Fifty years ago today, a man was shot and killed in Dallas; one man lost his life, a country lost a leader, and a sense of community. There will be many remembrances today, as there have been all week, about President Kennedy and rightly so. He was a man who, while coming from privilege, saw the United States as a country that could be a force for good abroad, but even more so he saw that the United States has a responsibility to its own citizens. By any definition, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a progressive. His “New Frontier”, introduced upon accepting the Democratic Presidential nomination, covered nearly every area of domestic investment, from Social Security to education. It planned an assault on poverty by raising the minimum wage and strengthening welfare and unemployment. Most importantly though, was the idea that America was a community, that there is a social responsibility inherent in the federal government to protect its weakest citizens and provide for those who were unable to provide for themselves.
When those gun shots rang out in Dealey Plaza our country changed direction, and since, faded gradually to the political right, toward individualism and a might (read wealth)-makes-right society. The country briefly flirted with a true progressive philosophy during presidential elections in ’68 and then in ’72. The former ended with another charismatic Kennedy dead and the Democratic Party in tatters, the latter with the crushing defeat of a progressive underdog by a conservative incumbent who would be forced into disgraced resignation less than halfway into his second term. After ’76, a mildly progressive, yet underwhelming president failed to establish any real change during a time of nation-wide malaise. The ’80’s were a ‘conservative revolution’ since which we have seen a steady rise in the number of those in poverty. Partisanship only increased during the ’90’s and today we find ourselves at an impasse. This has, ironically led to the so-called ‘nuclear option‘, a term which, in its most literal sense, President Kennedy knew all too well over thirteen days in October.
To show just how far the country has shifted right in 50 years, a quote from that conservative incumbent of ’72: “Comprehensive health insurance is an idea whose time has come in America.” This is more than a non-contextualized, cherry-picking of a quote from an obscure speech, this was a cornerstone in a conservative’s domestic policy that understood a more broadly held social norm that “It is thus just as important that economic, racial and social barriers not stand in the way of good health care as it is to eliminate those barriers to a good education and a good job.” Today, this kind of rhetoric would be shouted down as ‘tyrannical’, ‘job-killing’, or ‘Socialist’. Worst of all, it would be called ‘un-American’. In other words, that norm, which held up the American middle class and lifted millions out of poverty, has been relegated to an idea.
I was born 26 years after Kennedy’s death. I only heard stories of the day he was shot, my maternal grandmother screaming bloody murder on her porch (although she tends towards the overly-dramatic), my paternal family, Irish-Catholics from north of Boston likewise cried hysterically and, like the rest of Massachusetts, mourned for weeks. November 22, 1963 sparked the violence and turmoil that would become the norm through the rest of their formative decade. By 1970, the progressive movement in America had lost its two great politicians and the man who represented its spiritual core, all taken by an assassin’s bullet. It cannot be said that it has ever truly recovered. Yet.
UPDATE: The CTReview is proud to have recently published a prize-winning short story by Alyssa Lindley Kilzer on the assassination of Kennedy. It is entitled “The Deposition” and can be found here.