s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe

I think that we

Shall never more, at any future time

Delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds

Walking about the gardens and the halls

Of Camelot, as in the days that were.

— King Arthur's dying words from "Idylls of the King" by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

I remember where I was when it happened. I was walking to class at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., when someone said JFK got shot. Just like that. I remember the early afternoon being bright and sunny, a Pennsylvania fall day, and I remember the clouds invading the sky. In a way, the clouds never left.

Kennedy represented the light. He was so young and he had new ideas and he was vital and handsome. You never forget how handsome he was. He glowed. With him we had endless possibilities. The world had endless possibilities. Everything was possible in his light.

There was a certain amount of myth with Kennedy. We know that now. He was learning on the job and he made a mess of the Bay of Pigs. There was that. But he found his gravitas in the Cuban Missile Crisis and, when Gov. George Wallace prevented black students from attending the University of Alabama, Kennedy pushed him aside. There was that, too.

We saw ourselves in him, in his myth and his reality. In his glamour. He was so different from Dwight Eisenhower, a great leader of his time. It's just that Eisenhower was old. He represented the past. He was our grandfather. He'd made us feel safe, but he read to us in a monotone from a script. He was tame and uninteresting.

Kennedy was new. He was the new America. When he went to Europe, they treated him like royalty. No, more like a movie star. And we were proud. We were over the moon. The sheer promise of it all.

After he died, we lost our innocence. That's been said. But what does it really mean?

Substitute the word "trust" for "innocence" and you get the idea. Before Lee Harvey Oswald, we trusted our world — our government, our leaders, the media, too. Maybe we shouldn't have. But after that horrible day, after what happened in that little plaza in Dallas, that plaza too small a stage to hold a tragedy like that, trust left the world.

After the light went out, the doubt crept in. Vietnam blew up. Robert Kennedy got murdered and Martin Luther King, Jr. Richard Nixon inflicted Watergate on us. And we've never been the same.

If you lived through the 1960s and the early 1970s, if you were anywhere near Cal or Stanford or any college campus, you knew belief and hope had vanished. You were considered out of it if you trusted the government. Hopelessly na?e. A traitor to your generation.

For the first time, we/you/everyone felt there was more to a story, any story, than what they told us. "They" was the government. "They" was the big corporations. "They" was anyone with power. Even today the feeling persists: "They" are withholding the real story of JFK's assassination.

The 1960s turned America on its head. The young didn't trust the old anymore, hated the government and the Army, too, its leaders for sure. But even the soldiers took flak.

You had the feeling — at least you wanted to believe — none of that would have happened if Kennedy had lived. The light would have endured. Kennedy's smile, his wit, his verbal timing, they would have lit up the world. And things would always be clear — as transparent as a piece of glass. He was the first president to hold live press conferences and he televised them.

A few years after Kennedy died, a friend of his came to Stanford to speak. Dinkelspiel Auditorium was SRO. People wanted to know about the "real" Kennedy. And the friend told this story.

He and Kennedy were sitting next to each other on a plane, and Kennedy had read an interesting article and he gave it to this friend to read, wanted his opinion. The friend was reading at his normal pace — the friend thought it was rapid enough. Kennedy finally elbowed him in the ribs. "Are you reading the article," he wanted to know, "or are you memorizing it?"

Laughter throughout the auditorium, cleansing, heart-sad laughter.

Think how things have changed in our daily lives since Kennedy died. Think about movies, something as everyday as the flicks. Before Kennedy died, Doris Day's biggest problem was to preserve her virtue from Rock Hudson, to hold out until he married her.

After Kennedy died, movies got darker. Cause and effect wasn't clear anymore. The government was watching. And listening, too. The system was suspect, rigged against all of us. We got "The Conversation," "Easy Rider," "Blowup," "The Parallax View."

And in 1970 we got "Five Easy Pieces." Jack Nicholson. The ultimate angry young man. He expressed the anger of the post-Kennedy generation and more: He was angry about everything.

He sat in that diner and wanted a side of wheat toast. But wheat toast didn't come with the "Number Two" omelet. A roll did. He didn't want a roll. He went wild. He threw the water glasses off the Formica table onto the floor.

It was a new kind of rage. He was raging against authority in the person of the bossy waitress and he was raging against mindless rules. He felt his freedom vanishing and he was raging against that.

That rage persists. The world has never been the same. Camelot is gone.