Today marks exactly a half-century since the assassination of the man on the half-dollar. Incredibly, for a nation that lives in the now and doesn’t hold on to past trauma for long, we still treat the JFK assassination as something immediate and personal.
The trauma of the assassination was threefold:
1) JFK WAS THE FIRST TV PRESIDENT. The public related to him as a romantic lead as much as a head of state. Eisenhower and Truman were like Fred Mertz, but JFK was Ricky Ricardo. He was young, with it, and had a movie star wife. He was the nation’s leading man, and his sudden murder, so early in the plot, jarred people accordingly.
2) THE ACTUAL KILLING WAS CAUGHT ON TAPE. In today’s era of ubiquitous cameras and universal Internet access, footage of gruesome deaths is commonplace for the morbidly curious. But that’s all pretty new. Before 2000, to have something like the Zapruder footage that can be slowed down and replayed over and over again to hone in on the actual moment of a bullet’s impact, is a rarity. People just didn’t see footage of killings, period. To have the first such grim documentation be that of no less a figure than the President of the U.S.A. amplifies the shock value drastically.
Over the ensuing years, that kind of primetime news footage would become more normalized with our incursion into Vietnam. In fact, the first Technicolor self-immolation of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk had already taken place five months before Kennedy’s assassination, and the apex of this primetime death gallery would come when a Vietnamese officer calmly shoots a blindfolded prisoner in the head on the streets of Saigon in 1968.
Americans watched this with dinner.
People say it was the tension of the Cuban missile crisis that forced American youth to contemplate their own violent, unnatural deaths in a personal way, and that this was what led to the unrestrained, sometimes violent, acting out of the 1960s generation. But maybe it was the trauma of seeing an uncensored headshot take out the most powerful man in the world that triggered this latent angst.
Or maybe it was sitting in front of the television a couple of days later, as the world tuned in to catch its first glimpse of Lee Harvey Oswald, and ending up seeing and hearing a man getting murdered really up close and personal.
With all the trauma witnessed that grim weekend in Dallas, is it so surprising that the children of the early 60s would grow into the rebels of the late 60s?
3) THE GRIM AFTERMATH. With the Kennedy assassination still so raw and fresh some 50 years later, it’s surprisingly easy to forget just how close we came to losing another U.S. President to an assassin’s bullet 32 years ago.
Though elected to the presidency a full 20 years after Kennedy was, Ronald Reagan was actually born six years before JFK. Even before he took office, Reagan was known as the old President every bit as much as Kennedy had been known as the young President.
Just weeks into his first term, Reagan was ambushed by John Hinckley. Of course, Lee Harvey Oswald was a Marine sharpshooter with a scoped rifle and unfettered access to his target while Hinckley was a warped romantic with a handgun and a limited opportunity to hit his mark. Nonetheless, one of Hinckley’s bullets did manage to pierce Reagan’s thorax from close range and he was rushed to the hospital. Another inch and the bullet would have hit Reagan’s heart and he’d likely have been a goner.
And yet, despite being shot at close range and rushed into emergency surgery, the septuagenarian Reagan made a full recovery with zero complications, and went on to serve two full terms with record popularity. It was as if he’d never been hit at all.
Because Reagan made a full and almost immediate recovery, we don’t have to play the what-if game with him. But with Kennedy that’s all we do. What if Kennedy had lived? What if Kennedy had completed his term and been reelected to a second one?
So much of the 60s and even 70s would have played out differently. For starters, LBJ’s presidential arc would have been vastly different, and needless to say so would Nixon’s.
No Nixon, no Watergate. Without Watergate it’s unlikely an outsider like Jimmy Carter would have gotten anywhere near the White House in 1976. Which means that it really wasn’t until Reagan in 1980 that America returned to a state of normalcy similar to that which existed before Kennedy was assassinated.
Maybe that’s why Reagan was so beloved by the silent majority. Not because of his policies or personal charm per se, but because he did it. He became the first president since Eisenhower to ride out two full terms and make America feel normal again.
For the supernaturally inclined, there’s also Tecumseh’s curse. Beginning in 1840, every U.S. President elected in a “0” year (1840, 1860, 1880, 1900, 1920, 1940, 1960) died in office. To date, these are the only seven presidents to have died while serving, and in four cases it was by an assassin’s bullet. As the president elected in 1980, Reagan was next in line for the curse. But despite getting shot in the chest and being older than any other U.S. President to take office, he became the first to beat it.
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Ronald Reagan, the oldest elected president, offers a contrast to John Kennedy, the youngest elected president. Kennedy was the James Dean of Commanders-in-Chief. He died young, good-looking, and far too soon. And the tragic death of his brother, Bobby, less than five years later, only twisted the knife in further.
In the period that would have been JFK’s second term had he been reelected, the Sixties had spiraled distressingly out of control. But just one election cycle later, 1968, the nation was offered a lifeline, a second chance at a young, good-looking Kennedy to right the course and get the country back on the track it had been on before JFK had been killed. And once again, the glimmer of hope was snuffed out by an assassin’s bullet.
If you tried to pitch this as a movie script, it would test the bounds of credulity. And yet, it was no movie. It was the 1960s.