20 November 2013
Never mind where you were when it happened, in the grand scheme of things it matters little, although it is remarkable that so many of us remember the exact circumstances. BH was on the point of flying to California from Hong Kong.
“Take your black tie,” I advised, “they’ll all be wearing them.”
In one respect at least the world has never been the same since President Kennedy was shot. The personal safety of high profile persons, be they world leaders or pop stars, was very different in those days. In Texas there were open cars; outriders, police and detectives at a distance from the most powerful leader in the world. At that time there was nothing odd about this accessibility; everyone wanted a good view, to take pictures or to touch or shake the magic man’s hand. There were crowds within just a few feet of the car.
Compare that with the most recent visit abroad of almost any leader. Millions a year are spent on the security of politicians of every stripe, wherever they go. Planes full of detectives, secret police, listening kit and very likely sniffer dogs; let alone a colossal armoured car with blacked out windows. And that’s just for Signor Berlusconi – beg pardon, the President of Ruritania.
Despite the Cold War it was a more trusting world back in January 1961 when John F Kennedy was elected President of the United States of America.
You can read everything you wish to know (and lots you don’t) about JFK, as he was familiarly known. His story is exhaustively covered on the internet, in books, hundreds of articles and films. I can’t tell you anything new about him, especially not to any American who may read this.
But I can mark the passage of the half-century since he died, with a snapshot, (inevitably taken with a flashbulb) of how it was for an ordinary non-American family and their friends.
John F Kennedy was loved unreservedly by most of us from the day he was elected until the day he died. The glamour, the youth, the good looks, the war record and charismatic star quality all combined to make an irresistible package. He had a gorgeous wife we all wanted to be; and if we couldn’t actually be Jackie, we could emulate her hairstyle, poise and wardrobe.
Yes, JFK swept us off our collective feet and we felt the world must take a turn for the better. He had a distinctively persuasive voice, one that still echoes:
“My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
Or the intimate comradeship of:
“Ich bin ein Berliner…”
Any statesman at any time would give his eye-teeth to have said either of those sentences.
JFK’s allure for us can partly be explained by the contrast between him and the other world leaders of his day. Compare his full head of hair, vigour (we knew nothing of his illness) and healthy wide smile, with De Gaulle, Adenauer, Macmillan, Krushchev, Tito or Mao Zedong! No wonder we fell for him hook, line and sinker – the girls among us anyway. The old brigade belonged to the old days, here was the door to a new and golden world.
The President’s stand on the Cuban Missile Crisis confirmed his strength of purpose; his vision for space travel spoke of imaginative engagement with our future. His family life spoke of an example of a religious, loving home. Naïve of course, and many of these myths were subsequently rudely exposed.
To this day, no-one who heard the news on that day, or saw the blood-smeared images, would ever forget how their hero died. Just when everything seemed to be better, with a more hopeful future in sight. Blown to pieces in the twinkling of an eye.
Both C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley also died on November 22nd, 1963. Few noticed at the time; I, a star-struck 23 year-old, certainly didn’t.