He was the first president to whom many Americans felt a deep, direct personal connection, as if the television cameras that initially alighted on John F. Kennedy during the debates with Richard Nixon beamed all that glamour and charm right into people's living rooms, and their lives. The thousand days of his presidency had felt like the beginning of everything: the space race, Vietnam and the anti-war movement, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the civil rights movement.
The assassination of JFK on Nov. 22, 1963, didn't turn out to be the end of everything, it only felt that way. The great historical convulsion that became "the Sixties" began with the shocking spasm of violence that day in Dallas. The nation bathed in its grief then, and now -- 50 years out -- we still marinate in a stew of remembrance, rubbernecking and recrimination. In a country where the median age is 37, there are fewer and fewer who can answer the question that once tied us together: Where were you when you heard Kennedy was shot?
Beginning the moment the bullets tore through the president's body, and continuing until Nixon -- Kennedy's furtive five o'clock shadow -- resigned the presidency Aug. 9, 1974, Americans lived through what historian Theodore White dubbed "the storm decade."
"It was a period when all that hope and opportunity that people felt was pretty much dashed," says Tom McEnery, who became mayor of San Jose in 1983. "That you could go from the charnel house that was Europe after World War II, and the disaster of the Depression, that even from those kind of depths you could rise up gave people a real feeling of hope for the future." Then the first bullet from Lee Harvey Oswald's rifle nicked the knot in the president's tie as it exited his body. A second shot unleashed a river of blood that pooled in the shoes of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
Bay Area resident Denise McKevitt is still unable to watch replays of film shot that day in Dallas, she says, "or the bullet that took our innocence and changed our nation forever." When she returned home from Franklin Junior High in Vallejo, she encountered her father, who was a sailor on the ballistic missile submarine USS Daniel Boone. "I'll never forget the look on my dad's face," she recalls, "when he said his boss was assassinated."
Some believed that a country capable of murdering its own president had suffered a loss of innocence, but it seems unlikely after slaughtering more than 600,000 of its own citizens in the Civil War, and turning a blind eye to the Holocaust in Europe, that the country had innocence left to be shattered. "There was no innocence," McEnery says. "It was way too late for that."
By the time of his death, he had become such a hero of the civil rights movement that there was some question whether it could survive without him. For decades after he died, a holy trinity of framed portraits that hung in the homes of many black Americans consisted of Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
"People still have those pictures," says the Rev. L.P. Lewis, 82, pastor of San Jose's Antioch Baptist Church. "There was a lot of excitement, a lot of joy that our time had come. Dr. King had just come on the scene, and now we had this young president who was a visionary."
Lewis grew up in Louisiana under Jim Crow, and he liked the country's chances under Kennedy. "To have a president who was supportive of what was going on was really important in the life of African-Americans," he says. "It wasn't the same ol' same ol'. New things were possible, and they would be tried. He didn't say, 'We'll think about putting a man on the moon.' He said, 'We're going to put a man on the moon.' "
Kennedy's honeyed countenance and his agile wit had drawn a crowd of 20,000 admirers to the parking lot of San Jose's Civic Auditorium for one of his climactic campaign rallies on Nov. 2, 1960. His campaign plane, the Caroline, had landed earlier that afternoon at Moffett Field, and as JFK's car made its way down Bayshore Highway, according to a news story, "hundreds of people lined the route to glimpse the candidate." A few hours later, he attracted another massive throng at Oakland's De Fremery Park.
Like Barack Obama -- whose presidency would be almost unimaginable without Kennedy's -- he was a celebrity before he was known. He commanded huge crowds wherever he went, but not everyone who came loved him. His U.N. ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, had been physically attacked in Dallas earlier that year, and as Kennedy's car rolled into Dealey Plaza, reporters joked with each other about when the shooting would start.
Then it did.
"I was absolutely devastated," recalls Harry Edwards, the sports psychologist and author, who was going to celebrate his 21st birthday that night with his first "legal beer" near the San Jose State campus, where he was then a senior. "I forgot all about my birthday. I stood out on Seventh Street -- most classes had been canceled -- and listened to professors and students talk. What did all this mean?"
The TV cameras that loved Kennedy were not there when he was shot. There was no live coverage of the presidential motorcade in Dallas, so after Americans heard the initial report that something terrible had happened to the president, they clustered around pocket transistor radios. In downtown San Jose, merchants mounted radios on boxes and chairs for people on the sidewalks. At police headquarters, officers pulled portable radios out of the stolen property storage room and awaited word from Parkland Hospital.
"I'm a Negro, and I think we now face a harder next 10 years," Charles Talbot told the San Jose Mercury then. "We won't get a president like John Kennedy again for 15, or maybe 50, years. The two greatest presidents we've had for Negroes were Lincoln and Kennedy. Both were assassinated. Every times there's one who'll help us, he's cut down."
Kennedy tarried so long before proposing civil rights legislation that he lost the movement's young firebrands, many of whom would later break with King to agitate for "black power." The legislative arm-twisting that brought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was left to Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, who never got over going into the homes of poor black families and seeing JFK's picture on the wall, instead of his own hound dog kisser.
After her husband died, Jackie Kennedy told Life magazine how much Jack loved the Broadway musical "Camelot," forever enshrining him in Arthurian legend. "There'll be great presidents again," she said, "but there'll never be another Camelot. ... It will never be that way again."
"All of this is complicated," says Harry Edwards, who will celebrate his 71st birthday on Nov. 22. "It's not as simple as Camelot." Perhaps it never was.
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.