David Hoppe

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:: Kennedy’s shadow

50 years long

by David Hoppe

I was sitting in an airport (it happened to be JFK, of all places), waiting for a connecting flight, when a young man sat down next to me. He was holding a newspaper.

Now the sight of a guy in his 20s holding a newspaper is, in itself, surprising in this WIFI world. But what really got me was the large-type headline: KENNEDY SLAIN ON DALLAS STREET.

For a second I thought I’d entered the Twilight Zone.

When I checked a newsstand, I saw what was going on. They were selling facsimile copies of the issue of the Dallas Morning News that came out 50 years ago, right after President Kennedy was murdered.

The anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination has been a major media event. While there are doubtless some who would like to chalk this up to the supposedly liberal media’s desire to distract us from the on-going mess that’s befallen Obama’s effort to fix our healthcare system, the fact is that the Kennedy saga remains one of America’s most compelling — and vexing — stories.

Whether Kennedy was an effective leader or a charismatic poseur remains at issue, as, of course, do the circumstances of his death. Did Oswald act alone? Was there a conspiracy involving the Mob and the CIA? Pulling on any single Kennedy-related string leads inevitably to the root cellar of American mythology.

For Baby Boomers like myself, Kennedy’s killing was a dark watershed, a lesson in the blunt force of mortality broadcast live and uninterrupted on network TV.

But while the Kennedy assassination was a formative experience for many of us, it hit our parents like a wrecking ball. Whether they voted for him or not (and many did not), he was emphatically a member of their generation, the first of their own to serve as president.

Where his predecessor, Eisenhower, had been the Supreme Commander during World War 2, Kennedy commanded a PT Boat, an experience that led to his becoming a genuine war hero. This democratized Kennedy for a vast cross section of Americans who might otherwise have been turned off by his elite upbringing.

Instead, they found him energizing, a fitting symbol for America’s postwar sense of imperial cool.

For all the contemporary fascination with Kennedy, it is hard to imagine someone like him being elected president today. His sophistication would be considered suspect, if not downright off-putting. This should tell us something about how our culture has changed. For better or worse, where people once wanted to be like the president, they now want the president to be more like them. The idea that John Kennedy might be the kind of guy you could sit and have a beer with simply didn’t compute.

My family and I once visited the site in Dallas where Kennedy was shot. I remember being shocked by the force of that experience. It was a bright and beautiful day. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something crucial about my country died there.