It remains, 50 years later, a seminal moment in American history. Not one that was unique in the scope of its tragedy, but one that served as the defining moment for a generation, as an ultimate remember-where-you-were event, and as the coming-of-age apogee for television.
Five decades after President John F. Kennedy was murdered while riding in an open car through the streets of Dallas, five decades after the national psyche was forever altered, there is little that can be written about the assassination that hasn’t already been said. And yet it still resonates. For people now in their 60s, the moment defined their youth; for those younger than 50, it influenced every event of their lives.
Much of that is due to the fact that the Kennedy presidency was the first significant historical event to play out in real time on television. A young, charismatic president had ushered a new era to the American forefront, creating such a generational shift that his time was dubbed “Camelot” for its glamour and myth-making possibilities.
And it all was instantly beamed into living rooms across the nation. Kennedy’s election was due in part to the first televised presidential debates; he went on television to inform the world that the Soviet Union had placed missiles in Cuba; his death was reported to the nation within moments of the announcement. That death marked the end of a presidency and, perhaps, the end of America’s innocence, but it did not mark the end of the era that Kennedy had helped launch. He was, in many ways, the first modern president.
“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace,” he said during his inaugural address.
Kennedy was, indeed, the perfect man for his time. Photogenic. Quick with a quip. He wasn’t a perfect man, of course, as we know by now. Nor was he a perfect president. His role in ramping up American involvement in Vietnam tends to be understated, and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion is what emboldened the Soviets to place missiles in Cuba and precipitate the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But there were moments of great leadership and great inspiration. In the end, Kennedy did manage the Cuban Missile Crisis; and he did join others in taking important steps in the civil rights movement; and he did provide the impetus for the mission that eventually landed humans on the moon. His successes were many, and they lead to questions of whether he presided over a particularly significant 34 months in American history or whether his presidency has simply been so scrutinized that it swells in importance.
We vote on the side of significance. Whether the man made the times great or whether a great man made the times, Kennedy’s presidency proved to be a turning point in American history. That is his legacy, and it resonates much more strongly than the horrible events that took place 50 years ago today in Dallas.
Much has been written and contemplated and theorized about Kennedy’s assassination. Much like 9/11, it quickly became a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and conjecture, a development that is unavoidable when a moment in history is so grotesque that it defies logic. The shooting can and will continue to be a source of debate, yet while it is a part of the Kennedy story, it is not the most important part. On this anniversary of his death, we prefer to place our focus on his life.