America Undone


527d7f8d2c722.preview-620At the moment John F. Kennedy was shot, I was sitting at the bar of Jilly Rizzo’s famous watering hole in New York, sharing an early-afternoon bourbon and water with Jilly himself and, of course, Sinatra, whose eyes had been glued to the TV for several minutes as he waited for CBS to interrupt As the World Turns. “C’mon, c’mon!” he growled impatiently, “that car should be heading into Dealey Plaza any second now. And then – bada-bing!”

“That’ll teach him to double-cross Momo,” said Jilly, using an affectionate nickname for mob boss Sam Giancana.

“And to cut off contact with me,” added Frank, “after I got the boys to rig the Chicago vote for him!”

“Toddlin’ town,” Jilly grunted, wiping down the bar with a rag.

OK, OK, so I wasn’t really with Ol’ Blue Eyes that day. I was in my second-grade classroom in Queens. At around two in the afternoon our teacher, Mrs. Gibbons, rolled in a blond-wood TV set the size of a large refrigerator so we could spend the last hour of the schoolday watching some program on what was then called educational TV. The show had been on for only a few minutes when it was interrupted by a news bulletin.

Mrs. Gibbons, a hefty, white-haired woman in a flower-print dress – the Old-Fashioned Schoolteacher from Central Casting – promptly turned her back on us and stared at the tube, transfixed, ignoring us completely until she finally, perfunctorily, after what felt like a very long time, said we could go home.

Objectively speaking, her conduct was unprofessional. She probably should’ve turned the TV off, or at least been quick to explain to us, in the least traumatizing way possible, what was going on, and to reassure us that everything would be all right. But, veteran though she was, Mrs. Gibbons had never been confronted by such a situation. Nobody had written the pedagogical manual on this one.

That interval during which we were, effectively, teacherless was strange: we sat there in an unkidlike hush, taking in the news as best we could, old enough to grasp the raw fact of what had taken place but not old enough to have a sense of what it might mean for us, our lives, the world. My imagination ran wild: was it possible that when the President died, the whole country descend into utter chaos?

I craved the security of home, and when Mrs. Gibbons finally cut us loose I was out of there like a shot, and ran all the way (I was a good runner) to our front steps three and a half blocks away. I tried the door. It was locked. I banged urgently. On an ordinary day, my mother would have let me in promptly: she was always home. But this was no ordinary day. This time, it seemed, nobody was home. My worst fears –  that everything had changed forever, that the world was indeed spinning out of control – appeared to have been confirmed.

And as I stood there in a mounting panic, not knowing what to do or where to go, my mother called to me from across the street. She was watching Walter Cronkite with the neighbors. They had a better TV.

So America hadn’t come undone, after all. I was wrong.

Or was I? For as it turned out, the JFK assassination ushered in an era in which America, for more than a few people around my age, would seem to be perilously close to coming undone. Having undergone the first stages of our preparation for adult life in one America – namely, a well-mannered, grown-up, culturally sophisticated society in which patriotism was encouraged, excellence prized, authority respected, the civic virtues (remember those?) upheld, and real social advances being made in a sensible, orderly way – we would grow into adulthood in a country in tumult, one that nobody, in the years before Dallas, could ever have imagined.

There would be more assassinations; there would be riots and protests, and something called sit-ins; great cities, for reasons that really made no sense whatsoever, would go up in flames and never be the same; and even as the ugliness of various sorts of intolerance (racial and otherwise) gradually, and thankfully, ebbed, massive social programs directed at the objects of that intolerance – programs based on fanciful, ideology-driven ideas that defied basic principles of human psychology and economics – began to result in the pathological coarsening of segments of American culture in which the cruelty of oppression had always, at least, been leavened by dignity and self-respect.

That wasn’t all. As young people (just a few a few years older than me) who’d started their public careers by posturing as rebels against the established order began to gain power in the media, government, academy, and culture, the idea of mature and responsible liberalism – a liberalism rooted in the determination to bring America ever more into line with her founding ideals of freedom, and to protect that freedom against its enemies, foreign and domestic – would become contaminated by an ideological poison that, over time, instilled in millions of Americans a perverse contempt for liberty and attraction to (or, at the very least, readiness to excuse) thuggery, tyranny, and even out-and-out totalitarianism.

And what of JFK himself? In the decades after his death, thanks largely to the tireless machinations of his family and cronies, he would become a lasting symbol of what was represented as a golden age, an irrecoverable era of glory. It wasn’t just American baby-boomers who bought into this B.S.: visit almost any foreign city and you’ll eventually run across an Avenue du Président Kennedy (Paris), President Kennedylaan (Amsterdam), Kennedygatan (Gothenburg), Kennedystrasse (Cologne), Avenida Presidente Kennedy (Rio de Janeiro), etc. The stellar image was, needless to say, at striking odds with the mostly sorry record of JFK’s brief presidency, which – from the Bay of Pigs to the Vienna Summit to the Cuba Missile Crisis – was in fact a series of fiascos punctuated by stray moments of wit, glamour, and bravado.

This isn’t to deny that there was something rather glorious about the JFK years; it’s just that the glory had virtually nothing to do with JFK himself. It had to do, rather, with the fact that America – after surviving the Great Depression and leading the free world to victory in World War II – worked its butt off during the 1950s and entered the 1960s with an unprecedented level of freedom and prosperity that dazzled the rest of the world and that, during the JFK years, enabled it to compile a record of cultural accomplishment and social progress that made it reasonable (as I wrote about here) to speak, if not of a golden, then at least of a silver age.

In the decades that followed, along with the horrors (from Vietnam to 9/11), there would be positive developments (above all, the defeat of Soviet Communism) and certainly better presidents than the internationally adored JFK. But scarcely anything – not even the very best things – would remain entirely untouched by such toxic, illiberal post-JFK phenomena as political correctness, multiculturalism, and the culture of victimhood. JFK himself, an essentially conservative politician who had been killed by a Communist, would likely have rejected these phenomena outright, but no matter: many of their adherents did their best to turn him into a symbol of them.

Thanks to those pernicious new ideological facts of life – and thanks too, at least in part, to the diffusion of romantic ideas about the presidency that were bolstered by the Camelot myth (ideas having less to do with a mature understanding of goverance, Realpolitik, and human nature than with puerile utopianism, celebrity culture, and the all-important question of who’s more attractive on TV) – the American electorate would elevate at least two people to the role of Leader of the Free World whose palpable disdain for that role, and seeming distaste for many fundamental aspects of America itself, marked them as individuals who would never have been elected to the presidency pre-JFK.

The thoroughly appalling Jimmy Carter, for example, would surely not have won in 1976 if his palpably bogus Everyman act hadn’t appealed to millions of media-age voters in the wake of the overblown debacle of Watergate. It was Carter’s fecklessness, and his evident (and dangerous) discomfort with the idea of America as the Fortress of Democracy, that made possible the 1980 Reagan victory, and it was Reagan’s revolution that saved America, and the free world, from the Carter retreat (and, moreover, helped bring about the Soviet collapse).

After the Carter nightmare, more than thirty years had to go by before it was possible for a new generation of voters (for whom the Carter years were ancient history) to elect, and even re-elect, another man who was even less fond than Carter of his own country and who, in addition to making war on constitutional liberties and on the economic system that had made America rich, stood for an even more extensive, and more damaging, U.S. withdrawal from superpower responsibilities – all of which, barring the arrival on the scene of a new Reagan, may yet succeed in unraveling the American miracle.

If nothing else, then, JFK’s brief, not-so-shining moment marks a divide, for those of us old enough to have experienced it, between two radically different Americas. Still, if so many baby boomers are paying what may appear, to our younger countrymen, undue attention to the fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination, I suspect the main reason is, quite simply, that it’s sobering to realize that one has reached a point at which one possesses vivid personal memories of something that happened a full half-century ago. Tempus fugit.

Think of it! And we baby boomers, according to the silly fools who were our earliest self-appointed spokespeople, were never supposed to grow old.

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  • TheOrdinaryMan

    Thanks for this article, Mr. Bawer. I was in grade-school, too, when JFK was killed, and I’ll never, ever forget that terrible Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. My teacher wasn’t as professional as yours, however. She burst into tears, when she announced to the class that JFK had been shot. Even those who didn’t like Kennedy were very upset.
    And the Dallas Cowboys, who were playing Cleveland that Sunday, were shunned everywhere they went, for the rest of that season. It took them years to live it down, and the city of Dallas may still have some of the stain on it.

  • TheOrdinaryMan

    Thanks for this article, Mr. Bawer. I was in grade-school, too, when JFK was killed, and I’ll never, ever forget that terrible Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. My teacher wasn’t as professional as yours, however. She burst into tears, when she announced to the class that JFK had been shot. Even those who didn’t like Kennedy were very upset.
    And the Dallas Cowboys, who were playing Cleveland that Sunday, were shunned everywhere they went, for the rest of that season. It took them years to live it down, and the city of Dallas may still have some of the stain on it.

    • The March Hare

      Yeah, the nerve of the Dallas Cowboys to have let Oswald perform such a despicable act. Weren’t the Cowboys supposed to be patrolling the streets?
      That was a sign of how stupid the masses were even back then. I wonder if that helped inform the communists that there was a chance of taking over right then. That’s when the big push started.

      • sendtheclunkerbacktochicago

        This 3 minute Youtube shows you how corrupt our government is. Congress knows this Mutt in Chief we have sitting right next to the Nuclear Footall is a fraud and a liar and a criminal and they refuse to investigate him.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbkPh6NXZ7A

    • Ace

      There was no stain on Dallas. Parts of Havana and Moscow, for sure.

      • TheOrdinaryMan

        Tell Bob Lilly there was no stain on Dallas–the city that killed JFK..

        • Ace

          Dallas was communist?!

  • Dyer’s Eve

    Interesting article. I once read that the English author Charles Dickens travelled through the USA in the 1860s in the wake of the awful Civil War. He made a remark along the lines that if America falls, then that is the end of Western Civilisation. How precient.

  • Dyer’s Eve

    Interesting article. I once read that the English author Charles Dickens travelled through the USA in the 1860s in the wake of the awful Civil War. He made a remark along the lines that if America falls, then that is the end of Western Civilisation. How precient.

  • The March Hare

    “positive developments (above all, the defeat of Soviet Communism)”

    It was only “the kind of communism” that got defeated. I think that what happened in the USSR was the same kind of change that occurred in China post Mao. They are still communists, but now with a capitalist bent. The communists didn’t go away, they just went inside for a few minuets and changed clothes. The better to eat you, my dear.

  • The March Hare

    “positive developments (above all, the defeat of Soviet Communism)”

    It was only “the kind of communism” that got defeated. I think that what happened in the USSR was the same kind of change that occurred in China post Mao. They are still communists, but now with a capitalist bent. The communists didn’t go away, they just went inside for a few minuets and changed clothes. The better to eat you, my dear.

  • The March Hare

    Yeah, the nerve of the Dallas Cowboys to have let Oswald perform such a despicable act. Weren’t the Cowboys supposed to be patrolling the streets?
    That was a sign of how stupid the masses were even back then. I wonder if that helped inform the communists that there was a chance of taking over right then. That’s when the big push started.

  • JERSEY FATMOUTH

    When Leftism murdered Liberalism

  • JERSEY FATMOUTH

    When Leftism murdered Liberalism

  • Spencer Warren

    I remember JFK’s Inaugural, when he spoke without his overcoat in sub-freezing temperatures with boasting rhetoric which matched this bravado. Meantime, the aged President Eisenhower, huddled in his coat and scarf, listened nearby. Yet history shows that Eisenhower had the wisdom of his years and Kennedy some of the immaturity of his. Also, Kennedy virtually killed himself. The Secret Service strenuously urged him to allow agents on the running boards of the limousine, as was the practice with his predecessors. Agents this close would have saved him certainly from the third, fatal, bullet. The pursuit of glamour killed Kennedy.

  • Spencer Warren

    I remember JFK’s Inaugural, when he spoke without his overcoat in sub-freezing temperatures with boasting rhetoric which matched this bravado. Meantime, the aged President Eisenhower, huddled in his coat and scarf, listened nearby. Yet history shows that Eisenhower had the wisdom of his years and Kennedy some of the immaturity of his. Also, Kennedy virtually killed himself. The Secret Service strenuously urged him to allow agents on the running boards of the limousine, as was the practice with his predecessors. Agents this close would have saved him certainly from the third, fatal, bullet. The pursuit of glamour killed Kennedy.

    • sendtheclunkerbacktochicago

      If Killing Kennedy is accurate history, O’Reilly says it is, than we can safely say that John Kennedy was a liar, cheater and an adulterer with that beautiful wife enabling him in those affairs. The Secret Service must have know all the perversion was going on. Doesn’t that make their jobs more difficult and also cause the President to be a bigger national security risk? I have come to believe that the Secret Service is in place to keep secrets. What a damn shame, here we are celebrating a man who was a out of control perverted adulterer. America is great, right?

      • DV

        Agreed: JFK was a serial adulterer and a cad.
        Not agreed: JFK was a pervert.
        I mean, it depends on your definition of pervert. Obama’s a pervert: he has zex with men and women. And when he was a mere teenager, he was earning money to buy drugs by selling his ebony wiener to older white men. And it didn’t stop there.
        JFK a perv? Not so much.
        Obama a perv? Very much.

  • Ace

    There was no stain on Dallas. Parts of Havana and Moscow, for sure.

  • Texas Patriot

    John Kennedy’s death marked the end of “progressive-conservatism” where the government was regarded as a partner, and not the master, of the American people and American industry. Kennedy’s vision was to make America even stronger and greater through lower taxes, better education, better health and physical fitness, a greater emphasis on science and technology, greater equality and basic human rights for all Americans, greater economic opportunity and more jobs for all Americans, a greater emphasis on culture and the arts, and above all a national defense that was second to none and a willingness to use any and all of our weapons in defense of the American people and our vital interests. It was a bright and shining moment for America, not necessarily of accomplishment, but of hope, and no one knows how much better off we would all be today if John Kennedy had lived and had a chance to put all of his ideas into practice.

  • Texas Patriot

    John Kennedy’s death marked the end of “progressive-conservatism” where the government was regarded as a helpful partner, and not the master, of the American people and American industry. Kennedy’s vision was to make America even stronger and greater through lower taxes, better education, better health and physical fitness, a greater emphasis on science and technology, greater equality and basic human rights for all Americans, greater economic opportunity and more jobs for all Americans, a greater emphasis on culture and the arts, and above all a national defense that was second to none and a willingness to use any and all of our weapons in defense of the American people and our vital interests. It was a bright and shining moment for America, not necessarily of accomplishment, but of hope, and no one knows how much better off we would all be today if John Kennedy had lived and had a chance to put all of his ideas into practice.

  • sendtheclunkerbacktochicago

    If Killing Kennedy is accurate history, O’Reilly says it is, than we can safely say that John Kennedy was a liar, cheater and an adulterer with that beautiful wife enabling him in those affairs. The Secret Service must have know all the perversion was going on. Doesn’t that make their jobs more difficult and also cause the President to be a bigger national security risk? I have come to believe that the Secret Service is in place to keep secrets. What a damn shame, here we are celebrating a man who was a out of control perverted adulterer. America is great, right?

  • sendtheclunkerbacktochicago

    This 3 minute Youtube shows you how corrupt our government is. Congress knows this Mutt in Chief we have sitting right next to the Nuclear Footall is a fraud and a liar and a criminal and they refuse to investigate him.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbkPh6NXZ7A

  • TheOrdinaryMan

    Tell Bob Lilly there was no stain on Dallas–the city that killed JFK..

  • UCSPanther

    It’s an interesting irony: The progressives have long labored under a delusional vision of creating a egalitarian, hyper-tolerant (If you are not a white heterosexual conservative English-speaking male) society ruled by Ivory Tower intellectuals, and instead, they are facing a future that looks reminiscent of Mad Max and the Hunger Games.

    I love it.

  • UCSPanther

    It’s an interesting irony: The progressives have long labored under a delusional vision of creating a egalitarian, hyper-tolerant (If you are not a white heterosexual conservative English-speaking male) society ruled by Ivory Tower intellectuals, and instead, they are facing a future that looks reminiscent of Mad Max and the Hunger Games.

    I love it.

  • Ace

    Dallas was communist?!

  • EamonnDublin

    On this historic and sad day, I simply would like to say a big “Thank You” to the United States of America for defending Western civilization over the years. May God give you all the strength to continue to so do. We live in ever more dangerous and challenging times, and the current personal incumbent of the position of “leader of the free world” is possibly the biggest danger we have. However, I am confident that good will survive. For the future of those who will follow us when we have all departed this planet, the United States simply HAS to succeed in its mission as the West’s protector. This role is of course an enormous burden for the individual members of United States’ society, who each has his and her own personal liabilities and responsibilities – spouses, parents, children, friends, as well as society in general. Notwithstanding these personal responsibilities, Americans have always risen to the task, along with a few other nations, and for this I say again, “Thank You All”.
    May God give the world the strength to defeat evil in whatever form it comes, both national and personal. Éamonn, Dublin, Ireland.

  • EamonnDublin

    On this historic and sad day, I simply would like to say a big “Thank You” to the United States of America for defending Western civilization over the years. May God give you all the strength to continue to so do. We live in ever more dangerous and challenging times, and the current personal incumbent of the position of “leader of the free world” is possibly the biggest danger we have. However, I am confident that good will survive. For the future of those who will follow us when we have all departed this planet, the United States simply HAS to succeed in its mission as the West’s protector. This role is of course an enormous burden for the individual members of United States’ society, who each has his and her own personal liabilities and responsibilities – spouses, parents, children, friends, as well as society in general. Notwithstanding these personal responsibilities, Americans have always risen to the task, along with a few other nations, and for this I say again, “Thank You All”.
    May God give the world the strength to defeat evil in whatever form it comes, both national and personal. Éamonn, Dublin, Ireland.

  • Father Dacius

    I don’t know what to say except that it is not our chickens that have come home, but liberation theology that has come to roost. Everyone with a grievance has equal footing and it is impossible to separate the real and imagined. If we cannot get back to that God inspired document, and a simple un-tortured interpretation of it, then we are indeed lost. Buy ammunition, stockpile weapons, and we may yet re-emerge as freedoms beacon. But late at night I fear.

  • 11bravo

    Lee Harvey, and communism changed the world!! Or at least the USA. This article proves the point. And Lee just wanted Kennedy to lay-off Castro.
    So a communist/Marxist kills our president and the country falls into socialism – light. Complete with stereotypical agitators all along the way.

  • 11bravo

    and stole its identity. Har!

    • DV

      Indeed correct.

  • Chezwick

    I’m one of Bruce’s biggest fans here at FPM, but I have to take issue with two of his assertions…

    BRUCE: This isn’t to deny that there was something rather glorious about the JFK years; it’s just that the glory had virtually nothing to do with JFK himself.

    RESPONSE: I disagree. Kennedy’s tax-cuts in 1961 fueled a 5.2% annual growth rate over the next five years. And his enthusiastic support for the space program captured the imagination of the American people and helped facilitate the technological revolution that changed the world.

    BRUCE: JFK himself, an essentially conservative politician who had been killed by a Communist…

    RESPONSE: I’m no conspiracy aficionado…in fact, there is no-one I despise more than the ‘Truthers’, but Bruce’s casual assertion of the “official” story regarding JFK’s assassination is disappointing. All other evidence aside, Jack Ruby’s silencing of Oswald should indicate to one and all that the ‘lone-gunman’ theory is – at the very least – suspect.

    • DV

      JFK tax cuts: correct.
      JFK conspiracy: incorrect.
      Four words: Gerald Poser. Read him.

  • TheOrdinaryMan

    Bob Lilly–the football player, you know? Lilly and his teammates endured the bottles and verbal barbs directed at them; largely responsible for them losing a number of games. The f-o-o-t-b-a-l-l t-e-a-m took the blame for JFK’s death.

  • http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/ Jason P

    I was in 8th grade (junior high school in Queens, NY) when we hear the news over the schools PA system. I don’t remember any of the students being shocked or crying like they do today. We working-class “youths” were much more stoic and our expectations prepared us for a tough world. We watch WWII movies and TV shows (or Westerns) and were used to seeing the hero die from time to time. We got up and resumed our lives without hesitation and braced ourselves for the next fight.

    I think people remember crying because it is considered unfeeling not to have broken down. In retrospect people read into the moment much that wasn’t there. It wasn’t traumatic at all … only harsh reality. Remember that phrase?

  • PAthena

    Unfortunately, JFK reaped what he had sown when he was assassinated. He had himself caused the assassination of political leaders, Batista, I believe, and tried to have Castro assassinated.

  • DV

    Exactly.

  • DV

    That’s when the big radical left wing push to paint the assassination as involving the grandest, most brazen, most well kept secret conspiracy which ever befell guilty mankind. And it was all–according to the lefties–hatched in and carried out by the CIA and/or the CIA and the Mafia. Mark Lane, the still still not so secret communist lawyer explained it all on the last Geraldo. Gad, sometimes I think that ever that day, this country has been nothing but a huge, surreal cartoon.

    • The March Hare

      “this country has been nothing but an on-going, huge, surreal cartoon.”
      That is a good description of it.
      I’m glad you watch Geraldo so I don’t have to. Thanks for the info. Sorry you have to go through that to get it.

  • DV

    If the US goes down in flames, you can blame it on two things: the astonishing degree of ignorance of the general American public, brought about largely by the incompetence and stupidity of American public school systems and the teachers’ unions, and the apathy and indifference of the average American to all those things their forebears held so dear.

    • Rocky Mountain

      Assuming you are an American citizen how did you ever manage to raise yourself up to such a high and mighty place having been surrounded by such crass stupidity and ignorance for so long?

      • EamonnDublin

        Hi, “Rocky Mountain” – Just in case somebody misinterprets your response as being directed at me – it’s not. BTW, to be fair to “DV”, I think he/she possibly stressed the “stupidity” etc. bit just a bit more than he/she intended. I have a somewhat similar feeling with regard to my fellow Irishmen and women – a lot of them seem to have a great feeling of “apathy and indifference of all those things their forebears held so dear”. As for the “stupidity” bit, I suppose we have to ponder why, for example, we here in Ireland continue to elect inept politicians from the ranks of widows, brothers, sisters, children, nephews, nieces and cousins of deceased, failed, politicians, who have absolutely no idea of how to run a country and whose sole aim in life is to get themselves a parliamentary seat at the next election. I think the same sort of mindset afflicts some of the American electorate – otherwise they would not have elected Mr. Obama to be their leader. Even from this distance, I could see before his first election that the man was going to be a failure. To elect him a second time was abysmal. Having said that, of course I accept that his election was on racial grounds and therefore a racist act. Best Wishes to You All – and have a lovely “Thanksgiving” on Thursdday! Éamonn, Dublin, Ireland.

  • EW

    Carter was indeed one of the worst presidents ever, and Obama ain’t no shining beacon either, but a strong nation can survive one or two bad presidents. For some reason you neglect to mention the real period during which the US was close to being undone, the McCarthy era during which freedom of speech was stifled, people were blacklisted and lost their job only for being suspected of having certain sympathies, and no real proof was needed either. People were employed as informers, in fact, it seemed that in the heat of the anti communist crusdade the US has ironically adopted all the communist tactics, with commisars and all. This is when the US came closest to cease being a true democracy, and leader of the free world, fortunately it was strong enough to survive that as well, and to see and finally bring about the end of communism – mostly.

  • defcon 4

    Kennedy’s boat, PT-109 was lost only through Kennedy’s incompetence. With no lookouts posted, he left his boat drifting in waters known to be patrolled by the IJN. MacArthur said Kennedy should’ve been court-martialed. He was right, the IJN captain of the ship which ran Kennedy’s boat down confirmed MacArthur’s estimation of Kennedy’s dereliction of duty. I don’t think much of JFK, I held his younger brother in higher esteem.