It was a time of chivalry, of knights and ladies, performing like actors in an ethereal Brigadoon, evoking visions of a Camelot long past. John Fitzgerald Kennedy served as President of the United States from January 20, 1960 until November 22, 1963. As Americans, we were proud of ourselves. It was a time of shining promise where all the world looked to us for leadership and admired us for who and what we were.
Washington D.C. was aglitter with dazzling performances at the White House by world famous artists and composers like Yo Yo Ma, Arthur Fiedler and Leonard Bernstein. Literature, art and music were shown, performed and appreciated in the cultured atmosphere of a latter day Renaissance. It was a good time to be young and alive and American. Kennedy and his gracious and charming wife Jacqueline Bouvier, newly ensconced in the White House, were representative of all the best that America could produce.
Jack Kennedy’s wit, charm and rapier-like repartee cowed and cajoled the media into an adoring fan club. Even when we stumbled as a nation, like the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba, Kennedy was quick to admit his error and move on. The press and the nation as a whole were both forgiving and understanding. Our nation eagerly followed the lifestyle of the Kennedys and their children Caroline and John jr. like adoring grandparents waiting, always waiting for a chance to see more of them. Washington D.C. seemed alive with purpose. The government had a recognizable agenda that encompassed the interests of the world, both rich and poor.
Russian Premier Nikita Kruschev seemed dowdy and backwards by comparison, a spectral and malignant presence with which mothers used to frighten their children. Young Jack Kennedy, like a modern day Lochinvar, stood eye ball to eye ball with mighty Kruschev during the Cuban missile crisis. Surprising everyone, the dowdy old heir to Lenin’s philosophical throne blinked first. Whether Kennedy was lucky or just a recipient of better advice and better instincts is something best left for future Historians to decide. It seemed like an invigorated young America could do anything.
Domestically, we saw the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. Powerful spokes people, like Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy jr., Julian Bond among others, emotively invoked the spirit of constitutional equality that some claimed had long lain dormant for parts of our society. Equality for all under the law, regardless of creed or color became a rallying cry. Kennedy supported the movement from Washington and our nation was forever changed for the better. A new-found idealism was ablaze in the Republic.
This democratic idealism flamed brightly and morphed into missionary zeal. Tens of thousands of young ambassadors ranged forth amidst the third world countries under the sponsorship of the Peace Corps. Basic sanitation, nutrition, primary education and survival skills were exported along with the revolutionary flame of democratic idealism. The world was changing and America was at its epicenter. The cracks in the Iron Curtain were starting to widen. They would develop and find purchase, expanding twenty years later with the final collapse of the Soviet Union. But it was during the years of the Kennedy Administration that many of the seeds of division were first planted and nurtured.
It was a simpler and easier time to be an American. There were clearly defined enemies and friends in the world community. Patriotism was unabashedly in vogue. The P.T. 109 and the fifty thousand sailors who had shipped her, sailing with young Jack Kennedy on that ten crew member boat in the South Pacific, popped up every where. Wags used to comment that there must have been an elevator on the single deck PT 109, to handle all the men who claimed to have sailed in her.
We had recently helped win W.W.II , saving much of the world from domination by the forces of evil. American money and military prowess had freed millions from Communism and saved Greece and Turkey from the red menace. We rebuilt the industrial sectors of Germany and Japan from the rubble heaps of WW II. Compassion was long a hallmark of the American psyche and by extension, its foreign policy. Our ideals were alive and shining bright. As a people, Americans believed in our government.
Baseball was our national past time then. It is a pastoral game, reflective of a gentler more bucolic era in America. It was a time when rural folks and their simpler, agrarian way of life were preeminent. Crowded cities, with all their many urban problems seemed so very far away. The cities were expanding with waves of young people seeking better opportunities. They had “seen Paree” during the various wars overseas and wanted something different for their families. Millions of Americans had come back from service in World War II and Korea. Many millions of Vets got a college education on the G.I. Bill and then settled down in their own homes in newly sprung up places called suburbia.
The general public knew nothing about J. Edgar Hoover and his antics or indeed the bedroom and back room shenanigans of many of our leaders. No one before then had ever wanted to know that type of information. It was deemed unseemly and in poor taste. We trusted our elected leaders like children do their parents. Soon enough we would be disillusioned, with examples of graphic reality.
And then one day in Dallas, this glittering era of light and promise all came to an end. Young Lochinvar was slain while traveling in a motorcade in Dealy Plaza - Dallas, Texas. It doesn’t really matter who took him down. Some, like the Warren Commission, believed in the ‘magic bullet’ theory. One evil, steel-jacketed round, delivered by a single malcontent, had allegedly pierced through twenty bodies, punctured twelve tires and let the air out of forty children’s balloons on its way to killing a young president. Others, both more thoughtful and more cynical, posited that three coordinated gunmen with rifles, working for a sinister cabal of disaffected American interests, had triangulated President Kennedy from the Dallas book depository, a grassy knoll and a bridge overpass. It didn’t really matter. Jack Kennedy was dead.
The poignant image of three year old “John John ,” saluting his father’s casket, was a powerful visual reminder to a nation already bereft and in mourning. Kennedy’s alleged assassin had once defected to Russia and had a history of circumstances that would provide novelists like Robert Ludlum enough conspiracy subject matter to write about for a century. Paranoia was in the air. The purported gunman was shot down by Jack Ruby, a fringe mob character, one day later. No one knew what to believe about who was involved in this presidential murder. Conspiracy theories sprouted like wild flowers after a spring rain.
Lyndon Baynes Johnson, a legendary Texas Senator and Vice President stepped in to fill the void left by the slain young Kennedy, but it was never again to be the same. It felt like the air had escaped from our national balloon. LBJ labored mightily, even managing against great opposition, passage of much of JFK’s social legislation and other liberal elements of his own Great Society Program. But it seemed like the emotive heart had gone out of the country. Brief moments of grandeur, like Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon’s surface, helped somewhat. We all remembered when a handsome and dynamic young Jack Kennedy had set landing on the moon in ten years as a goal for our country. It was then a fantastic idea that most of us had never even dreamed of. And now, the promise had been fulfilled. But the gathering gloom of our national darkness was spreading, eclipsing even this fantastic event.
The long national trauma of the Viet Nam war, followed by the tragicomic and keystone-cops buffoonery of the Watergate Scandal, served as a fateful denouement in what had become for us a decade long national trial. From this point on, many Americans never again fully trusted their government. There were decent men and women who came along afterwards of course. An improbable California actor helped tear down the Berlin Wall and bring the mighty Soviet Union to its financial knees. But it didn’t seem to matter. By then the collective national cynicism had become deeply ingrained. Everyone knew that lobbyists, power brokers and other forces who operate out of sight in Washington were the real manipulators of the levers of governmental machinery. Flood tides of cash apparently purchased policy decisions irrespective of the common good. Everything seemed to be for sale. Our national psyche was not so delicate that it would collapse like a child's balloon when punctured. Rather, Kennedy’s assassination was so outrageous, and apparently involved so many elements of our society that the nation seemed in shock from the horror of it. The feeling persists even now decades later. We have known assassination and murder in our collective history. But none had been performed at the behest of a shadowy and sinister cabal since that of the murder of Abraham Lincoln. The brutality of the murder shocked us to the core of our national being then and as it did now.
Governments of, by and for the people exist as long as we believe in them. Like spectral and ethereal Brigadoons, they float gossamer-like in our consciousness. They are a very real product of our hearts, minds and imaginations. With John F. Kennedy's assassination our national self had been shattered as never before and Camelot had fallen.
Given the resiliency of our philosophical make-up and our deeply held idealism, Americans will recover from this national malaise when some dynamic personage again seizes our minds and our imaginations. He or she will lead us again on that shining quest, a search for that ethereal Brigadoon, that lost specter of a national Camelot that Americans had once held so dear. Until that time we can but remember what much of our nation has now forgotten. That once there was a time when Knights and Ladies and chivalry had flowered, one bright shining moment that we had called an American Camelot.