Friday, November 22, 2013

The Day Everything Changed

When President John F. Kennedy was murdered on November 23, 1963, the course of the future changed in the U.S. and around the world. Fifty years later, that's clearer than ever. On that day I felt that the course of my life would change, and fifty years later, with that course nearly run, it is a certainty. It was the day that everything changed for me. My life would perhaps not even resemble what it is today had President Kennedy lived and completed his second term. Not just because of him but because of what he would have done and not done, as opposed to what others did and did not do.

 I've avoided nearly everything on the Internet about this anniversary, and absolutely everything on TV (since I don't have it to watch.) I have video from that past, but I haven't watched that either. I've confined myself to two new books--two of the many published this year, and the tens of thousands published over the years about JFK.

 JFK's Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke ( Penguin Press) is a day by day review of those 100 days in 1963, with lots of background from earlier years. Clarke makes good and careful use of what's been published over the years, by historians, journalists and a lot of participants in the Kennedy administration. He's used the archival material that's been gradually released by the Kennedy Library. He integrates the most credible of the revelations about JFK's dalliances and his medical history. So for someone who hasn't trusted much or read much about JFK since the first generation of biographies, this book turned out to be the right book to read.

 The second book is If Kennedy Lived by Jeff Greenfield (Putnam), an alternate history built on the premise that President Kennedy did not die on this day fifty years ago. However it is basically built on historical fact, and much of it is about pre-11/22/63. These parts of the book match Clarke's book almost exactly. There are a few pages based on recorded conversations that are nearly identical.

 Clarke's premises is that,even though JFK's own excesses always threatened to catch up with him, 1963 was the height of Kennedy's presidency, and probably the best year of his marriage and fatherhood. He was looked forward to running for his second term, and had found his main themes. On a speaking tour in the west ostensibly about conservation, he found that whenever he mentioned the nuclear test ban treaty and the need to end the arms race, he got a huge response. The pursuit of peace was going to be one major theme.

 The second was a national effort to address the problem of poverty. He'd proposed a tax cut and other measures to help the middle class and the economy in general, he was committed to civil rights (especially the voting rights act) but poverty was going to be a new focus.

 Clarke chronicles the painful dance that Vietnam policy had become, but he is certain--as most in the position to know were certain--that in his second term Kennedy intended to end American military involvement in Vietnam.

 None of this surprises me, nor would any of it had surprised me on November 23, 1963. I learned that he'd been shot by a p.a. announcement from our high school principal. Then I had gym class outside. I learned that he was dead from a boy coming down the stairs to the locker room as I walked up. Hours later I was walking home with three friends, two of whom remain just about my only friends from high school. Clayton and I usually walked across the fields from Central to Carbon Road, where he would go down towards his grandmother's house and I would go up and across to my house. Johnny V. was with us that day--he lived on the street above mine. And as it happened, my debate partner Mike and I had previously arranged to work on our debate case, so he was coming home with me rather than taking a school bus to Latrobe where he lived.

 As we walked and talked we could not believe it was even possible that Lyndon Johnson could be President of the United States. That turns out to be the Kennedys' view as well. JFK is quoted in both of these books as believing LBJ would be a disaster. In our shock, and forgetting all constitutional provisions, we speculated on how Bobby Kennedy could take over for his brother. Surely that's what voters wanted.

 Everything changed in America because of the assassination itself. For me, it was the first significant death I had experienced. There hadn't yet been one in my family. But beyond the losses that arguably changed the psyche of the country, I saw a major focus of my life begin to fade.

 In my own very small way I had organized classmates and worked on the Kennedy campaign in the 1960 election. I got myself to Washington for the Inaugural and through luck and pluck managed to be one of the first ordinary citizens to shake President Kennedy's hand, two days after he became President. By 1963 I had already participated in another campaign and had very interested contacts in the local Democratic party and the still powerful unions. I was writing on world affairs (and from a very Kennedy perspective) for the school newspaper. I followed every scrap of news in print and on TV I could about the administration, wrote letters to officials and generally felt I was practically part of the Kennedy administration.

Though I tried to continue the Kennedy legacy and remain involved in politics, even working for LBJ's campaign against Goldwater in 1964, that first impulse on November 22, 1963 gradually came true. Without JFK's judgment, without his ability to communicate, without his style, things fell apart. And everything else began to change.

On the morning of November 22, 1963 in Dallas, it rained. But by the time President Kennedy got in his car for his motorcade, the sun was shining.

 Greenfield's story begins with one small change: the rain continues. Because of the rain, the plexiglass bubble top is attached to the presidential limo, so it is no longer an open car. So when the motorcade slows down to make a turn off Dealy Plaza, a gunshot shatters the plexiglass and wounds the President. But he survives.

 In this story, President Kennedy is re-elected, and much of what Clarke's book suggests would happen does happen. The voting rights act, medical care for the aged (Medicare) pass, JFK makes further agreements on nuclear arms with the Soviets as well as selling grain to them (and in the process keeps Khrushchev in power), he begins the process of resuming relations with Cuba, and relations with (Red) China. And above all, he does not commit ground troops to Vietnam. There is no Vietnam war.

 But where Greenfield's book is best is in suggesting the ramifications of these policies, and of the difference it would have made with Kennedy in office when various cultural changes occur (as represented by the Beatles, Tom Hayden, Gloria Steinem, etc.) There would be an Students for a Democratic Society, campus protests, etc. But they would not be so violent in any sense. Young people would join SDS and go South for Freedom Summer. But they would also join JFK's domestic Peace Corps, in droves. Politics and government as public service was a Kennedy tenet, and one he wanted to emphasize in his second term. But LBJ destroyed that, temporarily for some, pretty much permanently for me.

 The Vietnam war, more than any single factor, deformed my life and in various ways and to various extents changed the lives of my friends and contemporaries. Vietnam plus LBJ plus the draft gave the 60s the edge of anger, desperation, despair.

 There were right wing crazies in the early 60s, saying about JFK pretty much what they say about Obama. But they were marginal. There were dangerous currents in the U.S. reacting to racial issues, but JFK was a quick study, and in 1963 he was aware of the new realities of the inner cities and suburbia. There was press horseshit then as now, but despite political dangers (JFK knew the South was lost for a long time because of his support of Civil Rights) the arc of history was strongly progressive. With a different 60s, there very well might have been a very different 70s, 80s and 90s. And a quite different 21st century so far.

 There's so much about why JFK could have been especially effective in a second term (while neither Clarke nor Greenfield expect he would have piled up the electoral votes that LBJ did against Goldwater in 1964, they agree that JFK would have won comfortably against Goldwater, and brought with him a Democratic congressional majority) that is hard to explain without knowing how different a time it was (though Clarke's book does a pretty good job of this.) But that's precisely the point: he was right for the times.

 As things turn out, I find myself in no position to be heard even if I tried to explain this. But I was there, and I know it. It was the turning point of my times and of my life.