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Lowell Cohn: When JFK died, so did the light

I think that we

Shall never more, at any future time

Delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds

JFK's Assassination: 50 Years Later


Walking about the gardens and the halls

Of Camelot, as in the days that were.

— King Arthur's dying words from “Idylls of the King” by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

I remember where I was when it happened. I was walking to class at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., when someone said JFK got shot. Just like that. I remember the early afternoon being bright and sunny, a Pennsylvania fall day, and I remember the clouds invading the sky. In a way, the clouds never left.

Kennedy represented the light. He was so young and he had new ideas and he was vital and handsome. You never forget how handsome he was. He glowed. With him we had endless possibilities. The world had endless possibilities. Everything was possible in his light.

There was a certain amount of myth with Kennedy. We know that now. He was learning on the job and he made a mess of the Bay of Pigs. There was that. But he found his gravitas in the Cuban Missile Crisis and, when Gov. George Wallace prevented black students from attending the University of Alabama, Kennedy pushed him aside. There was that, too.

We saw ourselves in him, in his myth and his reality. In his glamour. He was so different from Dwight Eisenhower, a great leader of his time. It's just that Eisenhower was old. He represented the past. He was our grandfather. He'd made us feel safe, but he read to us in a monotone from a script. He was tame and uninteresting.

Kennedy was new. He was the new America. When he went to Europe, they treated him like royalty. No, more like a movie star. And we were proud. We were over the moon. The sheer promise of it all.

After he died, we lost our innocence. That's been said. But what does it really mean?

Substitute the word “trust” for “innocence” and you get the idea. Before Lee Harvey Oswald, we trusted our world — our government, our leaders, the media, too. Maybe we shouldn't have. But after that horrible day, after what happened in that little plaza in Dallas, that plaza too small a stage to hold a tragedy like that, trust left the world.

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