Nov. 22, 1963: Remembering JFK, That Day in Dallas and Baby Boomer Nostalgia

Nov. 22, 1963, JFK Assassinated

Nov. 22, 1963: The Times publishes an extra.


I recently attended graduation exercises for a local college and the commencement speaker spent quite a while talking about how the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a watershed moment in her life.

As she was speaking, I studied the faces in the audience — the family and friends of people in their early 20s who were graduating from college —  and wondered: “What on Earth do these kids make of this? Does it resonate at all?” Actually, no. Not in the least. And why should it?

I knew that today, on the 50th anniversary, everyone would be writing about the Kennedy assassination, so out of curiosity, I visited the U.S. Census Bureau website to get the latest population figures. These data are for 2012.

Total U.S. population: 313,914,040

U.S. population 65 and older: 43,145,356

U.S. population 60 to 64:  17,813,685

U.S. population 55 to 59: 20,772,517

Or total U.S. population 55 and older: 81,731,558

Which means that only 26% of the U.S. population is old enough to remember Kennedy’s assassination, and that’s including some precocious 5-year-olds.

(Please check my math. I would love it to be a higher percentage).

I don’t suppose this is news and, of course, this is how life works. I remember my mother once taking me to a stairway in Union Station in Chicago, which was the spot where she learned that President Roosevelt had died. I was old enough to understand the facts — and I had come across some moldering newspapers in a window seat of my great-aunt’s house with front-page coverage of FDR’s death. I could understand the facts and appreciate that it was a cultural touchstone for my parents’ generation. But not much more.

I don’t suppose anyone, anywhere dares to say this, but the younger generations of Americans, especially the millennials, will most likely dismiss the 50th anniversary memorials of Kennedy’s assassination as one more binge of Baby Boomer nostalgia. Right up there with the coonskin caps, cars with big tailfins and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.  (And am I the only one who remembers the “generation gap?”)

You can hardly blame our children, the millennials, for being cynical and jaded, and weary of “the day the nation lost its innocence” trope. In contrast to us and the “American Graffiti”  soundtrack of our lives,  they have Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and just when you thought the nation had no innocence left to lose, 9/11.

But I wish the millennials could experience — even for a day — the idealism of that era. When some of us, at least, believed not so much in “Camelot,” but in a “New Frontier,” much more than LBJ’s ensuing “Great Society.” Before the seedy revelations about JFK emerged and knocked him off that pedestal where some of us had placed him.

So to the vast majority of the country (74% by my calculations) who don’t remember, I would like to say that there was once a man named John F. Kennedy who was president and many of us (but not all — for he had his staunch opponents) believed in him. And he was shot in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

And for those of us who were alive and remember that moment, life was never exactly the same.

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
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17 Responses to Nov. 22, 1963: Remembering JFK, That Day in Dallas and Baby Boomer Nostalgia

  1. Eve says:

    Well, that was an unfortunate headline. It reads like a suggestion.

  2. normadesmond says:

    is it me or is that headline odd? i mean, it reads like a directive, an order, not like reportage of a happening.

  3. Eve says:

    Well, it was better than their first headline, “KILL ALL HUMANS.”

  4. Gary Martin says:

    “…never the same…” Indeed it was not, or perhaps, no it has not been. (Am I the only reader here who remembers the day FDR died…universal solemnity …my first experience of death.)

  5. Lorenz says:

    Thanks Larry. Let’s raise a glass to the 26% who remember and those that believed.

  6. Santos L. Halper says:

    I’ll admit I think this is a rather cynical view, Larry. I myself am 32, so perhaps I shouldn’t or can’t speculate on those younger than me. I grew up with my parents from a very early age telling me about JFK and the horror of hearing the news, the experience cemented in their memories. From an early age I revered their recollection as I understood it was a very traumatic experience for them. (I would truly understand the feeling years later on 9/11.) Through my education about U.S. History at school, it was quite effectively imparted that the 60s were a time of great idealism — of course, my teachers at the time had actually lived through that period; that may not be the case for younger folks learning now.

    I guess my point is, everything becomes abstracted as time moves on. But there’s that horrific imagery in the Zapruder film, the sheer terror of the head shot and seeing Mrs. Kennedy scrambling in shock, that will forever cement reverence in generations to come. When everyone alive in that era is long gone, it will still carry weight as a watershed moment. No matter how distanced the details, the public murder of an American leader, a husband, a father, an admired personality, will always shock and dismay even the most unfamiliar viewer.

    At least I hope so. The way gun violence has become so commonplace in this country, I do have my doubts.

  7. kthursby says:

    Amazing headline. What a strange history the lat has had. To your larger point, I would agree. Both my sons are wildly interested about politics and history (one’s even in DC this semester) but it doesn’t seem to them as significant as it was for me, a Catholic kid growing up in Southern California. And strangely, I don’t think all the media coverage helps. There is so much out there — the clips we all know, plus every outtake and YouTube video — that you lose a bit of perspective. If it’s all out there, what’s really emotional? What’s important? This morning NPR played an interview with the widow of the ambulance driver on that awful day. Really didn’t have anything new, of course, and although terribly traumatic for him this wasn’t even the actual driver talking. It was a memorable, horrible day for me but at some point, I’ve had enough.

  8. Eve says:

    I think American was shocked, but not really changed, when Kennedy was assassinated. America hadn’t been “innocent” since–well, ever, if you really read history and old newspapers. If anything, I’d say the Civil War did that, and we’d been through some pretty nasty avalanches already by 1860.

    Larry, can you find any newspapers from 1915 and see what was being said and done on the 50th anniversary of Lincoln’s death? That would be interesting.

  9. I was born nearly 7 years after Pres. Kennedy’s tragic demise. I cannot watch any of the footage without being deeply effected, & feeling a palpable sense of loss, both for those alive in ’63, & all of us that came after. I can’t describe my sense of things any better than Mssrs.Lerner & Lowe:

    “ARTHUR:
    Each evening, from December to December,
    Before you drift to sleep upon your cot,
    Think back on all the tales that you remember
    Of Camelot.
    Ask ev’ry person if he’s heard the story,
    And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
    That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
    Called Camelot.
    Camelot! Camelot!
    Now say it out with pride and joy!
    TOM:
    Camelot! Camelot!
    ARTHUR:
    Yes, Camelot, my boy!
    Where once it never rained till after sundown,
    By eight a.m. the morning fog had flown…
    Don’t let it be forgot
    That once there was a spot
    For one brief shining moment that was known
    As Camelot.”

    I think the tale of Camelot lost, is not lost on all who are too young to remember. That is the multi-generational magic of that long-ago time & place. Rest in peace, Mr. President. You are not “forgot”.

    • Alma says:

      Interestingly enough, the “Camelot” scenario surrounding President Kennedy after death was not entirely factual. When Jackie Kennedy wanted to give author Theodore White an interview for Life magazine(only a week after the assassination), she made it clear that she wanted her husband’s legacy to be intact, and so she wanted White to include in his article that she and her husband listened to the title song before going to bed and that he was especially fond of the last lines, and the myth stuck, even though friends and aides say they never remember Kennedy liking the musical at all. in fact, he supposedly hated Broadway musicals. It was well known that Jackie was very fond of the arts, so it makes sense that she was a fan of “Camelot”, and-to her alone-the title song symbolized the time she and her husband were in the White House, never mind the fact that by all accounts, he wasn’t a fan at all of the song or the musical, but that’s how she wanted her husband to be remembered.

  10. William Desmond Taylor says:

    Larry, I think you could sum up the attitudes of youth these days as “incurious” at best. So who is to blame here?

    Remember that the post-boomer generation of today’s parents have become wrapped up in their own selfish lives and struggle survive in degraded economy where millions have lost their homes, people and whole cities are disposable and the few lucky survivors must work twice as hard to survive while the rich steal us blind. The government and corporate media says we have 7% unemployment but that is an outright lie by statistics and unemployment is today really around 20%. The effects of the ongoing 2009 Second Great Depression has been carefully hidden. No important artworks that tell the story of the times, like Of Mice and Men, or The Grapes of Wrath, or The Jungle have appeared. I wonder why?

    So kids minds have been programmed only by computers, corporate mass media, Fakebook and social media. They have no interactions with anyone beyond their age, they only talk to other kids and only learn from videogames –how to murder in cold blood hundreds of people before breakfast and destroy, destroy, destroy. Thanks to the radical stratification of modern society, youth are walled off in an exclusive garden of their own, a world of private texting and social media, that adults dare not tread.

    And so they have no role models and no guidance about what is or is not important to living, or what is a humane and questioning life. They have no rudder, compass, or guiding ideals from the maya of the venial, cynical and manipulative, corporate control of mass media. It is a problem since parents left a youth are left to the devices of corporations who control all the media, videogames, social media. In this case Marshal McLuhan was right: the media is the message. Bad media that makes more money drove out the good media. Kids are not going to learn about anything about the world from 99.9 percent of media today: the Golf Channel, ESPN, World Championship Wrestling, MTV, Fox News. Kids are not taught about values, media literacy and propaganda at all: they are left defenseless in the fishbowl of our society. Therefore they can not see the fishbowl.

    I have problems with people who say ‘those darn kids!’ The weary post-modern cynicism and narcissism that pervades corporate society is corrosive and does not exactly encourage idealism.

    On the other hand, yes, the unsolved assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK are together the most important historical moments since World War II. They were all related and part of a conspiracy. It is vital to our very survival that kids today need to know this.

    If the babyboomers could not deal with this or understand what really happened in the 60’s, how can we expect young people to understand – when we can not explain it to them? They were not there and do not have the context of these most complicated times where the society reeled through one tumultuous event after another. History moved faster and faster every month between 1960 and 1975, to the point where none of us who lived it could figure out what was really going on.

    Today all social change and positive underground efforts by people (which created the energy of the 60’s) are tacitly retarded, suppressed and quickly subverted by venial corporate control of our society. Think of the social change experienced by babyboomers between 1960 and 1975, just 15 years. We are still trying to cope and understand what is now a weird and mysterious time we call “The 60’s.” Now think about the rate of social change, culture, fashion, and media between 1975 and 2010, thirty-five years. Almost none, in comparison. So much for the radical increase in information and technology in that time. Without meaning, understanding it all means absolutely nothing to young people. Go figure.

  11. Riley says:

    I remember that I was not going to believe rumors, so my friend found a phone and called his friend who worked at the local newspaper, to confirm it.

  12. CallboxSam says:

    The minds of the citizens of this country now days can not accept that a great crime is solved by capture of the culprit. They now believe that there is a conspiracy behind every tree.

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