President John F. Kennedy.
Nov. 22, 1963, may have been the day when I first realized that all was not as it seemed.
I was sitting in front of my fifth-grade class at Randolph AFB outside San Antonio, reading aloud to the other kids (yes, even at age 9 I had the mellifluous speaking voice we have all come to know and love), when The Authorities announced via loudspeaker that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
That was it for school. Stunned, confused, we trudged home and, with the rest of the world, watched on TV as the young president was buried and Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson sworn in to replace him.
Yeah, right. Replace Jack Kennedy. Like that could ever happen.
Forget everything you’ve learned about him since. For a 9-year-old Irish-American, JFK was as good as it got. Like my old man, he’d been in the war; like me, JFK was a swimmer. “PT 109″ sailed well ahead of “The Ten Commandments” in my personal mythology, and “Profiles in Courage” may have been the first work of non-fiction that I ever read.
JFK wasn’t some baldheaded old warhorse like President Eisenhower, or a sweaty, shifty-eyed rodent like Richard M. Nixon — he was young, and brash, and when he went eyeball to eyeball with the Commies, guess who blinked first? Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, that’s who. Made it a little easier to crouch under the desk during duck-and-cover drills, knowing that Jack had our back.
Then, in a wink of an eye, he was dead. Gone. And some jug-eared Texican was calling himself the president. LBJ used Randolph as a landing strip whenever he had a hankerin’ to visit the ranch, and we went to see him a time or two, but it felt like bullshit to me. This guy was the president? Says fuckin’ who?
In the October-November issue of AARP The Magazine, Bob Schieffer recalls covering the assassination as night police reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He likens the transition from Eisenhower to Kennedy to a key scene in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Remember how the movie started out in black-and-white, and then Dorothy opens her front door into this vibrant Technicolor? That’s how I think of the Kennedy administration. He brought style and grace, and inspired a generation to do something for their country.
I’ll carry that a step further. The assassination of John F. Kennedy revealed to some of us, for the first time, that there is a man behind the curtain, a shadowy, furtive figure that warrants our close and undivided attention, no matter what the Wizard says up front.
And while the Wizard loves to work his magic in rich, warm colors, the world often shows itself to us most truly in stark black and white.
• Editor’s note: As you might expect, Charles P. Pierce has some thoughts on this subject, too.