Fiftieth anniversaries of landmark events, whether they were moments of triumph or tragedy, are in a class of their own. For one thing, only those above a certain age remember them at all, which reduces the pool of shared experience. For another, even the most indelible of memories tend to dim and blur with time.
But something about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas 50 years ago defies the dimming of memory. The grim events of Nov. 22, 1963, and the days following remain uncommonly vivid for those who experienced them.
In the years since his death, Kennedy has in many ways become more a figure of legend than of history. The "Camelot" myth — that for one brief, shining moment America stood at the threshold of a greatness that an assassin’s bullet cruelly denied us — has acquired a life of its own.
Myth is what it is, of course. Some of JFK’s more mundane political frustrations, and revelations about a personal life marred by repeated infidelities and other indiscretions, have brought him back to human dimensions.
But it is no myth that Kennedy radiated youth and the untarnished idealism that goes with it. A veteran of the Second World War, he offered a vision of shared sacrifice not as a doleful chore but as an American privilege. The most famous line of his most famous speech encouraged us to make the greatest demands not of our country, but of ourselves. He insisted that the space program and other ambitious projects were important "not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
His worst failure and his greatest triumph both involved Cuba. The disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 brought international ridicule on the Kennedy White House and the country, especially from Cuban Premier Fidel Castro. (A dozen years later, characters from the Bay of Pigs fiasco would reappear in an equally inept escapade that would become known as Watergate.) The following year, Kennedy stood down Premier Nikita Khrushchev over Soviet missiles bases in Cuba, and pulled the world back from the brink of nuclear war.
A full-term or two-term JFK presidency might, of course, have been an abject failure. The insupportable burdens of an aggressive (and expensive) domestic agenda and the war in Vietnam might have crushed Kennedy the way they crushed his successor, Lyndon Johnson.
We’ll never know, because of a bullet that ended a life and a presidency, spawned endless conspiracy theories and made Abraham Zapruder a household name by virtue of the most famous home video in American history.
If Kennedy is remembered by millions as a great president — in many cases by people who don’t actually "remember" him at all — it’s probably for what Americans wanted him to be and many still believe he might have been.
"Do not pray for easy lives," John F. Kennedy once said. "Pray to be stronger men." Those words would prove to be strangely prescient in the decade to come.
— McClatchy Tribune News Services