Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination, a part of history so devastating that everybody who was alive then remembers where they were.
I was in Catholic school art class, where we were making Thanksgiving turkeys from construction paper, when the principal, Sister Pascal came on the PA system to tell us the President had been shot. We stopped what we were doing and knelt on the floor to say prayers, only to learn minutes later that they had been futile. I remember stepping off the school bus that afternoon and finding my mother and several neighbors heartbroken and sobbing. Later, our family would cluster around our one black and white television to watch the unrelenting news coverage and funeral events. My siblings and I, despite secretly missing Popeye and the Flintstones, were aware on some level that our nation had changed forever.
In the ensuing decades, as one politician after another failed to measure up to Jack and Bobby and Watergate made the press less deferential to elected officials, many would mourn for the Kennedy era when we were more hopeful and innocent and our country seemed so full of promise. But how long would the high have lasted if JFK or Bobby had lived? Over time, new information would become public about JFK’s affairs with mafia moll Judith Exener, Marilyn Monroe, intern Mimi Alford and many others….affairs that were known about but never publicized out of deference to the commander-in-chief. One commentator referred to the press of that era as a “Victorian gentleman” who looked the other way when public figures engaged in extramarital flings.
Maybe the trajectory of history would have been different if the Kennedys had continued to unite the country behind a young, idealistic and charismatic leader. Or if Chappaquiddick had not happened, enabling Teddy Kennedy to represent an ideal instead of a flawed mortal. Would Nixon have been elected and would Watergate have happened if a Kennedy had stayed in the Oval Office? Would the press have continued to look the other way when personal indiscretions happened?
Some things we can guess would not have changed. The sexual revolution would still have happened, making us more willing to talk about sex and less prudish, if not less prurient. Magazines like People and Us would still have turned the personal lives of the rich and famous into a hot commodity. The Internet, YouTube and smart phones with built-in cameras would still have been invented, giving anyone the capability to blow up someone else’s reputation within seconds.
Like nuclear weapons, these tools are capable of great devastation, but only if someone is willing to push the button. How willing would we have been to do that if the Kennedys had kept us more hopeful and less cynical? Would Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky have mattered? Today would John Edwards, Mark Sanford, and Anthony Weiner be admired for their ideals rather than scorned for their peccadillos?
Weighing the JFK myth against the man we now know him to be, it’s worth asking: would someone like JFK be able to hold public office today? And is knowing the full truth about a public figure’s personal life a good or a bad thing?