MY LIFE IS split in half by the assassination of President Kennedy: I was ten years old when the president was killed and I am now twice that age. It is difficult to pick out turning points in one's life, but because of a chronological accident and because I once highly esteemed the man, Kennedy's death is a focal point in my understanding of my development.
Like everybody else a few years younger and however many years older than me, I remember quite clearly the circumstances surrounding my discovery of the president's death. November 22 fell no Friday in 1963. I was in fifth grade at the time, but on that Friday I stayed home from school on the pretext of having a cold. I spent the morning lying in front of our color television, watching some rerun or some game show. After lunch I went back to the T.V. set and watched until the bulletin from Dallas came on. I did not believe the first sketchy reports of the shooting. I did not believe them until Walter Cronkite came on with tears in his eyes and a lump in his throat and made them official.
I did not think twice about taking off my pajamas and putting on my street clothes; it seemed the only logical thing to do at the time. Once I dressed myself and put my shoes and sneakers on my feet, I ran out the back door of my house without telling anyone and I ran the quarter of a mile to my elementary school. I rushed into my fifth grade classroom, eager to be the first to tell everyone the news. "The president's been shot. President Kennedy is dead," I breathlessly told my teacher.
MRS. DOERING, MY teacher, did not believe me. She gave me a weird look--she was puzzled because I had exhibited no signs of mental illness before--and sent me to the back of the room to sit by myself. I was angry and embarrased at her response. "She'll see," I thought to myself. "She'll be sorry when she finds out what really happened." And when the announcement came over the P.A. system, when she did find out the truth, she was sorry. I felt nothing but vindication at the fact that I was right and she was wrong.
Despite my detailed memory of the circumstances, I cannot recall what I actually felt about the president's murder. The only indication I have now of how I felt then is my reaction when news bulletins come over television. To this day I freeze with panic whenever a program is cut off in the middle and a solemn-voiced announcer says, "We interrupt this program to bring you this bulletin from our newsroom in New York."
I was ten years old when President Kennedy was assassinated and I was not very politically astute. I do not know now if I was any more astute when I gave a speech at my high school graduation in 1971. Of course I thought at the time I was speaking God's truth when I praised Kennedy to my audience of students and parents and high school administrators. I spoke proudly of John Kennedy's mission and of the sense of purpose which he instilled in all Americans. I spoke admiringly of Kennedy's sense of human dignity. I spoke in earnest when I said that the assassination had served America from its mission and when I suggested that it was once again time to take up the challenge of that mission.
IMUST HAVE practiced that speech a hundred times. I wanted it to sound good and beautiful. I wanted to be convincing. I, who had and still have a tendency to mumble in public, wanted to sound confident about the rightness of John Kennedy's mission.
But now, I just do not know. My political sensibilities lead me to reject the politics and the policies of the Kennedy administration. There is no forgiving Kennedy the Bay of Pigs, the expansion of our imperialist involvement in Indochina, his incredibly belligerent cold war rhetoric or his brinksman handling of the Cuban missile crisis. Nor can Kennedy be forgiven the domestic surveillance he allowed his brother to institute or the wiretaps he permitted to be placed. There is no escaping the fact that many of Johnson's and Nixon's most repressive policies have their antecedent roots in the administration of John Kennedy.
While there is no escaping from this fact, there is another fact--a seemingly contradictory one--that is no less easy to escape from. At one point in my life I did idealize Kennedy and I once did believe in the things he stood for. I cannot dismiss my former idealization of the man as sheer naivite because in large measure it is the earlier idealization of Kennedy that has caused me to disavow his politics and his policies.
OF ALL THE memories I have of life before the assassination, perhaps none is so strong as the memory of Kennedy's inauguration. I was home from school on that day also because there had been a mild snowfall the night before and the board of education called off classes. I watched John Kennedy take the oath of office on the same television set that would later tell me of his death. I watched with my mother, brother and sister and I remember thinking that he looked like such a nice, strong and honest man. He talked about beautiful things like freedom and dignity and self-determination. I believed in all those things, I believed that Kennedy believed them also and I believed that with his youth and strength, he would make them all come true.
But what is more important, I came to understand later that all the things which Kennedy spoke so well of, freedom and human dignity, must come true whether Kennedy believed them and acted on them or not. I came to understand that if freedom and dignity were important for Americans they were values important for all the peoples of the world. I came to understand that I too am young and strong and that I could and should devote myself to attaining those goals, even if it meant opposing Kennedy, his political orientation and his social class.
For all of this understanding which has come to be the basis of my present political outlook, I must give some credit to an inspiration I received from John Kennedy while watching him on television nearly thirteen years ago. That is why, despite the Bay of Pigs and despite the wiretaps, I cannot in all good conscience damn him on the tenth anniversary of his assassination.