ino the country that is still with us. It probably would have happened anyway. Maybe the assassination is just a convenient marking point. But that's how eras are delineated.
It is often remarked that everyone remembers exactly where he was when he heard the news, and I've already shown that I do, too. People older than me mention Pearl Harbor and the death of Franklin Roosevelt as similar events, but if you missed those no other piece of news -- the other assassinations, Nixon's resignation, the fall of South Vietnam -- is anywhere near as vivid. Oddly, in my own life almost all the moments that are indelible are similar ones: tragedies, not triumphs, hearing that a relative was terminally ill, the end of a romance. What stays in your mind is the breaking up of one or another kind of calm, established order, especially when the order is emotionally (or even romantically) charged, as the Kennedy administration was. An insecurity fading off into yawning emptiness is part of the emotional background for everybody. At those broken- hearted moments it comes roaring to the fore.
The Kennedy assassination was that rare and terrible thing, a flash of intense personal pain and grief that was also a public event, a shared national experience that left America reeling. It caused the country to lose a measure of serenity and peace that it has never regained. Poor John F. Kennedy, I'm afraid that is his most enduring legacy.