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Culture
The Late, Great Johnny Ace

22 Nov 2013
Jack Kennedy learned to live with death from an early age. Like many second sons, he was a pale shadow of his older brother, who was named for their father and bred for the presidency from an early age. Jack was frail and of ill health; even during college special arrangements were required to make it possible to keep up with studies while spending extensive time in the hospital, where he almost died. Only Joe Junior's premature death pushed him into the family limelight. He was so thin, so fragile, that he looked like a kid until his late thirties, when cortisone shots filled him out and gave him a seeming appearance of newly found maturity.

None of this was public knowledge on the day he died. That day was destined to be remembered as a milestone in life - in the lives of everyone. My parents, who at 31 and 32 were barely younger than Jackie on this day 50 years ago, identified strongly with the new, younger generation of leadership; my dad, also called Jack in place of John, in particular experienced it in the military, where the postwar generation came in with new attitudes, such as enthusiasm for desegregation.

Dad was overseas that fateful day. Most of my awareness of the event was reflected through others. I was in fourth grade in Fort Worth, my principal the brother of Estes Kefauver, Adlai Stevenson's former running mate. Everyone knew that Kennedy was in town that morning, and going to Dallas; one classmate went to Love Field for his arrival, and related the experience over the school's PA system - just about the time he was being shot. Rumors spread throughout afternoon recess. We knew something was up because the teachers were visibly upset but saying nothing.

Immediately after recess, the shooting was announced over the PA system - and many students cheered, reflecting their parents' extreme hatred for Kennedy (right-wing oil man Nelson Bunker Hunt had paid for "Wanted for Treason" posters that were spread around the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex).

My mother came to pick me up early from school due to a doctor's appointment. Since our TV was broken that day, my teacher had to tell her the news.

"Oh my God," she exclaimed. "You mean Lyndon Johnson is President?"

In the coming days she often compared the event to her own experience as a child - the death of Franklin Roosevelt. She was 12 years old, and he had been President her entire life.

Whether it is an experience of recent generations, or whether it is common for each generation to have a milestone tragedy around which their lives are centered, I do not know. Since Kennedy's death there have been two more: the Challenger explosion, and the 9/11 attacks, which I know my children's generation will always remember. I will be happy if I have reached the limit, but I am not betting on it.

In the last 50 years there has been much mythology about the politics and presidency of Jack Kennedy. Conservatives in particular try to co-opt his agenda when they can, while ignoring his essentially progressive tendencies.

If nothing else, John Fitzgerald Kennedy saved the world. Literally. It is possible this can be said of no other man, but he crafted the uneasy truce and stand-down from the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time of the his showdown with Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev, one of my now-retired veteran friends was sitting in a B-52 nuclear bomber, fueling for takeoff from Biloxi Air Force Base - where I was living at the time. We were closer to world nuclear war than anyone in the public realized at the time. If Kennedy had served two full terms and accomplished nothing else, that one accomplishment is good enough to put him near the upper ranks of presidents.

We Baby Boomers have long said that the sixties began on November 22, 1963 - and ended on August 8, 1974, resignation day for Richard Nixon, who lost to Kennedy in 1960 by less than one vote per precinct. If Nixon had been President during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I wonder, would any of us be alive today?


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