I was six years old on November 22, 1963. I’m older now than John F. Kennedy was on that day, but it remains, in many ways, the fulcrum on which my life pivots.
It’s hard for younger people to understand—awkward, out of balance, that my life should be bisected so unevenly: half a dozen years for Act I, half a century and counting for Act II. But my generation understands.
So, I imagine, would those who were children on June 28, 1914, when another public figure, riding in an open car with his wife, was shot by an assassin. For those children, the world before Archduke Franz Ferdinand was slain was one thing. The world that came after, another one entirely.
And so it is with us.
I can’t be objective about JFK, either as a man or a public figure. I’ve tried. I’ve studied his life and presidency; he seems to me to have been an ambitious, rather callow young man to whom high office added stature and gravitas. He rose to the demands of the job. But this is not an uncommon phenomenon. It is, among others, Lincoln’s story, too, and Churchill’s.
And anyway, that’s not what sears him into my DNA…what has left him indelibly etched on our culture. What he represented—especially as the first of a generation of leaders for whom the Second World War was history, not biography—was the triumph of order, of chronology…of a narrative of progress and achievement. His death—a random, senseless, meaningless act—not only ended that narrative; it rewound and erased it. What followed was cynicism, and anxiety, and uncertainty.
On November 21, 1963, I spent my last day in a different world. Since November 23, 1963, I’ve lived in this one.
But I still remember. And if I live long enough for my aged mind to fragment and fall apart, that will be the last bit to cohere.