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.