That day in Dallas, and end of Camelot



It is one of the enduring images of modern history, when two bullets from an assassin’s rifle hit President John F Kennedy in the head and throat as his open motorcade drove through Dallas, Texas. First Lady Jackie Kennedy cradling his head, the blown-away brain bleeding into her Chanel suit. And her scrambling to the back of the sedan when a third shot rang out. It was just after noon, November 22, 1963. Thirty five minutes later, the 35th President of the United States was pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

He was 46 years of age.

Although not the first US president, nor world leader, to be assassinated, John F Kennedy was the first in the age of television. Sixty years on, the grainy images of his killing, allegedly by Lee Harvey Oswald – although so many conspiracy theories still abound – linger in the public psyche and, for those old enough to remember, it was the end of an age of innocence.

The Kennedys had always been looked upon as almost royalty. The family’s time in the White House even came to be known as ‘Camelot’, a reference to the King Arthur legend. It was Jackie who originally used this expression, based on her husband’s preoccupation with the Knights of the Round Table.

Jackie was concerned with how the Kennedys were going to be portrayed after their time in office. She wanted to make sure the administration portrayal was accurate for posterity. To accomplish this, she contacted Theodore H. White, a writer with Life magazine. She asked him to interview her, wanting to be sure the first piece written after the Kennedy Administration was exactly what she wanted it to be. In the end, the interview, entitled, For President Kennedy: An Epilogue, appeared in a memorial edition published a month after the assassination.

John F Kennedy spent less than three years in the White House. His first year was a disaster, as he himself acknowledged. The Bay of Pigs invasion of Communist Cuba was only the first in a series of failed efforts to undo Fidel Castro’s regime. His 1961 summit meeting in Vienna with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was a humiliating experience. Most of his legislative proposals died on Capitol Hill.

Yet, JFK was also responsible for some extraordinary accomplishments. The most important was his adept management of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, widely considered the most perilous trigger for a nuclear war. Most of his military advisers believed the US should bomb the missile pads the Soviet Union was stationing in Cuba. Kennedy, aware of the danger of escalating the crisis, instead ordered a blockade of Soviet ships. In the end, a peaceful agreement was reached and both Kennedy and Khrushchev began to soften the relationship between Washington and Moscow.

Kennedy was the first US president born in the 20th century, the first young veteran of World War II to reach the White House. He was the youngest ever elected to the presidency, succeeding Eisenhower who, at the time, was the oldest. He symbolised a new generation and its coming-of-age.

In shaping his legend, Kennedy’s personal charm helped. A witty and articulate speaker, he seemed built for the new age of television. He had presence and there was wit and elegance in his oratory. In his celebrated inaugural address he exhorted Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

But the Kennedy legacy has its darker side. Many of JFK’s political colleagues viewed him a mere playboy whose wealthy father Joe had bankrolled his campaigns. Many critics saw recklessness, impatience, impetuosity. His image of youth and vitality is part myth. He spent much of his life in hospitals battling illness. His ability to serve as president was itself a profile in courage.

Like his father Joe, he was obsessed with the ritual of sexual conquest — before and during his marriage, before and during his presidency. While he was alive, the many women, Marilyn Monroe included, the Secret Service agents, and others kept it a secret. When his exploits years later became known, it did little to rend his reputation.

Sixty years on from that day in Dallas, the contradictory realities of John F Kennedy’s life no longer match his global reputation. But, in the eyes of the world, this reticent man became a charismatic leader who, in his life and in his death, served as a symbol of purpose and hope.

Something, perhaps, this world could do with today.

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