Fifty years ago today, at 12.30 p.m. CST, President John F. Kennedy was killed while riding in an open-car motorcade through Dealey Plaza in Dallas. After a half-century, most Americans still do not accept more than those simple facts about what really happened that day.
Historians, investigators and researchers have spent five decades trying to explain a moment that shattered the American psyche and spawned a plethora of conspiracy theories. Movies, books and scholarly articles have speculated that the mob killed JFK. Or Fidel Castro or wealthy right-wing Big Oil businessmen.
Was it two gunmen or just a Russia-loving little man named Lee Harvey Oswald? Did someone hire Jack Ruby to kill Oswald so the truth would never emerge? Were the autopsy results forged?
The bewildering number of theories goes on and on. The only thing we know for sure is that we’ll never know for sure. Who really orchestrated Kennedy’s assassination and why our charismatic 35th president died after just 1,037 days in office will forever remain a mystery.
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Why can’t Americans accept the conclusion of the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone? Is it so hard to accept that a single deranged man could cause such mayhem? We have seen madmen play out that scenario many times since Nov. 22, 1963, in schools, shopping malls and movie theaters.
Perhaps the answer lies in the turbulent social and political change sweeping the nation during the 1960s. The fear of communism and the remnants of McCarthyism were still alive. The Mafia was near the peak of its power. Vietnam was brewing. The civil rights movement was starting to boil.
The glamorous, well-spoken young president from Camelot promised to lead people to a fresh America, where sunny days would outnumber gloomy ones and where everyone would prosper in peace. On the surface, America’s “royalty” portrayed that life was good — or it would be soon. Our nation would lead the world to the moon and beyond.
Kennedy’s words inspired that kind of hope. America first reached the moon just weeks after his famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
All of that was taken from us in Dallas. The horror of JFK’s moment of death — replayed over and over from Abraham Zapruder’s 26.6 seconds of 8 mm movie film — hammered people with the reality that Kennedy represented just a promise, nothing more.
Since then, we’ve begrudgingly come to accept that JFK was a mediocre president. A philanderer in the White House who didn’t passionately champion civil rights and who might have, before Nixon, involved us further in the Vietnam conflict.
He didn’t have time to accomplish his domestic agenda. It was Lyndon Johnson that pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Yet people often blend those events with his memory.
Kennedy’s approval rating has averaged 83 percent over the last 25 years of Gallup polls. That’s only slightly higher than the percent of Americans who continue to believe that a grand conspiracy has protected the real assassins.
Explaining what happened in Dallas has become a lifelong hobby for many, obsessively so for some. It’s a sport now, like trying to figure out where Jimmy Hoffa is buried.
It no longer matters. Except for the historically curious, generations born after 1963 consider it with no more relevance than Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
What’s important is that Kennedy evoked something special in people. That’s why his name now graces nearly 1,000 schools and his glowing public image still ranks in stature with Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
JFK inspired us. His witty oratory and charm somehow assured our passage into a bright new world. We still believe he would have taken us there, and we continue to look for leaders who offer that same hope.