The tragedy and ramifications
of JFK’s assassination 53 years ago are still being felt
It can be argued that the political movement of suspicion, negativity and intolerance that swept Donald Trump to a presidential election victory was born on the day Kennedy was gunned down
By David Maril
I never thought I would think this, but with all the turmoil and uncertainty surrounding the aftermath of our contentious election season, it’s almost a welcome diversion thinking back to the national period of mourning we experienced when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, 53 years ago.
November 22 will always have strong significance for those of us who were old enough in 1963 to absorb the impact. Every year when the date of Nov. 22 approaches on the calendar, the memories of the tragedy return. We recall where we were and what we were doing when we heard of the shooting. Many of us still remember those black-and-white television images of people, for three days, standing on street corners, sobbing.
Although this was long before the days of the Internet, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and around-the-clock TV news coverage, everyone camped-out in front of their televisions, watching this grim saga unfold, hoping that Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley could make some sense of the tragedy.
The usually unflappable Cronkite came close to crying when he first read the bulletin that Kennedy had died. Huntley, usually an anchorman of strict formality, was moved enough to go off on a tangent, editorializing about the dangers of hate and violence in the country.
From Friday afternoon through the graveside ceremony on Monday, the nation listened to a soundtrack of muffled drumbeats and somber military hymns accompanying the sad images of JFK’s family in shock and mourning.
WHETHER OR NOT YOU AGREED with Kennedy politically, there is no question he was a charismatic figure. After the drab Eisenhower years, the youthful Kennedy conveyed optimism and — one of his favorite words — vigor. Perhaps his most positive legacy is influencing many young people to make sacrifices and become interested in public service, bolstering such organizations as the Peace Corp.
Kennedy’s death, not even three years into his first term as president, accelerated a growth of cynicism with politics and government. It’s not far-fetched to theorize that the national movement of suspicion, negativity and intolerance that helped sweep Donald Trump to a presidential election victory, was born on Nov. 23, 1963.
Before Kennedy’s body had even been flown from Dallas to Andrews Air Force base that Friday night, conspiracy theories were already spreading. Although Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested and was the chief suspect, many Americans believed he was either a pawn or being used as a scapegoat to draw attention away from the true assassins.
The paranoia increased with the unbelievable sight, on live national television, of Oswald being shot as he was moved to a different jail location, by Jack Ruby. The ineffectiveness of the Dallas police in preventing Oswald’s murder made the possibility of a conspiracy and a coverup seem even more likely.
FOLLOWING OVER HALF A CENTURY of commission reports, investigations, miles of film footage, hundreds of books and dozens of documentaries, the numerous conspiracy theories remain strong today. They include:
Kennedy was hit by more than one assassin.
The CIA was behind the assassination because Kennedy was considered too liberal and a threat to the organization’s power.
It was the Mafia, as payback for Kennedy not fulfilling campaign promises he’d made.
Lyndon Johnson set the whole thing up so he could become president.
It was a right-wing hate group.
It was a Communist plot, tied in with the hard-line stance against Fidel Castro.
It was related to retaliation for foreign assassination plots the U.S. was accused of supporting.
THE FACT MANY RECORDS RELATED to the assassination remain sealed have fueled the speculation. Over the years, there have been unsubstantiated reports Kennedy’s body was tampered with after the assassination and photos of his wounds were altered.
After Kennedy’s’ death, unrest and skepticism of the government grew with the division in the country over the war in Vietnam and — in 1968— the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. This unrest made the JFK years, dominated by family “Camelot” images, seem even more appealing and his assassination a greater tragedy.
And it’s a story that won’t die. John F. Kennedy continues to make news.
In 1999, his son, John Jr., was killed in a plane crash. Revealing books about JFK’s personal life are still being written. When the sealed government records are finally released, more revelations will no doubt surface.
BUT NO MATTER HOW ASTOUNDING any new information is, nothing will be as numbing as the news we heard on that November day in 1963.
Despite worldwide terrorism, assassinations of presidents are not commonplace in our society. Kennedy was only our fourth president to be slain in office.
It’s true many Americans don’t know much about the assassinations of William McKinley and James Garfield. Garfield served less than a year and McKinley, whose biggest claim may have been defeating William Jennings Bryan twice, was overshadowed by Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders storming up San Juan Hill.
Although it’s been over 151 years since Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, there’s still significant interest in the details of the event. Historians ponder how the nation’s recovery after the Civil War might have been smoother if Lincoln had been able to serve his full second term. There’s continuing speculation on what the magnitude of Lincoln’s overall accomplishments would have been.
THIS ISN’T TO SAY THAT JFK WAS IN LINCOLN’S CLASS as a president of greatness. He made a major foreign policy mistake, with the Bay of Pigs, early in his term and he was slow, at first, to push for Civil Rights legislation. In recent years his reputation has suffered because of revelations about the controversial prescription drugs he was taking to subdue the pain from his physical ailments. Additionally, the published details about his philandering makes Bill Clinton and Donald Trump seem strait-laced.
Still, Kennedy is an important president because of his leadership impact on the nation. He revived a spirit of optimism and an interest, especially among the young, to pursue public service in this country and all over the world.
After a few stumbles, he grew into the job, standing up against the threat of a U.S. steel strike, holding his own against Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis and waking up to the work needed in Civil Rights.
Kennedy, who’d barely defeated Richard Nixon in 1960, was solidifying his overall base. Although he seemed liberal to some, he defied left-wing and right-wing labels. Kennedy once commented the problem with liberals was they didn’t care enough about winning and the problem with conservatives was they didn’t care enough about issues affecting people.
KENNEDY’S ASSASSINATION WAS A SHOCK to this country and shifted the mood from hope and enthusiasm to unrest, cynicism and violence. Historically, there’s even more speculation about Kennedy than Lincoln over what his final accomplishments would have been. Would Kennedy have pulled back from the Vietnam War quagmire? Would all the vigor and positive activism he’d fostered have continued to grow? Would he have been as effective as Lyndon Johnson in passing important Civil Rights legislation?
And, in contrast to Lincoln, the conspiracy issue will always surround Kennedy’s assassination. There’s a public fascination with whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone or even was the murderer. It’s no surprise that the Sixth Floor Museum at the former Book depositary, where Oswald fired the fatal shots, is one of the biggest tourist attractions in North Texas.
I believe this continuing interest in the Kennedy assassination is a good sign. Despite the violence and terrorism that is unfortunately such a big part of the modern world, the assassination of a U.S. president is still considered shocking, out of character and unacceptable in our country. If we get to the point where the JFK assassination is relegated to a paragraph or two in American history text books, we’re in big trouble.
David Maril has been a columnist, sports editor and copy editor at three newspapers published in Massachusetts, winning numerous writing and section-design awards. As sports editor of the Milford Daily News, he covered the Boston Red Sox, Celtics and the New England Patriots. At the Brockton Enterprise he served as vice president of the newspaper’s guild, dealing with contract negotiations and workforce issues through difficult economic times. He also served on the board of the Boston Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, where he is a lifetime member and voter in Major League Baseball’s annual Cooperstown Hall of Fame balloting. For several years was a columnist for Voice Of Baltimore. The son of the late artist Herman Maril, whose work is included in over 100 museum collections, David splits his time between Cape Cod, MA and Baltimore, MD. He currently serves as president of the Herman Maril Foundation, which supports curatorial projects, art education programs and exhibitions related to the study of his father’s work. The website, featuring his father’s artwork, is hermanmaril.com. A graduate of Park School in Brooklandville, MD, David majored in English at Clark University in Worcester, MA.
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