“Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” is a question we Boomers have heard and answered repeatedly, endlessly. This was, after all, the 9/11 of our childhood.
But what does JFK mean to young people now, 50 years after his assassination? Out of curiosity, on November 22nd I asked students in my Professional Writing class, all between 17 and 23 years old, to answer that question in a paragraph or two.
What I expected was more of this: “Unfortunately, because I haven’t retained much of the content I learned in high school AP US history, I’m a little rusty on the details of Kennedy’s term in office.”
“Ironically,” continues that same writer, “I’m more familiar with some of the conspiracy theories in regards to his assassination…. I’ve heard theories saying he was shot because he was Catholic…because of his support for the Civil Rights Movement. I’ve even heard ridiculous theories about his involvement in the top secret Area 51.”
But these students all had pretty interesting things to say about the late president.
One reflects on the familiar argument that an early death can transform a public figure into an icon perhaps unworthy of adulation and draws a comparison with a more recent cultural touchstone.
“Since he was killed while in office, we cannot know what he might have ended up turning into. Because of this, his seemingly great personality, youth, and good looks, we have turned him into something much bigger than he may or may not deserve. Reminds me of Princess Diana…”
Whereas for decades and perhaps even now the term “Kenndyesque” conveyed a sense of style, noblesse oblige, and grace under pressure, today the taint of bad behavior has darkened the Camelot image. However, for one student, JFK still rises above the muck, perhaps owing something to the recent notoriety of that rascal Teddy.
“Kennedy is known for his brothers and their scandals,” the author comments, “being the ‘good guy’ out of all of them.”
Another sees JFK as the beneficiary of media less—much less—eager than today’s 24-hour news apparatus to destroy careers. “To me, John Kennedy symbolizes the last of a long line of presidents that were respected. Despite his well-known flaws, or rather, well known these days, the press actually protected him.”
That protection has paid off, as for these students Kennedy was a singularly successful executive. One writes, “The peace core, NASA, the civil rights act—these are the things we owe him. He helped transform the country into what it is today.”
Finally, a student perceptively sums up the complicating factors of image and celebrity: “I almost like to think Kennedy is or was the 20th century’s first Obama…. Other times, I like to think he was a star, often getting votes based on his looks; a sign of youth and vigor.”
Actually, this group knew considerably more about the Kennedy presidency than I thought they would, some overstatement and factual errors notwithstanding.
Besides, if you are, like me, a person of a certain age, ask yourself how the 20-year-old you would have responded if asked, “What are your impressions of Woodrow Wilson?”