What sticks with us is the image, the promise, and ultimately the tragedy of who and what JFK was.
"Take care of John, Mr. Foster." With that admonition to a Secret Service agent, John Kennedy said goodbye to his son for the last time. The Kennedys were at Andrews Air Force Base about to depart for Texas. It was November 21, 1963.
At that moment, I can pretty well guess where I was. Four years old that weekday morning, living in West Allis, I would have just finished watching Captain Kangaroo and my mom and I would have been doing calisthenics under the direction of Jack LaLanne. Later at 9:25 a.m., we'd catch the five-minute news update with Nancy Dickerson. Not much memorable would have been happening.
The next morning -- Friday, November 22 -- would have been the same. Until lunchtime. I can't remember first hearing about the shooting, but I remember my mother washing the basement stairs that afternoon and crying. Two days later, I remember coming home from church on a bright, cold Sunday afternoon and my father switching on the Motorola TV set just in time for us to watch Lee Harvey Oswald being gunned down in the basement of the Dallas jail. And I remember the president's funeral. It's not often that you see your father cry.
The details about JFK's last words to his son and many others are contained in William Manchester's riveting 1967 book The Death of a President. I have been reading the book this month as the nation relives the events of 50 years ago. (Last week's Isthmus cover story was about the experiences of Madisonians at the time.)
The effect John F. Kennedy made on me was strong. No doubt the impression his administration made -- whether I fully understood what was happening or not -- was a factor in my choice of politics as a career. The Kennedys made politics fun, fashionable, exciting -- even noble.
Today, of course, we know details that we didn’t 50 years ago -- details about stolen votes in Illinois and Texas, about mistresses and hidden ailments.
Those details matter, of course. But what sticks with us is the image, the promise, and ultimately the tragedy of who and what JFK was. After a time, the reality becomes less important than what we made of it all. The world of 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time on November 22, 1963 was about hope, possibility and energy. At 1:33 p.m. on the same day, when the president's death became official, the world turned darker, gloomier and more cynical.
Maybe it would have happened anyway. Kennedy might well have gotten us enmeshed in Vietnam just as well as Lyndon B. Johnson did. Maybe the same backlash to the changes of the mid-'60s would have put Richard Nixon in office with the same fatal flaws that created Watergate. But maybe not.
In some ways the assassination, far from being the end of national innocence, might have allowed us to preserve a sense that we ever were in fact innocent once; it allowed us to romanticize what came before it. Allowed us to cling to the notion that things would have been different had those shots never been fired. And if that's true, then it might also be true that we were and could be again a better nation. In that sense, maybe John F. Kennedy did die for something -- the idea of a noble nation that never was but could be some day.