How many readers realize that today, November 22, is the 45th anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination? It has been interesting to see time do its work on the collective memory. As recently as 1991, the assassination’s hold on the American imagination was sufficient to get the Hollywood treatment: Oliver Stone’s JFK, starring Kevin Costner as the New Orleans DA who tried to unravel the conspiracy, which included, in Stone’s telling, Lyndon Johnson. The late George Christian, LBJ’s former press secretary, was despondent after the film came out. He told me that it had sunk any chance that history would rehabilitate Johnson. Later, however, Harry Middleton, then the director of the Johnson Presidential Library, released Johnson’s White House tapes, which revealed Johnson’s political skill and his personal anguish over Viet Nam, and presidential historian Michael Beschloss edited them into two volumes. I think Johnson has a fair-to-middling chance to make the top ten list, especially after the Viet Nam generation is gone.
Like all Americans who were old enough to be aware of what was going on, I remember where I was when I learned what had happened. I had left law school to eat lunch at Tower Drug, on 29th street, just north of the University of Texas campus, and when I went to pay my check, the cashier, an Hispanic woman, was sobbing uncontrollably. “They shot the president,” she said.
I remember Kennedy as young, vibrant, and optimistic. Early in my senior year at Rice, he spoke at the football stadium and called for America to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Around twenty miles away, NASA was just gearing up. All things seemed possible. Who could have known that the decade would turn out to be one of the most tumultuous in American history, with riots in the urban ghettos, antiwar demonstrations in the streets, and revolutions ahead in sexual mores, drug usage, and the commonness of profanity, along with more lasting but less noticed trends such as the decline of industrial America and the rise of the Sunbelt, with great implications for American politics. On New Year’s Eve, I drove with two friends to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl game the next day between Texas and Notre Dame, which would decide the national championship. We pulled off the road to watch the sun go down and extinguish the decade whose likes, we knew, we would never see again.