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Golis: 50 years of memory and myth


<i>Myth: "A popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society ..."

— From the Merriam Webster Dictionary.</i><br>

Last year we visited Dallas and saw for the first time the place where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It turns out that Dealey Plaza is nothing more than a wide spot in the road on the way out of town. Only a few yards more and Kennedy's motorcade would have swept under the railroad bridge and out of sight.

This is my generation's Kennedy problem. Our judgments of the martyred president are forever clouded by thoughts of what might have been.

We imagine a second-term president who decides not to escalate a war that would kill 58,000 Americans and tear the country apart. We imagine a country in which Richard Nixon never ascends to the presidency and Watergate is nothing more than a Washington office complex.

Whether all of this conjecture is delusional or merely speculative, we will never know.

It was much later that we would learn of Kennedy's deceptions — his womanizing and the cover-up of illnesses that could have disqualified him from office.

By then, thanks to Vietnam and Watergate, we had already lost our innocence.

In 1963, Americans were optimistic about their future. Kennedy challenged us to be ambitious. "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things," he said, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

It's impossible to imagine a politician saying that today.

By 1974, when Nixon resigned, everything had changed.

In the mythology of my generation, the era of cynicism in American public life began on that sunny afternoon in Dallas 50 years ago this week.

If you think we were star-struck, you could be right. Kennedy was the first politician to recognize how television could be used to his advantage. He was a war hero, the cool and charismatic son of a famous and photogenic family, and he was the first president my generation experienced in real time.

His assassination was something we couldn't imagine until it happened, and the shock of it became something we would never forget.

As time goes on, historians are less impressed with the Kennedy presidency, the New York Times reminded us last week. ("Textbooks Reassess Kennedy, Putting Camelot Under Siege.")

"The President John F. Kennedy students learn about today is not their grandparents' J.F.K.," the story began.

"In general," the Times continued, "the picture has evolved from a charismatic young president who inspired youths around the world to a deeply flawed one whose oratory outstripped his accomplishments."

His first months in office were a disaster. There was the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and an unsettling meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. These failures seemed to confirm what the critics said. He was a young and inexperienced politician whose career was bankrolled by his father's millions.

In time, however, Kennedy seemed to find his stride. He proposed the creation of the Peace Corps and vowed to put an American on the moon within the decade. He faced down Khruschev in the Cuban missile crisis and later won agreement on a treaty to limit nuclear testing. His approval ratings were climbing.

Then, barely 34 months after taking office, he was shot and killed in Dallas.

When one considers the millions of words that will be written and spoken about Kennedy this week, it seems hard to imagine there is anything left to know.

And yet his life story is rife with questions and contradictions. He was the rich man's son who sought to become champion of the less fortunate. He was the family man who slept around. He was the vigorous leader who concealed a lifetime of illnesses. He was the Cold Warrior who sought agreements to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons.

Fifty years later, some still question how he died. Was he killed by a single assassin, as the Warren Commission concluded, or was he the victim of conspirators?

For anyone who remembers when he died, it's strange to think that people who are 50 years old only know about Kennedy from reading about him.

For my generation, the assassination remains a touchstone of our lives, forever judged through the fog of memory and myth. We might wish it were otherwise, but that bit of history was decided long ago.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>