Anyone over the age of seven, the world over, can tell you where he was on that day. John Fitzgerald Kennedy had evoked the imagination of the world even among those who considered him to be an inexperienced, preppy playboy, little different in political substance from Nixon or among those, like Kruschev, Castro or DeGaulle, who were not mired in sentimentalities about America or the forces that drove her.
There was something about Jack that shone through the carefully cultivated propaganda as opposed to Ronnie who only shined because of it. And what shone through was simply a reflection of the projected hopes of mankind. Truly great statesmen are devoid of content; the greater their emptiness the more they can act as a transparent prism for the light that appears to emanate from them.
We were curious about what I.F. Stone -- the great counter-journalist of the Fifties and Sixties -- had to say about that day. We were struck by how, of all the blather that streamed over the coffin, Stone's remarks bear the balanced judgement of time.
"There was a fairy tale quality about the inaugural and there was a fairy tale quality about the funeral rites. One half expected ... some winged godmother would wave her wand and restore the hero whole again in final triumph over the dark forces which had slain him. ...
"Of all the Presidents this was the first to be a Prince Charming. ... To watch the President at press conference ... was to be delighted by his wit, his intelligence, his capacity and his youth. These made the terrible flash from Dallas incredible and painful.
"But perhaps the truth is that in some ways John Fitzgerald Kennedy died just in time ... to be remembered as he would like to be remembered, as ever young, still victorious, struck down undefeated...
"For... in the tangled dramaturgy of events this sudden assassination was ... the only satisfactory way out. The Kennedy Administration was approaching an impasse ... from which there seemed no escape.
"In congress the President was ... confronted with a shrewdly conceived and quietly staged sitdown strike by Southern committee chairmen determined to block civil rights even if it meant stopping the wheels of government altogether. ... Never before ... has the Southern oligarchy dared to go so far in demonstrating its power. ...
"In foreign policy the outlook was as uncompromising. It was proving difficult to move toward co-existence a country so long conditioned to cold war. The president recognized the dangers of an unlimited arms race... but was afraid ... to move at more than a snail's pace toward an agreement with Moscow. ... In Vietnam, the stepping up of the war by the rebels was deflating all the romantic Kennedy notions about counter-guerillas. ...
"Abroad, as at home, the problems were becoming too great for conventional leadership, and Kennedy, when the tinsel was stripped away, was a conventional leader, no more than an enlightened conservative... with a basic distrust of the people...."
[ Stone went on to list the belligerent deeds undertaken by Kennedy the Cold Warrior from the assassination of Lumumba in the Congo to Diem in Vietnam, from the Bay of Pigs fiasco to the Cuban Missile Crisis, before concluding: ]
"Where the right to kill is so universally accepted, we should not be surprised if our young President was slain. It is not just the ease in obtaining guns, it is the ease in obtaining excuses that fosters assassinations. ... When a whole people is in a state of mind where it is ready to risk extinction -- its own and everybody else's -- as a means of having its own way in an international dispute, the readiness for murder has become a way of life and a world menace. ... It would be well to think it over carefully before canonizing Kennedy as an apostle of peace." (Vol XI, No. 24 12/9/63 © www.ifstone.org)
It was all true enough and equally as depressing that so little has changed. But that is not why Kennedy has been canonised.
Kennedy's clarity allowed us to see our better selves in him. He was the man we wanted to be. The husband we wanted to have. The hero of our own ideals and the embodiment of what we expected from that cornucopia of hopes called "America."
I stood on the tombstone of a long dead patriot atop the knoll that overlooked where the slain man was being laid to rest. The air was crisp under a clear azure sky and the rays of the setting sun turned marble monuments a golden pink. The bagpipes droned their plaintive dirge as the flags whipped into the wind. I had never felt so sad, so proud to be an American.
That was the last time.