America Undone

The day America was forced to confront the radical forces tearing the country apart.

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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