The Kennedy assassination was more important than 9/11.
This assessment was the consensus of a dinner party at which my partner Brad was present. I found this idea totally preposterous when he first told me about the conversation. Yet at a dinner last night with friends, all of whom had memories of both events, I asked about the assassination of JFK, and without hesitation they all agreed that the events surrounding Kennedy's death were much more powerful than 9/11.
I'm 49, so obviously I wasn't alive on that day 50 years ago when the world learned that the president had been shot in Dallas. I wasn't sitting by the television and radio listening as word came through that the president had died, although I have repeatedly watched Walter Cronkite deliver the news. Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation carry that moment of history deep in their gut. And the shock of the assassination, the mystery and violence of Lee Harvey Oswald shot by Jack Ruby, and the grief-filled pageantry of the coffin drawn through the streets of Washington, D.C. continue to haunt our country on this day.
As someone who has lived my entire life as an American with only a vague ghost of JFK present, the death of Kennedy appears to represent more than a personal loss for the individuals of the preceding generations. Rather, the death of John F. Kennedy represented a death for the country itself.
I asked my 85-year-old father about the assassination and he reminded me that Kennedy had died early in his presidency, and, "If he had been allowed to live, he might have been able to preserve the spirit of the country."
My father's words seem to catch the essence of why this day, 50 years ago, is remembered so powerfully by those who lived it. Part of the spirit, or the soul of the country died along with the president that day. It marked the end of innocence and a fracturing of society from which we have never recovered.
As a gay man who has been deeply influenced by the civil rights movement, I do not pine for the "good old days" of the '50s and early '60s. It was a horrific time for many in the country. However, President Kennedy represented to many people a hope that we might be able to continue to build America so that all might experience justice and equity, and that we might do this together as one country.
My father's next line after "spirit of the country" was to quote Kennedy's inaugural address:
"And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
I will mention that I don't think my father was a big Kennedy supporter, and I'm not even sure he voted for him. And yet he grieved 50 years ago, for the president slain, and for the country shaken. I encourage you to read the description of public mourning in Robert Caro's book The Passage of Power. I was struck by the nature of the national mourning, especially the hundreds of thousands who came to view the body in the Capitol Rotunda, and the poignant quality of that line of people wanting to pay their respects, never going down, but only growing until, finally, they had to send people away.
As I watch the footage of the grief-stricken people who lined the streets, I can't help but feel a nostalgia for that horrible time because it seems to me that it represents an America more unified than today.
I can't shake the monstrous feeling that if President Obama was shot, or President Bush before him, that there would be large numbers of Americans rejoicing. I worry that because of our rhetoric and poisoned political atmosphere that we have weakened our country; and the fracturing that began 50 years ago has developed into canyons that divide us.
Perhaps that is why 9/11, for all its horror and repercussions is my generation's equivalent of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Not because tragedy of assassination and terrorism are equivalent, but because the response can be, and was.
Being in New York City on 9/11 and the weeks after continue to remind me of both the worst and the best of humankind. Yes, it tore our hearts and left over 3,000 families without a loved one, but it also brought New Yorkers and Americans together in a way I had never seen before. For those weeks we remembered that we were one New York, one America. And that which united us as citizens is a vital love for our country and respect for the ideas for which it stands, even if we argue about what those are.
Our country right now is suffering from a poison of distrust and adversity. We are engaged in a slow act of death from self inflicted wounds. Let's honor President John F. Kennedy by taking this day to stop, remember and rekindle the spirit of our country. Let us continue to ask what we can do for our country so that we might move forward together -- with liberty and justice for all.