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2003-11-20 / This Week's Attitude

This Week’s

By Neil S. Friedman
This Week’s Attitude By Neil S. Friedman JFK’s Legacy Withstands Revisionist Discredits

JFK’s Legacy Withstands Revisionist Discredits

It’s really no surprise that there’s an assortment of programming, which began last week, marking Saturday’s 40th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Forty’s a nice round number, as if the occasion was any less noteworthy for the 28th or 36th? It’s also in keeping with our culture’s unending obsession with the mystery surrounding the 35th president’s slaying and fascination with the Kennedy family.

We traditionally commemorate the birthdays of distinguished historical figures. However, when it comes to John Fitzgerald Kennedy we designate his death to remember him. That’s certainly because of the tragic manner in which he died, but more significantly, due to the impact of television’s shifting impact of disseminating current events.

Certainly, no episode in the last 60 years of Ame-rican history — until September 11, 2001 — affected America’s collective conscious as much as JFK’s assassination. For many post-WWII baby boomers — including yours truly — who were teenagers at the time, it remains an agonizing signpost we’ll never forget.

The lunchtime news of the assassination was soon followed by a report confirming, "President Kennedy is dead," which sent shockwaves across a startled nation and world. The ensuing days of mourning remain as fresh as that Friday afternoon when the bulletin interrupted the NBC program I was watching.

From the instant when correspondent Robert McNeil relayed the report from Dallas, and for the next three, numbing days, my family, and indeed most of the world, sat glued to televisions and radios uneasily awaiting any bits of information about the tragedy and the unfolding aftermath.

Some moments of that weekend stamped in my memory include: watching Jack Ruby shoot prime suspect Lee Harvey Oswald; thousands passing the coffin lying in state under the Capitol rotunda; the unhurried funeral procession; the isolated riderless horse; the six gray horses bearing the flag-draped casket; the steady, echoing drumbeats; the poised widow holding her two young children’s hands; the moving image when 3-year-old John-John saluted as his father’s casket passed.

My singular personal Kennedy experience was when the young senator was campaigning for the presidency in Brooklyn in the summer of 1960. A friend and I went to the rally and waited hours among the hundreds assembled along Kings High-way from Ocean to Coney Island avenues. As we stood at the East 16 Street intersection, opposite Dubrow’s cafeteria, we were constantly pushed and shoved by an energized crowd anxiously awaiting the candidate’s motorcade.

As the police escort cleared a path, the car with Kennedy got closer and I finally could see him. Larry and I tried to inch closer to his limousine, in which he stood and waved. Getting no closer than 50 feet or so, I still recall his full head of reddish hair and engaging smile. We wanted to be one of the lucky ones who got to shake his hand, but more enthusiastic supporters prevented us from getting near him. The entourage stopped briefly, he made a few remarks, but in minutes the car was gone. Larry and I felt we’d just seen the man who might be the next president. In the frenzy of the subsequent crowd dispersal, my friend lost a shoe and my shirtsleeve was torn. But it was worth it.

Revisionist history, for the most part, has discredited the Kennedy legacy, unearthing facts about extramarital indulgences and ties to organized crime. However, his unfulfilled promises and his distinctive vigor and charisma were beacons that inspired many approaching adulthood at the time.

Yet, despite his blemished personal life, it can never expunge the JFK legacy that created the Peace Corps, accelerated the space program, marshaled forces at the University of Mississippi that paved the way for an era of equality for black Americans and faced down the Russians in a nuclear confrontation that could have had devastating global consequences.

While his inaugural address, in part, depicted the new president as a Cold War advocate, several months before his death, Kennedy’s position had obviously changed, when he said, "…our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future…"

Despite holding office for a mere thousand days, which is too brief to suitably evaluate a presidency, the sense of anticipation and optimism, which JFK instilled in a generation that was too young to vote for him, is immeasurable. And it willingly accepted the symbolic torch that John F. Kennedy passed to the new generation preparing to face a drastically changing world.

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