JFK, 50 Years Later

Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963, America stopped. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was assassinated. Before him, three presidents had been killed during their term: Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. But with Kennedy it was different. The United States has never been the same. The figure of Kennedy remains engraved in the memory of all. His political merits went above and beyond (though it is difficult to judge a president who was only in office for two years and ten months) and, not to mention, the numerous secrets of his private conduct.

It almost seems like the “myth of JFK” was born thanks to the assassination and began with the will of the widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, who first expressed the desire — understandably — that everyone remember only the positive aspects of her husband. A week after the horror in Dallas, Jackie called a journalist from Life magazine and told him that JFK liked King Arthur: not the medieval knight, but Arthur, the protagonist of a book, a musical, and even a Disney cartoon: a hero, pacifist and idealist. Just like [JFK] wanted to be. “There’ll be great presidents again,” said the widow, “but there’ll never be another Camelot again.” And from there the myth was born.

This myth continues to have tremendous force in the media: In fact, there have been more than 900 journalists from around the world who have asked for accreditation for the ceremony in which Dallas will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death. The Dallas Morning News, citing the agency that has organized the ceremony, noted that even after half a century, “even beyond America, the Kennedy charisma still charms, the mystery still intrigues.” The ceremony granted little more than 600 press accreditations, but the Texan city has been literally invaded by journalists in search of witnesses to that tragic Nov. 22, 50 years ago.

“In his idealism, in his sober, square-jawed idealism, we are reminded that the power to change this country is ours.” Barack Obama commemorated JFK in the speech he gave during a dinner held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in honor of Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and 14 others who have been awarded the Medal of Freedom, an award established 50 years ago by President Kennedy shortly before he was murdered. Obama stressed that the myth of JFK remains in the American image, not because he was assassinated, but because of his legacy, his ability to challenge the impossible and his determination to renew the world remain alive in the American people. “It is a legacy continued by his brothers and sisters who gave us a more gentle and compassionate country,” the president added.

Obama was introduced by Jack Scholossberg, the son of Caroline Kennedy – who was not present at the ceremony because that very day she arrived in Tokyo to assume her role as the ambassador to Japan. Speaking of his grandfather, Jack, who many believe has inherited the charm and charisma of JFK, said that “He reminded us that everyone has the capacity to explore, to imagine and to give back to our great nation, no matter the path we choose,”

Lingering from Kennedy’s presidency are many shady and few appreciable initiatives: uncertainty about civil rights (although there were some outbursts, such as the sending of the National Guard in Alabama to combat racism against students of color), the disastrous management of the crisis in Cuba (failed attack on the Bay of Pigs), the Soviet Missile Crisis and ambiguity in the Vietnam War.

JFK’s largest merit was perhaps that he indicated to Americans — and to the entire world — a dream, called the “New Frontier,” which he expressed at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles on July 14, 1960. It was during the same convention he was nominated to run for president. Kennedy pointed to the new challenges facing America: a period of international political crisis (the height of the Cold War) and the stagnation of the economy: “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960s — a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils — a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.” He mentions the new frontier in science and in space. The American frontier, which in the 19th century had been the long journey west, had then shifted even further; Kennedy stated explicitly — even if for some it was merely rhetorical — the need to share prosperity and to fight against war and for peace, development and freedom. Kennedy said, “But I tell you the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” He made a dream with those words for the democratic left all over the world.

Historical revisionism has now removed JFK from the pantheon of great presidents of stars and stripes. But for better or for worse in America, and not only America, the figure of Kennedy remains engraved in our memories. Perhaps because of that celluloid tragedy on Nov. 22, 1963, the day when the world stopped to watch, for the first time on TV, the assassination of a head of state.

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