Friday, November 22, 2013


On this day, half a century ago, three shots rang out in downtown Dallas, Texas. Time stood still, a president was dead and a nation was left in shock. A bright and cheerful Dealey Plaza turned chaotic, and the city of Dallas was scarred forever. A lone shooter and a rifle is all it took. Fifty years on, that day remains fresh in the minds of those who were old enough to grapple with the aftermath. For those of us who were born after, the story of John F. Kennedy has been seared via countless books, films, buildings and memorials. Much like the untimely deaths of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Salvador Allende, Patrice Lumumba and many others are mourned everyday, John F. Kennedy is remembered as a man who stood for universal values of peace, democracy, equality and human rights.

When assassinated, Kennedy had served just over a thousand days as president. In that short period he had captured the imagination of people all over. The three alphabets, JFK, came to symbolize someone larger than life. His youthfulness was seductive. He was the first president brought to the American living rooms via the mass medium of television and he knew how to use it to his advantage. There was an instant connection and the romance that emerged, lasts to this day. His charisma was enhanced by his wife, children and wardrobe and the whole package was endearingly branded "Camelot" for many Americans.

The 1950s were a very prosperous time in America. There was a respite from the wars and while Europe was rebuilding itself from the carnage, America was intact, and therefore had a lead. For the first time ever middle class families owned homes, cars and refrigerators. Schools, highways, shopping malls and libraries were being built at breakneck speed. Families had leisure time and extra money and wanted to be entertained. Movies, television, music and car companies all fed this thirst and a new America began to take shape. The suburbs were birthed and the cities were transformed. Kennedy sensed this shift and knew he could be the one to lead America into the sixties as a man of the times. So when he defeated Richard Nixon in a televised presidential debate (many concluded he lost in the radio version) he arrived on the scene. He was inaugurated on January 20th, 1961 to become the youngest, the first to be born of the century and the first Catholic president. His election was no land slide victory though, it was a photo finish. He won by 119,000 votes in the popular count.

Even though Kennedy was somewhat of an outsider to the style of politics of the time, his pedigree was as elite as elite can be. Born into a wealthy family one of nine children, his father Joseph Kennedy was a tough Irishman who wanted all his sons to be president. Harvard educated, with an impeccable war record, he had all that he needed to make a run for the highest office in the land. The Kennedy's, infamously had made their money during prohibition bootlegging liquor and since had multiplied their money to buy into power and privilege. Kennedy paid his dues as a politician by serving as a congressman for six years and a senator for seven and when the time came, was ready to fulfill his father's dream.

What made Kennedy appealing to many, was his youthful appearance. The sixties in America were just beginning to get interesting. Elvis Presley, Marlyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and others were in vogue. Hollywood was exploding and a sense of sexual liberation and freedom that would define a generation was laying its foundation. The young were setting the mood, away from the conservative and puritanical mode of the past. Kennedy fit right in and was certainly part of that milieu and consciously wanted to be associated with its evolution. He fraternized with the glitterati from Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Frank Sinatra to Walter Cronkite. He was known to be a serial philanderer, had questionable connections to the mafia and some of his adventures were quite un-presidential. He was lucky to have lived and died in a time when privacy was respected and the media was interested in only what mattered to the public at large.

Kennedy even today is the poster boy for the liberals as Ronald Reagan is to the conservatives. Kennedy certainly lifted the stature of the Democrats and single handedly steered the black vote solidly their way, which up until then was Republican. By coming to Martin Luther King's aid when he was arrested in Atlanta at a sit in, he became popular among African Americans who were in the thick of fighting for civil liberties. While Kennedy was perceived to stand for modern, liberal, secular values which many Democrats still harp about as the foundations of the party, in reality he was a moderate. In comparison to his brothers Ted and Bobby, he was borderline conservative. As a chief executive he was fiscally cautious and constrained. Even though the black population favored him, in reality he was hesitant and timid about civil rights, and frustrated many of the civil rights leaders until finally articulating his vision in June of 1963. When the Russians launched "Sputnik", the first satellite into space, it de facto triggered the space race, arms race and the cold war. In response it is often imagined that Kennedy was the one who dreamed of putting man on the moon to shame the Russians. But in fact he wanted to send astronauts to Mars and had to be talked out of it because it was impractical. Kennedy was perturbed by the cost of space exploration and actually said "Why should we spend that kind of dough to put man on the moon?" He even spoke to the Russian premier about ending the space race and establishing a joint Soviet-Russian partnership for a moon landing.

Despite all of it, in the short time Kennedy was president, he inadvertently lay the foundation for important things to come. He established the Peace corps, successfully steered out of a nuclear confrontation with Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis, pushed for racial desegregation and women's rights and started the Vietnam war. His vice president and successor Lyndon Johnson, actually saw many of his plans bear fruit. He managed to pass the civil rights bill through congress despite monumental opposition. He landed the first man on the moon. Created programs such as food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid to tackle poverty, but took America deeper into the Vietnam war.

As we remember JFK on this day, his legacy and enigma is strong as ever among Americans, partly because like Elvis he died young and because the aura of his lineage still endures. As a testament to that, his daughter was recently appointed the Ambassador to Japan and despite individual failings and mishaps among family members, the weight of the Kennedy name is powerful and influential to this day.

If one were to visit the site of the assassination one is appalled by how small an area Dealey Plaza is and how close Lee Harvey Oswald was to the president when he fired the shots. The chances of him missing his target were very slim. Since that day Americans have wrestled with that reality, never finding satisfying and conclusive answers or never wanting to believe the official version. Conspiracy theories are abound and to this day keep a window open to a revelation. In 2017 the sealed Kennedy assassination papers will be released to the public and maybe then the suspicions will settle. Until then, movies will be made, like the new film opening this month titled  Parkland and more books will be written, as the Kennedy story still sells.

What Kennedy's assassination reveals, is that all men are mortal, no matter how mighty they are perceived. President's are ordinary people pushed into extraordinary positions. They are flawed like us and sometimes are good at what they do, for all of us. History paints their portrait for us to examine, but not to deify or distort.

In his inaugural address in 1961, John F. Kennedy said

"If a free society cannot help the many that are poor, it cannot save the few that are rich".

With 80% of the stocks on Wall Street owned by 5% of the population and the wealth of the Wal-Mart family equal to the bottom 30% of Americans, his words ring true louder than ever today. In some ways he is still a man of the times.

It is what it is.