John Fitzgerald Kennedy, larger than life in death, was a former back bench senator still evolving as president when he was assassinated in Texas a half-century ago.
He went there on an early campaign swing, sure he would need the state’s electoral college votes the following year. But 50 years ago today, in the early afternoon, he and his version of Camelot were consigned to history.
Most everyone then and still alive remembers when Walter Cronkite told us Kennedy had died. They recall vividly when word first flashed around the world that he had been seriously wounded during a Dallas motorcade, and they were riveted with subsequent news that underworld figure Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin, within days.
When I heard JFK had been shot, I was on my way to a recruiting office to join the military at age 21. I never joined, in part because JFK’s instant mortality made me palpably conscious of my own. Days later, I watched with horror as Ruby took out Oswald on television, brought into my home via live coverage from Dallas. It was a time when a nation experienced psychic trauma en masse.
People wept at JFK’s demise and funeral, detractors as well as supporters. If any national innocence remained after two world wars and the Great Depression earlier in the 20th century, it disappeared with this first in a series of assassinations demonstrating the cheapness of life and ugly expense of leadership. Civil-rights leader Martin Luther King and Kennedy’s brother, Bobby, later in the 1960s paid the same price.
The nation’s 35th president, born little more than a month after the United States entered World War I, is revered on this 50th anniversary of his slaying. Few comprehend fully that at the time, Kennedy was in Texas practicing his chosen craft of politics and knew he was by no means a shoo-in for a second term in the White House.
He had recovered from his Bay of Pigs fiasco and faced down the Soviet Union in the Cuban missile crisis. But he was struggling domestically over civil-rights unrest, and internationally with Vietnam. Now a lionized martyr, a half-century ago he had feet of clay like the rest of us. For example, the charmer enjoyed the company of women other than his wife in an age when such conduct was winked at regularly.
Now the JFK legend almost obscures that he was a hard-liner on defense, a tax-cutter to stimulate growth, a playboy privately and an lackadaisical legislator prior to his presidency.
All that is beside the point. Why? Because he was among the few who inspired a generation, by deed as well as rhetoric, and made a real rather than phantom difference. Camelot, the myth spun in part by his widow, Jackie, is a legend surrounding him that has been dimly understood.
JFK wasn’t King Arthur, Arthur’s sword Excalibur or the Camelot court’s round table. He wasn’t Merlin the magician. Nor was he Lancelot, Galahad, Parsifal, Gawain nor Gawain’s counterpart, the Green Knight.
To true believers of 1963 and since, he was a shining example of the archetypal Holy Grail. Though never a true believer, I mourn him yet.
It seems fitting that JFK’s daughter, like his father, became an ambassador for the United States.
John Barrette covers business and city government for the Nevada Appeal.