Though I was a small boy back then, the day of Jack Kennedy’s death remains so vivid, raw like an arthritic pain. The news bulletin interrupted regular viewing and the original flash was that the President had been shot in Texas but not killed. Only later were we told of his death and a silence fell over the family, the street, life itself.
People put their hands over their mouths as the BBC newscasters – whose names I can still recall – dealt the final blow.
Many years later, like millions I finally saw the full Zapruder footage and winced at that pornography of violence when the bullet explodes in the skull. I then realised just how sanitised had been the original broadcast version of those events. Probably just as well; we had had enough to take that day.
It is impossible now to recall or to recover the sense of optimism that prevailed over the early 1960s in the Western world. We thought, thanks putatively to White House resolve, we had survived the Cuban Missile Crisis – indeed we had won it. The music on the radio was getting a lot less milky. The justified demands of minority groups were beginning to be articulated. Dr Kildare was on the telly. Keema and sweet’n’sour became locally available for takeaway. Memories of World War Two were being suppressed by teenagers who had known austerity but not conflict; soon, entry to university would be liberalised and so much deference would end. Bliss it was, in a way.
At some point in the 1980s, I happened to be watching a documentary about post-war USA. A lady – a senior schoolteacher – was being interviewed about her experiences as a black person in the South. Over the years she had learned, she said, to be sceptical about all promises of improvement for the lives of people like herself. But – and this is as verbatim as I can remember – she remembers the day Jack Kennedy sent two uniformed officers of the National Guard to escort her (then a wee girl) through a chanting racist mob right to her school. Maybe there was truly a reason, she concluded, why she should salute the Stars & Stripes every morning at school assembly.
Of course, a bitter cocktail of sadness and disappointment stood waiting on the counter. We had the full blast of the Vietnam War plus the often gruesome struggles of the Civil Rights movement still to come fully down our way. We had also the revelations of JFK’s barely explicable private life which left bad stains on our memory. But we speak here of a time when cynicism was not a synonym of wisdom; when we had hope, hope which he personified, as a handsome and witty and smart candidate/president from an unconventional faith background. Some years ago, I heard a recording of the then President Kennedy talking on the phone to a Deep South governor; his voice is saturated with contempt for a man whom he obviously considers to be deplorable. I do not, this day still, entirely believe that one’s fandomery was misplaced. And, oh, that speech in Berlin, legitimising the aspiration of both those crowds present and of populations to the east. Well done, that man. It made a difference.
Years and years after that boyhood moment with the TV, I discovered that my Mum had in her own drawer kept the newspaper cuttings of that day, the morning after of the assassination. When he had been elected, she had seen him as a warmonger; I remember her commentary on hearing of Nixon’s defeat on the radio. Yet later she silently mourned his death and Jackie’s loss – as if a member of the family had been taken. “JFK blown away”, as in Billy’s song, “what else do I have to say?”.
Over the years, my ears would prick if I caught a reference to Jack Kennedy. There is one, for instance, in the movie The Seduction of Joe Tynan. But I could never sit through any of the focused movies about his actual death and the aftermath. It is difficult too to get through the endless ovation for brother Bobby at the Democrat Convention in Atlantic City in 1964. And that later speech in Indianapolis about the murder of MLK so tells of individuals who are the measure of the events around them, however horrifying they may be. Anyone who can use his memory of Aeschylus to help calm a troubled crowd will always get my vote.
Somewhere, Flaubert says that if we touch our idols the gilt will be left on our hands. True enough. But how I wish that that bullet had thudded harmlessly into the grassy knoll. How I wish the music had not died so soon. I recently read that no other than Kim Philby, by this time living in a grim Moscow high-rise, was saddened when he heard of the assassination, hoping as he had apparently been, that the Kennedy era would herald an age of de-escalated tension between East and West. Most unrighteous tears rather.
But hopes, I am happy to accept, were shattered in all kinds of places and for all kinds of people on that painful day sixty years ago.