JFK, 1963: The Beginning of the End of National Innocence

November 22, 1963 marks a turning point in the consciousness of the United States of America. The rapidly growing technologies which have steadily fueled the explosion in global communication and commerce were beginning to be felt on the national stage, in Washington and around the country. Although crude by today’s standards, those technologies were suddenly mustered into service, on that November day, to break the chilling news from Dallas to the entire country… and the world.

Md Trip 078

Kennedy’s Original Gravesite and Eternal Flame – 1967

The assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy stunned the country beyond anything within my personal memory, with the possible exception of 9/11, and the new, virtually instantaneous stream of reporting from Dallas and Washington that day served to exacerbate the shock-effect on the country.

Those of us who were beyond childhood at the time recall vividly where we were when we heard the news. I had recently graduated from college and was working as an electrical engineer at my first company, here, in Silicon Valley, California. I was upstairs in our adjacent building when someone came around – I believe it was in late morning – and said, “Kennedy has been shot.”

After the initial shock of that statement, the subsequent reaction was, “How badly was he wounded?” Soon, I was part of a small group gathered around a radio in our engineering offices, hanging on every word from the media. Before long, came the chilling pronouncement that, “The President is dead.” The impact of those words manifested itself as an instantaneous wounding of the entire nation. The unanticipated suddenness of the event and its real-time reporting, along with everything else that was to follow, had a profound effect on the American people.

Abraham Lincoln was the first president to die at the hands of an assassin, yet, as shocking as that event was, the effect on the country was somewhat muted by the fact that it took days for the news to reach the entire country and the impact to settle-in.

President Kennedy’s sudden death was especially shocking to all who saw in him a charismatic leader – in the prime of life – with a family circle around him which inspired the popular notion of a modern-day “Camelot.” Certainly no president since Franklin Roosevelt affected the citizenry on a personal level as did Jack Kennedy. Jackie and their two children were as famous as the president. Who can forget the massive media attention they attracted – even though largely unwelcomed?

Alas, all was not perfect in Camelot, a fact which took an ever-more voracious media some time to uncover and report. Much of the public believed in the Camelot image, never suspecting that Jack Kennedy had personal proclivities not in-keeping with the image of the happy homestead as idealized by middle-America.

Undoubtedly, the more grizzled Washington media and insiders knew about these things, yet, amazingly, held their tongues in deference to the man and the office. That same level of media-restraint had been traditionally extended to every administration, Democratic or Republican. Through his three terms as president and into a fourth, many citizens never knew that Franklin Roosevelt could not walk on his own, being a victim of polio as a young man.

Can You Imagine that Degree of Media-Restraint
And Image-Control Today and in Future Administrations?

I cannot, and it is just as well…to a point. Let me explain. My science/engineering mentality pushes me to lean heavily toward “the truth of the matter” in all things. The citizens of this country cannot afford to operate in a Camelot-like, make-believe world, while those who live elsewhere on this globe are, and have been, solidly rooted in the reality of human existence for centuries.

On the other hand, there should be some degree of deference to the Office of the President; I call it basic civility, of the sort that we should all extend to one-another. Beyond that, I say, “Let the facts speak for themselves.” A popular saying advises, “It is what it is….deal with it!” I subscribe to that.

Before the gradual retreat from Camelot, there was the violence of the assassination itself and its aftermath that the public had to endure.

As the earlier events in Dallas from Dealey Plaza unfolded, I recall the images of Walter Cronkite on CBS as he and the other networks worked feverishly to present “just the facts” to an anxious public which was constantly tuned-in to receive the latest word. I recall the ever-professional Cronkite struggling to contain his emotions as he had to announce to the nation that Kennedy was dead. The nation was stunned once more, two days later.

I vividly remember sitting in front of our 17-inch black and white television set, watching live, the prison transfer of the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. As Oswald came down the hallway in the clutches of two deputy sheriffs, a shadowy figure suddenly stepped forward and into the picture. Several “POP-POPs were heard, and the accused slumped to the floor, mortally wounded, as all hell broke loose in front of a live, national television audience. This “live” killing was especially jarring and jaw-dropping back then, when reports of shootings of any sort were not that common in the news.

The sudden violence associated with the assassination and the subsequent dissipation of the Camelot image over time initiated America’s eventual loss of “innocence” in the years that followed. I suppose, when viewed from another perspective, the nation was shockingly reminded on that November day, and thereafter, of the “real world” which existed in Lincoln’s time and well before.

And, finally, I recall the somber, pulsing mood of the funeral cortege through Washington with Kennedy’s flag-draped coffin on the military caisson, drawn by a team of handsome horses in their equestrian prime – symbolic of Kennedy’s human stature just days earlier. And then there was the funeral dirge which was played all along the route: My goodness, what a sad, somber, yet fitting accompaniment to the mood of that day. One never forgets such images. The country has never been quite the same.

2 thoughts on “JFK, 1963: The Beginning of the End of National Innocence

  1. Beautifully said. Yes, we all remember where we were as well as the sad days to follow. For people of our age, it was the shocking realization that violence could so instantly change our world. It was definitely the beginning of the end of innocence for many of us, having lived in a somewhat insular environment.

    • Linda and I were discussing those times over coffee this morning during our weekly visit to the local farmer’s market. We reminisced over the gentler times of the 50’s and how they gave way to the turbulent 60’s. Despite the insular nature and the many pleasant memories of growing-up in the late 40’s and the 50’s, we recalled that there were serious problems then, too – like the cold war, polio, and racial inequality. But the 60’s brought many changes which proved especially unsettling.

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