JFK . . . and the rise of Trump
Even after the space of a half a century plus, the old photos and newsreels remain fresh and poignant. A handsome and vibrant young President and a beautiful First-Lady riding in an open air limousine on a bright, crisp and cool Texas November afternoon. Waving to a cheering crowd. Smiles—a lot of them. Some images even a large amount of time can’t erase. I guess that’s the way it will always be—at least until the last human being alive that day has passed from the earth. I was a fourteen year old kid that November afternoon, growing up in a small town just outside Detroit, Michigan. And like a very large number of Americans living at the time, I loved JFK—not to mention his incredibly lovely wife Jackie, and their all too cute two children.
It was November 22, 1963, and as it would turn out, it was a day that America and the world changed—forever. I don’t remember getting up that morning. I don’t remember going to school that day. I don’t remember what my thoughts were, or what I had for breakfast. But I do remember the afternoon, and the haunting and terrible three days that followed. Those days would become a part of my being, and a part of the nation’s consciousness—for a couple of generations. A nation in mourning, and an America divided and torn apart. Camelot was over, and, as we would come to understand in the dark days that followed, a very big piece of our nation’s heart and soul had gone with it.
And I think we knew too that day—that we were never going to get it back.
And we didn’t.
I was in fifth hour science class. It was in the basement of the old red brick junior high-school building in downtown Walled Lake, Michigan. It was a cool room, with Bunsen Burners and test tubes on countertops, and a creepy old greenhouse attached. In a corner near the teacher’s desk hung a plastic human skeleton. Gross. A periodic table of the elements hung on the wall. Bugs and frogs in jars of stinky formaldehyde. You get the idea. Everybody loved the science room. Best I remember it was another boring Friday, another boring science lecture—I couldn’t tell you on what. The little hand inched toward the top of the hour, and our release.
The next hour would be the last of the day.
And joy, the next day was Saturday.
But then, at about a quarter to two, the PA system speaker crackled and the voice of Principal Carlson filled the room. He said that he wanted to inform the student body about the events in Dallas, Texas, before rumors began to fly. He said that there had been shots fired at the President’s motorcade, and apparently the President was injured. No one knew how badly at that point. He told us that was all the information that was available at the time, and that he would keep us posted as further news came in.
Science class ended, and I made the long climb from the basement to the third floor and English class. There were six short flights of stairs, winding upwards around each other, forming a stairwell. I was a lot younger in those days, and I did it easily. I remember the dead silence of the normally boisterous hallways.
Thinking back, I guess we knew—even before we knew.
Not too long into the English class, Mr. Carlson came back on the PA. His voice was broken and halting as he announced the death of the thirty-fifth President of the United States. It was obvious that Mr. Carlson was a fan of John Kennedy. He had a lot of company in that school that day. A lot of the girls cried. Everyone, male or female, teacher or student, had sad faces. There was very little talk.
It was the same on the bus ride home. Silence. A five minute walk from the bus-stop and I was home. My mother met me at the door, asking if I had heard the news. We hugged. Dad came home in a couple of hours, also distressed. And thus began our long weekend of mourning. Walter Cronkite in tears. Oswald murdered in a police station. A new President sworn in. A blood and brain splattered Jackie Kennedy standing in shock on Air Force One—her husband’s casket in the cargo hold. Three days forever burned into my memory. Etched—just like it was yesterday; and so it will be always.
For the rest of my life on this earth.
Our lives went on of course, and the days and nights, weeks, months and years rolled by. And the sixties, seventies, and eighties unfolded—like an old-fashioned horror movie.
Bill O’Reilly of Fox cable news recently stated that the two biggest news stories of his life were the assassination of JFK—and the unlikely political rise of Donald Trump. Those are book-end events in my view, bound together by a succession of days and nights, sunrises and sunsets, and bad happenings.
The death of JFK in the streets of Dallas is what I like to refer to as a “watershed” event, or moment. That is to say that before it, the country was in one condition, and after it, it was in an altogether different one. After that pivotal moment in United States history, all events began to run in the same direction, much like water from the top or crest of a hill.
And it wasn’t a good direction.
Assassination became a political tool. Dr. Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, and a host of lesser known. It became commonplace—a new staple of the American diet.
And the Vietnam War. Bloody, mindless, pointless, endless, and a product of the failed Lyndon Johnson administration. Right up there with the war on poverty, the war on drugs, or the so-called “great” society.
Yes, I know that it wasn’t solely the fault of Lyndon Johnson. George Kennan’s hands bore blood too. Yes, I know that it began in the Eisenhower administration. But it expanded into a bloodbath and national nightmare during the Johnson years.
And it need not have.
John Kennedy learned something of a hard lesson in his disastrous Bay of Pigs “invasion” of Cuba. He learned more in the high-stakes Cuban missile crisis. No one will ever know for sure, but there is a small amount of antidotal evidence to suggest, that maybe . . . just maybe, John Kennedy was beginning to rethink America’s increasing military involvement in Southeast Asia. Again, no one will ever know beyond a shadow of a doubt, but it is at least a possibility that with just three rifle bullets, Lee Harvey Oswald may have killed one President, and at least fifty-eight thousand innocent American kids.
John Kennedy might have gotten us out.
We’ll just never know.
The President took his thoughts on the subject to the grave.
What we do know for sure is that in those blood soaked rice paddies of Vietnam, faith in our political institutions, faith in our religious organizations and in God, regard for one another, and respect for human life largely eroded and died.
Dead and gone in those tumultuous decades that were the sixties and then the seventies.
Dead in an ever increasing horrific inner-city death toll.
Dead in an ocean of aborted infants.
Dead in the loss of our souls, and our human compassion and decency.
For some things, there must be a justice and a reckoning demanded.
For some things there must be a price paid.
There were but three bright spots—the civil rights movement with its heroic freedom-riders, the magnificent Rosa Parks, and the incomparable Dr. King—the Beatles invasion, and the first man on the moon in 1969.
The thirty years that followed the sixties and seventies only accelerated the steep decline in our culture and our society. There is very little left today of the America that existed on November 21, 1963. Those days are sepia-toned and misty colored memories now, as dead and gone as Kennedy himself—never to return.
And in that decline and loss of our faith of better days to come, came the desire for a magical “strongman,” someone that could, by force of personality, bring back the halcyon days of our youth.
To bring back the rotting inner cities. To bring back the lost jobs. To return to simpler values, like respect for one another, and our country, our flag, our Churches, our way of life—one that seems under assault from all directions these dark days.
To many—Donald John Trump is that man.
He does seem to have risen from the long-dead and cold ashes of what was once Camelot, and the American Dream.
The death by sniper fire of five Dallas police officers recently just a few blocks from Dealey Plaza remind us just how long and precipitously steep has been the decline of our culture from that sunny Dallas afternoon so long ago, to the dark night of our soul in almost exactly the same spot just five decades later.
Is Donald J. Trump America’s savior? I dunno—but I kind of doubt it. And the point of this blog isn’t to make an election year political statement either.
It’s just to warn of darker—and rougher days ahead.
And a short jog down memory lane.
It’s just to make us old-timers remember rose-colored and sepia-toned days.
And new-timers to consider watersheds.
And the fifty-three years between.
Thanks so much for reading today. We’ll be back shortly with another installment of THE RECKONING. Take care now, be of good cheer, and hug the ones you love. Hug them good and tight . . .