The Day Before
No one sentient then and now can ever forget that day. I was in second grade; we were sent into an unscheduled recess after the announcement over the intercom of President Kennedy's wounding. History buff that I was at that age, I remember telling one of my classmates of the story of President Garfield (1881), who was wounded by an assassin, had largely recovered, then relapsed and died. Kennedy's fate, his skull torn apart by the mortal third shot, was not in such doubt. The imagery of the funeral parade through the capital, his coffin lying in state, and the burial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery are what remain clear in my memory, fifty years later.
The Day After
I wasn't watching, but I was not far away from the TV when the accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby in the Dallas jail house. Shocking as Kennedy's killing was, I think this event was even more shocking; that such a suspect would be paraded before the TV cameras, that some guy, a nightclub owner with a dicey history--so not a peace officer, or even a reporter--would be let into such a public, secure facility with the opportunity to pull his gun and plug him at point-blank range. I can't recall another instance in which cold-blooded murder was shown on live national TV.
I think it was Ruby-on-Oswald, rather than Oswald-on-Kennedy, that really caused the conspiracy stories to proliferate and persist. It's a very reasonable question: why would this guy ruin his life--there was no question of possible innocence, and no chance of leaving prison ever afterwards--as though it was a personal vendetta or crime of honor?
Contrary to what some maintain, I think the scientific exposition shown on PBS' Nova some years ago (and re-broadcast this week, of course) provided some pretty clear evidence that it was Oswald, and no one else, who pulled the trigger. The first shot missed, the second had the incredible fortune of going through Kennedy's neck, into and through Texas Governor John Connally's back and then breaking his wrist, while the third was the fatal shot which shattered Kennedy's skull. There was also the fact that a Dallas policeman was killed less than an hour later, apparently trying to detain Oswald from his escape, which points to probable guilt.
Still, there is the question of why these men--Oswald and Ruby--would destroy their lives for their separate purposes. Oswald, it's clear, despite some head feints on his part, was a committed Communist, enamored of the Soviets and a defender of Fidel Castro's Cuba. Ruby, for his, was an anti-Castro activist, and an associate of Chicago Mafia figures who had plenty of reason to oppose Castro (their big investments in Cuban casinos having been ruined by the Communist takeover there). Each could have been a willing tool in the designs of their guiding figures, though the evidence of any actual push is lacking, and the evidence of mental instability in each is plentiful.
There is a third possible conspiracy, though, and it is the one that is most convincing to me as a back story for a conspiracy to lie behind what happened fifty years ago yesterday. It is now a well-documented fact that Kennedy was trying to have Castro killed in the months prior to his death. Castro could well have concluded that it was "kill or be killed", and that finding the right person--one who was a sufficiently skilled marksman, someone who would stubbornly protest both the righteousness of his cause and at the same time his innocence--was actually the magic bullet. The fact that Castro needed to deny any involvement at the time, and that he has maintained that ever since (even, recently, questioning whether Oswald was the killer) means nothing, one way or the other.
Ultimately, though, it was fate that was the hunter. Without the third shot--and Kennedy's back brace which held him up in position for a clean look--he probably would have survived (as Reagan did, as FDR did the assassination attempt before he had ever begun his administration, as Kennedy himself survived an attempt before his inauguration). Ruby's path to his fateful shot at Oswald also seemed random, his attack spontaneous.
JFK in History
Apart from the days of his death and the fireworks which followed, the only other memory I have of his Presidency was the fear of annihilation that came with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Yes, we were taught to "duck and cover" under our desks in my first-grade class, which would at least have made our bodies easier to find. Subsequent research has indicated that, far from being responsible for the threatened escalation toward a potential nuclear war, Kennedy was the voice of reason on our side which was critical in keeping things from blowing up. So, let us praise his judgment at the decisive moment, after recognizing that he had already gone through the hard experience of being bamboozled into the Bay of Pigs, into increasing the Vietnam involvement, and into placing nuclear missiles into Turkey (which, again, gave the Communists a private justification for the aggressive act of putting missiles into Cuba).
Apart from that, clearly he is and will always be the symbol of American power at its proudest moment--challenging the Soviets on all fronts, challenging Americans to serve and to go into space, to end Jim Crow segregation and, it's been pointed out recently, to broach the idea of universal health care--America still undefeated and potentially limitless. That pride, it's clear now, was due for a fall, but the great potential he saw still remains.
The grade on Kennedy's Presidency has to be incomplete--he had set the stage for the key battles on civil rights, for critical decisions on Vietnam, that happened without him (perhaps influenced by his memory).