I’ve heard about the JFK assassination in Dallas my whole life. Only the Civil Rights Movement, World War II and the Holocaust outrank JFK’s murder at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald (or numerous other candidates) as subjects more often discussed in pop history circles of which I’ve been a part. But with the fiftieth anniversary of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s upon us tomorrow (fifty years to both the day and date), the mythology of his presidency and the state of the nation’s soul since November 22, 1963 is well into high gear.
But of all the myths and legends — including this ridiculousness about Camelot and the Kennedys in the White House — there’s one that bothers me more than any other. The common refrain that “America lost its innocence” the day President Kennedy took three bullets to his back and head in Daley Plaza in Dallas. Really? What about Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley? What about slavery, the Civil War, the eradication and forced relocation of American Indians, nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Heck, what about the Cuban Missile Crisis, where JFK came within hours of jeopardizing the lives of eighty million Americans thirteen months before his murder?
The fact is, America has always been a violent nation, especially for those not in charge of running things here. But this bald-faced lie of a myth has been one built by those who were young when Oswald took out JFK. Teenager Baby Boomers and those only a few years older, big fans of President Kennedy, and those who loved him and lamented what could’ve been. Those are the folks that claim that the nation was young and innocent, but somehow deflowered on that dark, dark day.
I call poppycock and balderdash on this one. Like Malcolm X in the days after the JFK assassination, I say that this was an example of America’s violent chickens coming home to kill. Luckily it’s forty-nine years and 364 days later, so I won’t be setting up my own assassination at the hands of former friends and real foes. Yet there’s some truth to Malcolm X’s statement. In a country as violent as ours, where Presidents like Kennedy endure death threats day after day, where arguments and oppression lead to mass shootings, should we ever be surprised? Ever? I say that there was no innocence lost here.
No, what we should really be discussing this week in terms of what could’ve been is RFK’s assassination in June ’68 in California. For all the sorrow over JFK’s murder, one good thing came out of it. President Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ took the best parts of JFK’s potential legacy — civil rights, the spreading of prosperity and Vietnam — and doubled down on it. Given LBJ’s scope of influence when compared with JFK’s, it was doubtful if the slain president could’ve pushed through half of what LBJ did get done. LBJ revealed himself to be to the left of JFK, a real Cold War liberal (for better and for worse), and not a borderline centrist.
Of course, RFK likely wouldn’t have had the chance to run in ’68 but for his brother’s assassination. Keep in mind, too, that LBJ’s successes, failures and decision to not run for re-election also made Robert F. Kennedy’s run possible. But bottom line: RFK’s assassination affected America political and culturally in ways that have been deeper and longer lasting than even JFK’s. For starters, Americans likely do not elect Richard Nixon president in ’68 if RFK’s steadying influence is present at the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago. That would’ve set up some real opposition to the neo-conservative movement and the ’70s and ’80s backlash against Blacks, women, gays and labor that had been brewing since JFK’s assassination in ’63.
I know that many of you will vehemently disagree, shake your heads, or deliberately ignore the ideas of this post. What else is new in the land of the Baby Boomers, where a few so-called activists get to tell the rest of us how to see the 77 million of them and their growing up years? I say that this narrative is worn out, and neglects the reality that neither JFK nor America were innocent, but RFK’s evolving left-of-center integrity was a much bigger loss.