“What’s the big deal about one presidential assassination?” an in-house Gen Xer asked. The baby boomers around the table had been reminiscing about the jolt of fear and grief they felt on Nov. 22, 1963, upon hearing about President John F. Kennedy’s murder.
The question was sincere and deserved thoughtful responses. One who had no memory of the national convulsion that ensued after the Dallas assassin hit his mark was genuinely perplexed about the fixation all this month on JFK and his death.
The answers had to do not only with who Kennedy was — a young, articulate, charismatic seeker of peace and justice — but who today’s late-50- and 60-somethings were when he died.
In 1963, the outsized boomer generation was flush with the idealism and confidence that came easily to children of the most prosperous and powerful nation on Earth. Kennedy’s death was a blow to that spirit. It was followed too soon by racial violence, an ill-conceived war, more assassinations and the shame of Watergate.
From the boomers’ vantage, the loss of John Kennedy looks to be the moment when the comparative optimism of their childhoods gave way to disillusioned adulthood and the nation’s trajectory turned for the worse.
Yet the boomers acknowledged that theirs is not the only valid perspective on history. They recalled that their parents were teens on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the nation into World War II. The response of those born in the decade after World War I earned them the label the Greatest Generation.
Many of the boomers’ children were of tender years on Sept. 11, 2001. Al-Qaida’s attack on New York and Washington that day will be the akin to the Kennedy assassination for their parents — a day of shared pain that they carry in memory for the rest of their lives. The Millennial generation’s response to horror is still unfolding. But to their credit, they have outdone their immediate elders in democratic participation. Youth voter turnout was up in both of the last two presidential elections.
Through 224 years, war, depression, crime and disaster have touched and tested every cohort of Americans. Every generation has had to cope with tragedy and folly without succumbing to despair. Every generation has had to muster the will to move forward in trauma’s wake.
It follows that Americans have much to learn from one another about national resilience and restoration. “Ask what you can do for your country,” the fallen president said. Our answer for this anniversary day: Talk about the American experience with someone who has lived a different portion of it than you have. Read a bit about the trouble previous generations overcame. And remember that while presidents matter, America’s course is charted by its people.