Pure Kennedy, Pure America
A look at John F Kennedy’s assassination 50 years later
Commentary by Michael V Owens
Though I was born a full three years after the slaying of John F Kennedy, his death was (and is) still a source of pain for many people. Pictures of the pallid-faced witnesses of the motorcade or the swooning of people as the news was announced and finally sank in tell the story better than the Zapruder film’s gruesome frames. Kennedy’s tragic demise marked the beginning of another end - the end of a short-lived ‘Age of Innocence’. The USA had enjoyed this domestic innocence since the end of World War II.
After the Second World War, Hollywood, professional sports and eventually TV reminded America daily of its greatness. The 1950s were a period of great growth in America. The economy was on solid footing. A country full of happy smiling children is a country on an upward swing. In America, the baby boom gave most people a sense of hope and for the future.
Kennedy’s death reminded America and others that the world was a big ugly place. The final remnants of that period’s unbridled optimism would remain until the late 1960s. The end came spectacularly with the twin assassinations of MLK and RFK in 1968, the escalation of the war in Vietnam, draft riots, and increased drug use (for better or worse).
Kennedy, though considered only marginally better than average as a president on multiple fronts by many historians (his three short years of the presidency being such a small sample size), captured something else. He encapsulated the zeitgeist, the idea, the essence of America at that time, which went far beyond its geography.
If Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence built the walls of America’s ideals, then Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address given roughly a century later reemphasized
them. Lincoln reaffirmed the words of Jefferson succinctly and simply, and from that moment on the world knew that the United States of America would survive the American Civil War intact, and eventually become the world power it is today. Almost a century after that, Kennedy’s inaugural address did again what Lincoln had done. Although it would take some time, the American way was sure to win out against the Soviet way, and the world knew it.
Nowhere was this understood more than right here in Germany. The Cold War was fought over Germany and Germany was worth fighting over. Kennedy came to Berlin to remind
the world that The Wall was as far west as it was going to go. Young Germans who flocked to see Kennedy knew they would see that wall come tumbling down in their lifetime. The chain of events that would lead to a whole and healed Germany and the eventual bankrupting of the Soviet Union were begun by Kennedy. These included the race to the moon and the never-ending attempts to fight communism (mostly by proxy) across the globe.
Kennedy was not an altar boy. He had real problems which have been well-documented. But he was also the first TV president, and the closest thing to American royalty in the world’s eyes. He was told not to go to Texas (“…crazy people live down there…”), but he thought he could overcome any obstacle. Pure Kennedy. Pure America.
In 2008, Kennedy’s younger brother Ted (the sole surviving Kennedy son), connected the then presidential candidate Barack Obama with the legacy of JFK when he endorsed Obama. The references to ‘a new generation’ echoed words used by JFK in 1960. Ted Kennedy also felt that his slain brother would not have been much surprised that an African-American was on the cusp of becoming president.
The election of an African-American president was, for many in the USA, yet another reaffirmation of the ideas of Jefferson from 1776. It was done in deeds and not only words - America had come full circle. Anything was possible, just as John F. Kennedy had promised.
It is precisely this connection to Kennedy that has increased the sense of disappointment in Germany that Obama has not been able to do the things he set out to accomplish. Despite what is heard, many Americans (and some Germans) still believe that Obama, as an extension of Kennedy, will still be able to do some great things in his remaining time as president. As long as there is hope, there is a chance. Pure Kennedy, pure America.
Perhaps these words from John F. Kennedy summarize him, and what America and the world must do to end poverty, disease and war:
“All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”