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Peter D. Rosenstein Headshot

A Loss of Innocence Came with JFK's Assassination

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Like so many of my generation I still look back and see the short time that John F. Kennedy was president as Camelot. It wasn't really that, and Camelot is a myth that Jacqueline Kennedy created, but the haze of time can soften many memories.

While Kennedy didn't live long enough to become a great president he did create an excitement about politics and government service that hadn't been there before for his generation and mine. I followed politics from a young age and was excited when my dad came home and told me about meeting Adlai Stevenson. But when Kennedy ran I was old enough to run a storefront handing out his literature after school for my local political club. My reward for that was to get to shake his hand at his last New York appearance before the election at the old New York convention center on Columbus Circle. That is a memory I will always treasure.

It is hard to believe 50 years have passed since John F. Kennedy was assassinated and I am that old knowing that a huge percentage of Americans living today weren't even born when it happened. When President and Michelle Obama and President and Hillary Clinton stand at the eternal flame in remembrance of Kennedy this week it will bring back so many memories of that tragic day and the weekend in November of 1963 that the world was glued to their TV sets.

I was 16, working part-time in the rare book section of the Donnell Library in New York. Someone came into the stacks we were working crying and told us that JFK had been shot. We all headed back upstairs to the office and listened transfixed to the radio until at 2:30 we heard official word he had died. We stood there crying until they announced that the library would be closing for the day. People hugged each other and headed out to the subway to make our way home to be with friends and family. I remember how eerie it was on the A train to Washington Heights being with complete strangers sobbing and trying to comfort each other.

From the moment I arrived home that Friday afternoon until the funeral on Monday, I sat in front of the television with family and friends fixated on every move and statement being made. We were incredulous watching Oswald being shot on live television and seeing the endless lines of people outside the Capitol waiting to pay their last respects to the President. Then the funeral Monday with the somber walk from St. Matthews Cathedral to Arlington Cemetery with Jackie behind the funeral cortege followed by the leaders of 80 nations including the stately Charles de Gaulle and the shorter Haile Selassie in their uniforms. I remember crying as I watched John-John salute his father.

For nearly four days the nation and the world seemed to stand still. For many in my generation it marked a turning point. We hadn't known war but this we could understand. It was a loss of innocence knowing that this could happen in America. For me a desire for life in public service truly began.

First came the Democratic convention in Atlantic City in 1964 where I managed to get an alternate delegate badge the night that Robert Kennedy received a 20 minute heart felt standing ovation. It was clear had Lyndon Johnson not announced his choice of Hubert Humphrey for vice-president before the convention this convention would have stampeded for Kennedy. I had spent the afternoon stapling signs to sticks of wood that said welcome Bobby to be held by the New York delegation when he spoke. He was going to run for Senate in New York. But those signs were hidden that night as people thought it would imply he was a carpetbagger. I later had the honor of meeting Robert Kennedy both when he campaigned for the Senate and then again when he began his run for the Presidency.

That day in 1963 was followed by the deaths years later of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. and never since then have we seen men with the charisma they had. It has been fifty years and I keep waiting for the next Kennedy. But then I realize it is for future generations to find their own Kennedy, the person who will excite them enough to enter public service. For some it is Barack Obama and for others it will be Hillary Clinton. Each new generation will need to find their heroes. Hopefully they won't face a loss of innocence so soon after those heroes are found as we did that fateful day of November 22, 1963.