In gym class, Meridian Junior High School, Kent, Washington. Then, wandering down the school hallways with a bunch of other confused and oddly quiet teenagers, trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
It was Nov. 22, 1963 – the day that everyone who was alive then remembers where they were when they heard. President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed.
What did that even mean? To a 14-year-old barely cognizant of national and world affairs, but pleased that the country had elected a Catholic president who was youthful and confident, it was impossible to put it into context. Who would want him dead? What twisted combination of hatred, rage and calculation would compel someone to kill the president? How could it be possible that there were such people in the United States of America? Of course, by then Medgar Evers had already been assassinated.
A few years later, when I was a freshman in college, we’d find out there was more hatred brewing. The “Summer of Love” was a summer of death. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy. It didn’t stop there, and the nut cases came from every range of the political and social spectrum. Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan were shot at. John Lennon was gunned down in front of his New York City apartment building.
Fifty years after the Kennedy assassination, we’re still plagued by a kill-the-emperor neurosis. There are a lot of people out there who think that shooting someone solves things.
It seems to have been a common delusion over the ages. John Wilkes Booth, who killed Abraham Lincoln, and Charles J. Guiteau, President James Garfield’s assassin, believed they would be celebrated as heroes who saved a nation. Maybe it has more to do with ideology than weaponry: Brutus and his fellow murderers were convinced they were doing Rome a favor.
These thoughts came to me in unexpected juxtaposition to another anniversary that is being marked this week. Sunday night I was re-watching, with no particular intent, the celebrated Ken Burns documentary series The Civil War. I happened to be viewing the episode on the Gettysburg Address (about which Burns has made a new film), and as I listened to actor Sam Waterston’s rendition of the timeless words, it occurred to me that Monday (Nov. 18) was the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s two-minute masterpiece of human substance and sentiment.
If you are not still stirred and sobered by those simple yet powerful phrases, then you really don’t understand what this country was always intended to be about.
Those deranged assassins failed in one important respect: They didn’t kill the ideas or the idealism. If anything, they insured that these powerful (and admittedly flawed) figures would be revered and emulated through the ages. But martyrdom’s lasting impacts work in one direction: after the fatal act. Only in our imaginations can we contemplate the possible achievements, and some probable failures, if those figures had lived.
So, yes, the words and deeds live on with enduring power. Still, I suspect I’m not alone in continuing to grieve the loss of such extraordinary figures because of the sick whims of people who were not particularly noteworthy except by infamy. The better angels of our nature rule most people, but there are still demons among us.
Don Nelson is publisher of the Methow Valley News.