The 50 Year Itch
A half century ago today, John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Along with September 11th 2001, it was one of those rare world-changing events in which the inevitable question was asked: "Where were you and what were you doing at that moment?" It's the kind of question to which everyone could respond.
On November 22nd 1963, my family and I were stationed in West Germany. I was four, going on five, and have no memory of that day or its aftermath. Yet my parents would tell me years later that the natives would stop us with tears in their eyes, JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech from that June still fresh in their minds, and express their condolences. My father told me the Air Force base at which he was stationed was, understandably, put on high alert. We weren't that far from communist East Germany and the location of Checkpoint Charlie and paranoia was rampant that the Commies would try to exploit this tragedy.
It's difficult for even me to imagine what a vastly different world 1963 was from 2013. Yet, in a way, little had changed since Abraham Lincoln's own murder on April 14, 1865. Without belaboring the well-worn similarities between the two assassinations, it's enough to start out by saying that, long before their unofficial sainthood, both presidents were deeply unpopular in the south and their administrations had been embattled from the start.
Yet, as unpopular as both presidents were in certain circles, when they were slain, the nation went into a deep, profound shock. Lincoln was the first president ever assassinated and Kennedy the first in 62 years. In 1865, even the newly-readmitted south that had vilified Lincoln was stunned and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was the most hunted and hated man in America. This reportedly had stunned Booth while he was on the run. He thought the remnants of the Confederacy would hail him as a hero. He was wrong.
In the movie Unforgiven, the late Richard Harris as "English Bob" is talking about the assassination of President James Garfield. He says,
English Bob: Well, there's a dignity in royalty. A majesty that precludes the likelihood of assassination. If you were to point a pistol at a king or a queen your hands would shake as though palsied.
Barber: Oh, I wouldn't point no pistol at nobody, sir.
English Bob: Well, that's a wise policy, a wise policy. But if you did. I can assure you, if you did, that the sight of royalty would cause you to dismiss all thoughts of bloodshed and you would stand... how shall I put it? In awe. Now, a president... well I mean... [chuckles] why not shoot a president?Booth himself is unforgiven to this day and, if you persist in believing Oswald shot Kennedy, then he is, too. Because there are certain things that just aren't done. However much one may detest a president and his policies, depriving us of our leader for even a second endangers national security. It hurts the country and is an unforgivable affront to the dignity of the office of the presidency of the United States of America.
Yet, despite the impressive slate of progressive civil rights legislation in Kennedy's and Johnson's administrations, we seem to have taken a 360 to where we were prior to Kennedy's election. Not too long ago, Rand Paul wanted to abolish parts if not all the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and several redneck Republicans had been trying to overturn the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the Supreme Court essentially gutted it earlier this year by invalidating Section 5 as no longer germane.
And we're seeing a level of hatred aimed at our President from the right wing, every single bit of it misinformed and obviously based on nothing but racism, that makes the most embattled Clinton years look like a never-ending honeymoon by comparison. And I think, considering the level of hatred aimed at President Obama since he'd first thrown his hat in the center ring in 2007, that if someone were to do the unthinkable, he'd still be vilified. But it wouldn't be universal as it had been after Lincoln and Kennedy.
Because there really are certain factions, most of them in the south and the Midwest where Obama is most unpopular, that would love nothing more than to return "their" country back to the antebellum days when slavery was still legal and no one but white, male WASPs had any civil rights.
What were once sacred cows (Social Security, Medicare, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts) are now not only under serious fire but one signature piece of legislation has already been essentially neutered thanks to a deeply partisan and clueless Supreme Court, the most radical in American history. And Obama himself, acting in concert with Republicans, had already weakened Social Security by lowering the tax rate by 2% and is willing to cut benefits to appease the very same people who are calling him a Socialist.
50 years ago today, the nation was in deep mourning and if anyone had the nerve to celebrate Kennedy's death, it's been justifiably lost to posterity.
And if some Tea Partyer were to commit the unthinkable, I honestly do not see the nation being united in its grief as it had been as recently as 9/11. Aurora and Sandy Hook had proven that much.