John F. Kennedy was not our first assassinated president, but in 1963 it had been sixty-two years since the last. Well out-of-sight and most certainly out-of-mind as the president and first lady began that fateful drive in Dallas. There had been two world wars and an unresolved one in Korea by the time JFK took office. Violence was hardly a stranger in the American landscape — Medgar Evers had been gunned down in his driveway just months before. It didn't matter. The assassination of a president was the last thing on our minds and death seemed so distant for the youngest man ever elected to the office. The Kennedy's embodied vibrancy and life.
There was of course a kind of naive innocence in all of that. Not merely the recent Evers killing, just days before the assassination we had commemorated the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's stirring Gettysburg Address. Lincoln said that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here". Of course the opposite is true. Most every school child could recite his words in whole or in part — "Four score and seven years ago" without necessarily appreciating the unprecedented battle that took place there. Americans may know that the Civil War was our most costly. We certainly take note of the fallen in battle, but what we remember most is the fallen man from Illinois. We remember but, with our generally sunny national disposition, assumed that nothing like that would happen to this man, to this couple.
Compared with Lincoln and Kennedy little is written about Garfield and McKinley and most of us know nothing about how Americans took their murders. Garfield lingered for eleven weeks after he was shot, so the shock had likely worn off. McKinley died eight days after being attacked. Interestingly those deaths can probably be attributed more to poor medical treatment than from the bullets. In fact, the wound McKinley sustained would likely not have been life threatening today. Reagan survived his would-be assassin's bullet. Perhaps we don't focus much on McKinley's end because the larger-than-life Teddy Roosevelt succeeded him. TR, who actually ascended at a younger age (42) than JFK, is the man most of us remember from that era.
In contrast, Lincoln died shortly after being shot and had no charismatic successor to distract us. As with Kennedy, we all know/remember the name of his wife. Mary Lincoln may not have been a cultural icon like Jackie, but to this day we can picture her melancholy knowing that, beyond losing her husband, she was still grieving for their son Willie. Mary and Abe Lincoln went to the theater innocently with no expectations that this would be the last thing they did together. Jack and Jackie, she decked out in her pink outfit and a trademark Pillbox hat, were on their way to just another political event. They were all smiles, never dreaming that their drive together would be their last. They too were innocent of what was coming and so were we.
Dying is a solo experience, but most of us leave loved ones behind, especially life partners, who face their own aloneness. With a public figure, national grief is often visualized in the altered facial expression of those closest to him or her. The contrast between before and after, if we can witness it, tells the story of loss most powerfully. That
day in Dallas was one of multiple
images. It was one of the many trips
presidents make, and most often they make them alone. Dallas was different and consequently many of
the photos taken on November 22nd were of the couple — Jack and Jackie. Perhaps the most indelible was of the two
sitting in the back seat of that stretch convertible, a picture-perfect husband and wife
smiling broadly at the crowds and for the camera.
Andy Warhol captured it in the way only he could. His silkscreen rendition of an iconic photographic
image printed with silver ink on an off white paper fades away in some
lights. The fragility of the image mirrors
the fragile story it tells. And then
there are all those shots of Jackie newly alone — watching LBJ being sworn in,
standing with her children as the casket passes by and black veiled at the
funeral and graveside. Her pain was far
greater than ours, but somehow she was expressing what we felt, her public display of sadness echoed our own and was broadcast so that everyone
could see the mutual pain.
|Andy Warhol: Jackie I (private collection)|
It is fitting that we pause to remember John F. Kennedy and that an earlier generation did the same with Abraham Lincoln. But let's not forget Jackie and Mary and those who were really close, family left behind. Going on is what we humans must do, but it's not easy. Jackie brought up two children, remarried and had a productive professional life. We do go on. But we the public will always keep that dual image — before and after, the smiles and grief — in our minds. Perhaps as much as anything else these very personal images that also projected how we felt are what still reinforces the memory of the day many of us lost our innocence. When we see Secret Service Agents surrounding this and previous presidents, we no longer underestimate the real and potential dangers that lurk. We don't and shouldn't obsess about another November 22nd, but, in its own way, that day changed everything.