Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, cut down in Dallas in the third year of his term by Lee Harvey Oswald, who like so many other political assassins in history was nothing more than a failed crank, of the communist variety in this case. Media organizations will offer retrospectives all day long, with replays of their live coverage beginning this afternoon. This is the relevant part of the CBS News record, in which Walter Cronkite informs the nation (based on confirmation from Dan Rather at the scene) that the President was indeed dead:
To call this a seminal event in American history is a rather large understatement. The assassination started a turbulent decade of protests and worse, more assassinations — Martin Luther King and Kennedy’s brother Robert among them — and the expansion of what would then be America’s longest war, and its most divisive in a hundred years. One could fill a library of books about the assassination itself, and fill Alcratraz several times over with purported conspirators and ringleaders who supposedly masterminded it. We could fill another library with books about how the event changed America, mostly for the worse, and what it means today.
I don’t have any recollection of the assassination myself; I was only seven months old when it took place. I can still understand what people mean when they say that they can always remember exactly where they were when they heard the news. I have the same connection to the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan 18 years later, which fortunately turned out better for him and for America. And of course, all of us have that shared sense of memory about 9/11.
Even though I don’t have that connection to today’s event, it is still well worth noting for its cultural and political impact. Looking at the recollections and the 50-year-old coverage is like looking through a hazy and monochromatic telescope to an America that passed from the scene with the President, if it really existed at all. I’ll miss that coverage as I’ll be doing a show today, but most of it is on YouTube now, and I may watch it this weekend when I have more time.
What do you recall about the assassination? And what do you think it means, 50 years later?
Update: My old friend (and first paying editor!) Ira Stoll has a new book on the subject: JFK, Conservative. Be sure to check it out, on Kindle or audiobook as well.
Update: John Ziegler has an excellent essay on the coverage of the assassination — why it was so good, and what we can learn from it.