Sunday, November 23, 2008

DALLAS 1963: Our Defining Moment

The 60’s started 45 years ago today.

On November 22, 1963 President John F. Kennedy was shot through the head while riding in his convertible in Dallas. It was a beautiful day, and he and his wife were beautiful people. People lined the streets and waved. He had that megawatt smile going on all through Dealy Plaza, until something popped in the air and he grabbed his throat with both hands and slumped forward. Jackie Kennedy crawled over the back seat onto the trunk of the car. No one knows exactly why. It is a black and white image carved into the American collective psyche as deeply as a bomb hitting Pearl Harbor 22 years earlier, or planes hitting the World Trade Center 38 years later.

As it turns out, 45 years can offer huge perspective on what it all meant. The Kennedy assassination was the pivotal moment of the 20th century. Take the influenza epidemic of 1919, World War I, World War II, the Great Depression, the invention of talkies, the advent of television, Elvis and Sinatra, and added together they represent a fraction of the impact on the culture that Kennedy’s death had. We have never recovered. Not really. The moment the first shot rang out from the nearby school book depository, there was no turning back. For a long time, there was no moving forward either. We were paralyzed.

If you were not living then, and you wonder how this killing of Kennedy so altered the American psyche, consider this. Think about the groundswell of political worship heaped on Barack Obama in the past year or so, and especially right now. Then multiply that exponentially, and you will begin to comprehend the Kennedy influence on this country. It is not to say that everyone loved him. Like Obama, he did not win the 1960 election by a landslide. It was, in fact, a closer race than the Obama/McCain contest. But there was something about his ascent into the presidency that lit this nation up – way up. There was an aura – it was this seductive blend of charm, mystique, class, beauty, sex and power.

After the down home understatement of the Truman years and the lackluster grayness of the Eisenhower moment, the Kennedys were our Hollywood-perfect family leaders. We were starstruck.

Beyond our intoxication, however, was the indisputable evidence that November 22 changed the world. Television suddenly shifted from the great experiment it had always been to the true national conduit of information. Low tech, still evolving and certainly black and white, television grew up quickly once the President was rushed to Parkland Hospital. What follows is footage of NBC News struggling to report the assassination news,without the advantages of today's digital media:
The word was out among reporters that one side of his head had been shot off, but the decorum of the era dictated that this information would not be broadcast. It would be kept secret, just as Kennedy’s assignations with sex goddess Marilyn Monroe had been buried.Washington media knew all along about Monroe, but never reported it. The news of Kennedy’s missing flesh would be concealed as tightly as the information about his daily battles with pain from colitis and Addison’s disease. All of this is public knowledge today, but in 1963 journalists had boundaries, and they rarely colored outside the lines.

For those of us who were children, watching the next four days of non-stop television coverage--including the on-air murder of chief assassination suspect Lee Harvey Oswald—was surreal. In our young minds watching Oswald get shot as he was transported from his jail cell was pretty much just like watching a bad guy get shot on Gunsmoke. But the fear and shock on our parents’ faces was a whole new category of discomfort for us. Watch the following video to witness the exact moment that the television medium grew up:All in one day we found out that the President, previously considered invincible, was just a man; and our parents, previously considered to be unshakably grown up, were as shaken as children who had just been scolded. It was our introduction to the omnipotence of vulnerability.

What followed those November days was a redefining of the American culture. In a millisecond, the Beatles showed up on American soil and solidified an already burgeoning generation gap. Lyndon Johnson, the good ole boy, wheeler dealer Senator from Texas assumed the presidency, a role that would never suit him and ultimately prove to be his undoing.The Civil Rights movement took on a new sense of urgency until its leader, Dr. Martin Luther King came eye to eye with a bullet in Memphis. Perhaps in response to a decade of sheer turmoil, young Americans discovered and indulged in mind-altering drugs. Skirts went up, morality went down and the fully useless conflict called Vietnam claimed more than 50,000 American lives. For nothing. Nothing at all.

The sixties should be a cautionary tale for early 21st century American culture. With our economy tanking, and the nation again embroiled in a war without purpose, even a charismatic, charmer like Obama cannot be a one-man King Midas. Let’s see – how to put this: Hope Good - Unrealistic Expectations Bad. Or, a man, any man, even Obama, is just a man. A culture and its heritage should be our teachers and our guide. So yes we can. We can use the most critical moment from last century as our guide. With 45 years of collective wisdom in our national back pocket, I believe we can do much, much better this time. Yes, we can.


Nicole and Mon Voyage said...

There is an excellent TV documentary about the way reporting and news changed on Nov 22, produced by the local PBS station KERA. It is called "JFK: Breaking the News".

You can buy it, too:

Joan Eisenstodt said...

As I read this, Paul, I remembered back to those 4 days and how I felt .. and how my parents, who had lived through the Great Depression [has ours been given a name yet?] and WWII felt. I learned about President Kennedy's death in school where I had, the previous June, learned about Pope John XXIII's death -- and because both these men were Catholic (and I was and am not) I first thought of my friend, Suzy, and she and her family would cope.
You mentioned seeing the shooting of Oswald as if it were a gunfight on "Gunsmoke" and perhaps it was seen that way. Perhaps too many see murder - whether random or targeted on the streets of our country, or in a war zone - as not real and that's why it continues. I don't know. It was the news and it was the times -- and nothing has ever been the same.