The question “why” will never elicit one clear, salving answer to President John Kennedy’s assassination just as the personal and collective GASP of our nation has no historical short form. As tomorrow’s (Friday) 50th anniversary of his death approaches, hundreds of thousands of words have attempted to capture the moment and the meaning of the tragedy.
And while all this rhetoric jumbled together, for the most part, this personal and communal exploration of a historic event – like that after President Lincoln’s assassination – is nearly always healthy and healing, albeit painful. It certainly was for my parents.
On that fateful day in 1963, after the president’s death, my parents glued themselves to the television in their small Milwaukee apartment. My father lay on the floor, crying hysterically (not a visual I can even fathom) and my stoic but loving German grandmother looked on, befuddled. My mother, nine months pregnant with me, simply was stunned. As they shared their personal diary of the moment and the meaning with my siblings and me since then, several quotes have been etched indelibly in my mind.
“It was a loss of an era. The charm of President Kennedy made the nation feel secure and the ethos of Camelot made us feel everything was OK. The country had a clear purpose and direction.”
“For depression-era children, President Kennedy provided us with a newly discovered but deep sense of hope.”
“The year between the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK’s death was one of a pure and deep optimism we have not experienced since.”
“We were glassy-eyed with fear by this sudden crisis in leadership until Harlan was born three days later, and we were joyously distracted.”
The zeitgeist of a time past generally includes some level of mythology. But just the same, this personal account of strong leadership, a deep sense of destiny and purpose and the confidence that our nation was heading in the right direction with a strong tailwind is inspirational and nostalgic, at least vicariously.
As we confront a crisis of leadership today both in business and government, this half-century anniversary of JFK’s death should be a time to reflect and to renew a commitment to seek out common purpose and collective destiny. It would be quite tragic, to say the least, to wait for another historic and epic crisis to force us to focus.
Harlan A. Kennedy Loeb was born on the day of JFK’s funeral. He is the global chair Edelman’s Crisis & Risk practice at Edelman.
Image by James Vaughan.