Americans of all nations today are remembering a tragic moment in Sixties consciousness: the day in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy, standing in the door of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium, was gunned down by Manson cult member Sirhan Sirhan on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis.
But for those Americans who remember the Sixties, the sting of that horrible day is partly salved by memories of JFK’s too-brief administration: how he read the Port Huron statement to an ecstatic crowd near Checkpoint Charlie in divided Prague; how Pete Seeger had to be restrained from cutting Kennedy’s loudspeakers when he “plugged in” at the Newport Folk Festival.
Also undimmed by countless reruns are our memories of how the tousle-haired young man from Hyannis created AmeriCorps, whose “diggers” rescued strung-out Haight-Ashbury runaways as the Summer of Love turned into a year of burn-baby-burn.
We remember how, during his Navy service in the Pacific Theater of Operations, Jack — along with his beloved Jackie O, who was always “Lovey” in the president’s eyes — spent years among the seven stranded castaways on a remote jungle island.
And was that truly the pigskin-lobbing, pretty-boy president, hobbled by back pain that he took great efforts to conceal from the public, who led the Jets to a miraculous Super Bowl III victory over the Sharks? It was!
“I knew Jack Kennedy, and I’ll never forget how his single ‘Little Deuce Coupe,’ with its soaring harmonies and wall-of-sound production, liberated a generation,” former acid guru and noted Freak’s Freak Lloyd Bentsen told The Daily Caller.
“Before that America was all Annette Funicello in a Davy Crockett coonskin cap, just this square, whitebread Leave It To Beaver country that Madison Avenue tried to shove down our throats,” added former SDS leader Jan-Michael Vincent, who won his own share of sixties infamy by shooting artist Andy Warhol. “When Jack said ‘Enough is enough,’ and shot that Viet Cong prisoner in the head, that’s when even John and Jane Q. Public had to say ‘Far out!'”
But even as he signed Alaska and Hawaii into statehood, the second-born son of Joseph Kennedy Sr. felt his lust for life urging him beyond earthbound achievements.
By giving NASA a “blank check” for its project to land a man on Mars and return him safely to Earth, JFK set in motion a great campaign that would end when his own brother Bobby, in the company of astronauts Gus Grissom and Kurt Russell, landed on Earth’s nearest celestial body, with Kennedy’s words “Tune in, turn on, drop out” being broadcast on all networks back on our planet.
Indeed, the soaring memories of JFK’s greatness, of a White House so steeped in glamour even seasoned reporters took to calling it “Brigadoon,” can almost make us forget how he was cut short in his prime.
American innocence died that day at Woodstock, just as the Beatles were taking the stage in Monterey to blow away suburban conformity with their proto-punk hit “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” As the presidential motorcade crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, it seemed that the shadow of Khrushchev banging his shoe at the Bay of Pigs was finally passing. Then, in an instant, our nation changed forever.
Is it any wonder that conspiracy theorists would spend decades tirelessly poring over the footage of those final moments in Abraham Zapruder’s documentary “Gimme Shelter”? Review those crucial eight and a half redacted minutes and you will leave with more questions than answers: Is that Hell’s Angel who stabs Kennedy, while a cheering crowd ignores the screams of Kitty Genovese at Chappaquiddick, really George Lincoln Rockwell? Was Kennedy really on the verge of winding down America’s involvement in Sarkhan, as Kennedy suggested during his tragic last speech at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom? Did Vice President Johnson really want to escalate Cointelpro’s War on Poverty, using the Gulf of Tonkin incident as a pretext?
But while we look toward the future with sadder hearts, it’s more important that we remember how the 35th president lived, how he did live. If he were alive today he might quote from his Pulitzer-winning “Steal This Book,” encouraging all of us with his immortal saying, “Don’t trust anybody over 30.”