Reality Check: Politics
OF THE CYNICAL AGE
Perspectives on the JFK Assassination 40 Years Later
stand at the edge of a New Frontier - the frontier of unfulfilled
hopes and dreams. It will deal with unsolved problems of peace and
war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered
questions of poverty and surplus." - John F. Kennedy
he will bow
and the whole garden will bow
- ee cummings
Forty years ago this week the 35th president of the United States was
brutally murdered in broad daylight. There were hundreds of eyewitnesses
lined along the execution route. It was the first openly documented
incident of the television age. Yet after volumes written, debates raged,
and the endless dissection of that days events; the countless
hours of legal wrangling and propaganda, documentaries and tributes,
cries of conspiracy and calls for clearer heads to prevail, we are no
closer to one accepted truth on the identity of the assassin. However,
this humble missive will abstain from piling on to my mothers
brilliantly snide, "Who Didnt Kill JFK?" mantra. Instead,
its aim will be to put into perspective what this seminal moment in
American history has done to the landscape of my generation, and all
I was 14 months old when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. I
recall growing up in the Bronx with its effect still palpable years
later, especially on its anniversary, when cars would drive all day
with their headlights on, flags were flown at half mast, and school
teachers regaled us on where they were and what they were doing when
they heard the news.
Almost immediately, apart from its war-torn history, no human drama
had better crystallized America - its psyche, its message and medium,
its resolve and destiny quite so completely and violently as what transpired
that overcast autumn afternoon in Dallas, Texas.
On the level of raw emotion, there is something everlasting about a
person of such limitless potential, power and celebrity cut down in
his prime, forever frozen in indestructible youth, like James Dean or
Marilyn Monroe, or if Elvis Presley or Mickey Mantle had not gotten
old and fat and drunk. It is a glowing tribute to dying young, before
your time, unfinished business; no closure, no definable answers. On
broader levels, the severing of a head of state from its body politic
is a trauma akin to the disorientation experienced by a living organism
thrown from its normal environment into one of total confusion. This
is especially stunning when a leader so distinctly engrained in the
id of a free society leaping into an age of mind-bending change is slaughtered
like a farm animal. As a result, what had been previously confined to
certain pockets of metropolitan bohemia and smoky cafes or college campus
conclaves; bitter dissent, counter-culture rage, a desire for eradicating
atavistic symbols of tradition exploded into the mainstream throughout
the ensuing decade of enormous unrest and social revolution.
People hate their deities to turn out mortal. Like no one before or
since, the image of Jack Kennedy was the epitome of 20th century iconoclasm.
He represented the visionary generation, bloated with dreamers; always
saying what needed to be said at the right time with the right cadence.
A mutation borne of Nietzsche's Ubermensch, perfectly molded for his
times and fully capable of rising above the petty tragedies of mortality
to manifest infinitely. Kennedy was the first American president born
in the American century, a hero in its greatest of wars, rising from
the dark annals of its recent past. He had come from mysterious money
like F. Scott Fitzgeralds Gatsby; a raucous American invention
of questionable origin feeding off the decadent opulence of rabid capitalism.
The second son of an ignominious father with his bootlegging millions
and international intrigue, mob connections and dirty-scoundrel 19th
century fortunes, JFK wore the mantle of promise like a mighty amour.
The gargantuan political Kennedy machine devoured miles, blazing trails
beyond the stuffy, buttoned-down plastic, two-dimensional Eisenhower
cocoon. From the moment of his emergence into the public eye, JFK was
sold as brilliant living color. In the campaign for president, this
fit perfectly against the grain of Richard Nixons stony black
The two entered the senate in the early 1950s, one from the dirt
and grit of Californian poverty, the other from a New England golden
chariot. Nixon stood for the pillars of Americas past; God and
country, mom and apple pie, a Quaker in his lily white victorious post-war
splendor. Kennedy represented uncharted territory, a young, bold Irish
Catholic, a playboy, tan and brave, how all of America liked to think
of its new decade. He was poised to strike forth from Hollywood illusions,
fearless in the face of fast-changing times and the Red Scare. Contrarily,
Nixon was the angry pit bull of the Eisenhower administration, reeking
of passé dread.
But despite all the revisionist history about Camelot and "a land
of hope and dreams", Richard Nixon, and not Jack Kennedy, won the
1960 presidential election. But Daddy Kennedy stole it outright. Everyone
knew it, but did not care. It had always been the American dream to
bury the past, look to the moon, beyond the endless horizon. Every revolution
has its causalities. Dick Nixon may have been Camelots first,
but not the last.
Jack eventually paid for the sins of his father, the notorious Joseph
P. Kennedy, with his life. He entered politics for the old man, won
the Pulitzer with his connections and influence, became a senator from
Massachusetts against all odds, and muscled into the role of youngest
elected presidential at the age of 43.
There are always debts to pay for any man of power in a democracy fraught
with dangerous ambiguities, but as president, Kennedy added to them
by taking on the mechanism of government, the silent assassins in the
CIA, the swollen power of the FBI, the imminent threat of the Soviet
Union, and the fumes of Harry Trumans Cold War.
Bullied by Nikita Khrushchev and haunted by Fidel Castro, Kennedy signed
away an empty check for Viet Nam to solidify South East Asia for generations,
and set the course for his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson to build into
a decade of war. Ironically, Kennedys victim, Dick Nixon, became
its benefactor and finished the decade of the 1960s by plunging
the nation into a cloud of paranoid madness.
Mostly, the truncated Kennedy administration - a mere 1,037days in length
-uncovered the demons of our government; the stranglehold of the Pentagon,
the sinister nature of spying and assassinations, and the rabid abuse
of the Bill of Rights by J. Edgar Hoover and his ilk. It also set the
course to shine light on the Civil Rights movement, pushing the kind
of sweeping legislation not seen in this republic since the Reconstruction
a century before.
Mere days after November 22, 1963, the quixotic United States government
may have appeared to roll along relatively unaffected, but the nation
dimmed considerably. Whipping up the laughable fictions of the Warren
Commission, escalating the fighting abroad and insulating the powers
that be could not erase the sudden realization that the endless skyway
of the New Frontier did, in fact, have tolls, and they were steep. The
fabricated marketing of idealism and the voracious appetite of post
war America dove into a quagmire of brutal truths about the vicious
nature of politics. No one seemed to know anymore who or what was running
things. One thing became evident; JFK had been just another piece of
a bloodless machine eradicated like a spare part.
Doubts about the conduct and make-up of Americas best and brightest
would fester throughout subsequent years of presidential screw-ups including
Viet Nam, Watergate, Iran Hostage Crisis, Iran/Contra, Monika Lewinski,
and now the furor over Weapons of Mass Destruction. It has been chic
to blather on and on about America losing its innocence in that most
violent moment forty years ago, a rebirthing of cynicism and a wariness
about the definition of justice, and the gnawing questions about who
holds the reigns of the richest and most powerful nation on earth. But
the legacy of 11/22/63 is that America was never innocent, only blind,
deaf and dumb to realities best kept hidden by more soothing fables
of princes living happily ever after on streets of gold.
Eight presidents later the reverberation of 11/22/63 continues to quake
the nature of news, politics, fear and vision. The New Frontier came
apart like a house of cards and no Age of Aquarius could make it right.
And all the Baby Boomer rhetoric about privilege and promise plays out
quite nicely in the horrid memory of invincibility being shattered by
bullets on a gray noon.
© James Campion November 22nd 2003
all rights reserved