“The news came like a clap of thunder, reverberating around the world.” So wrote LIFE magazine after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Why is it still so today?
On the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, news stories around the world are headlining the event. Those of us old enough to remember the shooting are recalling where we were when we heard the news and how it changed us.
Why? We don’t react in a similar way to April 14, the day Abraham Lincoln was shot. Few of us know that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed on April 4 or that Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 5. But John Kennedy’s death stirs something visceral in us. Why is this?
Landon Jones, the man who coined “baby boomer,” said of the tragedy, “For the Baby Boom children, this was the most mesmerizing moment of their youth. Time was frozen.” According to historian Todd Gitlin, “The educated young felt [Kennedy’s] call, projected their ideals onto him. His murder was felt as the implosion of plenitude, the tragedy of innocence. From the zeitgeist fantasy that everything was possible, it wasn’t hard to flip over and conclude that nothing was.”
Author Stephen King believes the tragedy ripped away the veneer of an ordered world, leading to “a universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.” According to Steven Spielberg, “Kennedy’s assassination started a chain reaction—a kind of house of cards started to come down, not immediately but gradually over the next decade.” Count what came after Dealey Plaza: the Vietnam War and protests, Woodstock and the sexual revolution, Watergate, postmodernism.
America pre-1963 feels united and purposeful, a Norman Rockwell family around the Thanksgiving table. America post-1963 feels chaotic and reactionary, a Jackson Pollock drip painting.
In 1960, the musical “Camelot” came to Broadway, producing an original cast album that became America’s top selling record. President Kennedy loved the show so much that he listened to the album every night before going to sleep. After his death, Jackie made Camelot a metaphor for their family and his leadership. According to her, the president’s favorite line was, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”
We mark this day because it marked us. We long for what President Kennedy represented: youth, vitality, purpose, hope. But no human can be what our souls yearn to become or give what we yearn to receive. The death of John F. Kennedy changed the world. But the death of Jesus Christ changed eternity.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1).