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Golis: 50 years of memory and myth

  • An X marks the spot on Elm Street in Dallas where the first shot hit President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. (Associated Press)

Myth: “A popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society ...”

— From the Merriam Webster Dictionary.

Last year we visited Dallas and saw for the first time the place where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It turns out that Dealey Plaza is nothing more than a wide spot in the road on the way out of town. Only a few yards more and Kennedy's motorcade would have swept under the railroad bridge and out of sight.

This is my generation's Kennedy problem. Our judgments of the martyred president are forever clouded by thoughts of what might have been.

We imagine a second-term president who decides not to escalate a war that would kill 58,000 Americans and tear the country apart. We imagine a country in which Richard Nixon never ascends to the presidency and Watergate is nothing more than a Washington office complex.

Whether all of this conjecture is delusional or merely speculative, we will never know.

It was much later that we would learn of Kennedy's deceptions — his womanizing and the cover-up of illnesses that could have disqualified him from office.

By then, thanks to Vietnam and Watergate, we had already lost our innocence.

In 1963, Americans were optimistic about their future. Kennedy challenged us to be ambitious. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things,” he said, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

It's impossible to imagine a politician saying that today.

By 1974, when Nixon resigned, everything had changed.

In the mythology of my generation, the era of cynicism in American public life began on that sunny afternoon in Dallas 50 years ago this week.

If you think we were star-struck, you could be right. Kennedy was the first politician to recognize how television could be used to his advantage. He was a war hero, the cool and charismatic son of a famous and photogenic family, and he was the first president my generation experienced in real time.

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