I was just a four-year-old kid when President John F. Kennedy was shot. But the reactions of the adults around me made it clear that something was horribly wrong. In fact, it is one of my earliest real memories of anything, because it was so unusual.
My family did not have a television at that time. (I know, right?) But lots of homes did not have TV in 1963. We went to my grandparent’s house to watch coverage, including the President’s funeral, on TV. The solemnity was overwhelming, and was not lost even on a four-year-old. It was clear that this was something deeply and tragically wrong.
As a book group choice, I quite recently read Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero by Chris Matthews. The book taught me some things about our 35th president that I did not know. For example, I did not have a full understanding of the depth of his physical ailments and the pain he suffered throughout most of his life. When considering the MAN in the office, it is quite remarkable that he was able to make the impact he did in such a short time given his real limitations.
But as an amateur student of history, I know this much: the world changed a great deal in the early 1960’s. The end of our simple, coddled, and possibly make-believe, pleasant suburban culture may be due to two key factors: the presidency of John F. Kennedy, and the soaring prevalence of television.
Suddenly, we had a president unlike any other. He was young, he was very forward-thinking, he was Catholic, and he was a proponent of civil rights. He was undoubtedly polarizing. And then, just as suddenly, he was gone. And much of his work and the tragedy that was his death played out on television.
Television brought violent and sometimes very graphic incidents into our homes in the 1960’s. TV news showed us civil rights riots, and the Vietnam War, right at the dinner hour. Our cocoons were busted wide open. With no blinders on, we stood up more and more for human rights, women’s rights, and eventually for the end of a war we didn’t understand. Our sheltered lifestyle was unmasked and rock and roll liberated us. We watched in awe as man landed on the moon – all available to the masses from a relatively small box in our living rooms.
Now, I am not a sociologist, and these are just my perceptions. But one thing is clear to me. Our nation changed dramatically on November 22, 1963. Our eyes were opened in ways they had not been before. We had no choice but to see hate and injustice around us, and to respond to it.
Over the years we may have grown more immune. Violence is so prevalent now on every screen. We can never return, nor should we, to burying our heads in the sand. But we should stand up for what is right. And wouldn’t it be nice if we could find civilized platforms for open, honest discussion? Couldn’t we set aside the violence and TALK to one another? Can’t we iron out differences in a meaningful way?
I think that’s what JFK would want us to do. And he might want us to do it on television… or the Internet. Just a thought.