I was a first-grader at Willow Street Elementary south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Like so many people alive in that era, I specifically recall the spot where I stood while hearing the news. We were out playing on the macadam playground because those were the playground rules in late November when the ground grew muddy from freezes and thaws in the ground surface. And I stood there, shocked and for a moment, quite fearful. What did it mean?
Our lives were fairly regimented in those days. We all knew the rules well because those were the foundations of our existence. We knew when recess started and finished. We’d stare at the clock on the classroom wall trying to will it to move its hands a little faster. We yearned for that precious time when we got to ditch the classroom and go outside to play. Recess was a form of salvation kids with so much energy and creative imaginations. That’s where people like me could find themselves in motion and freedom.
But suddenly it felt like all the rules had been broken. Someone had murdered the President.
Recess still exists in my mind. Nothing has really changed about the way I view that dynamic of motion and freedom. All these years of running and riding and swimming have their purpose. Every minute spent doing those activities is a reflection of that kid on the playground. I ran and ran and ran if I could. Early on, we played tag or some other game. Then we graduated to kickball and in springtime, wandered out on the flattened grass fields to play 500, a baseball game in which one player swung the bat and others kept track of the catches they made. 100 points for a fly ball. 50 points for a grounder.
Even freedom had its parameters. The rules defined the game. Otherwise, there was no game to play. We did not tolerate cheating. The game was self-governed by those who participated. On occasion, there would be fights over enforcement of the rules. But for the most part, everyone respected the rules of our playground games.
The heavy hand of authority
The hard part of being in school was putting up with the authoritarian rule of teachers with little patience or a wilting view toward the liberality of our precious playground time. We had to navigate the heavy hand of authority in order to get our chance to go out on the playground. I clearly recall a specific instance when my third-grade teacher gave me an evil choice:”You can stay inside and work on the classroom play or you can go out to recess. Which will it be?”
I knew that i needed my time outside. So I choose recess. “Okay,” she barked. “You don’t get to do either.” She made me sit at the desk and write fifty times: I’m sorry I did not want to be in the class play.
In other words, there never really was a choice. She had one outcome that was acceptable to her. But rather than take the time to explain the potential benefits of staying in to work on the play, she hung me out to dry. This is the method of blind authority. And it sucks.
I never forgot that lesson. It drove a new form of suspicion deep into my soul. I learned that so-called grownups were often trying to push me into things that they wanted me to do. When they didn’t get their way, they punished you.
And I thought to myself, at that tender age, “If this is how the world really works, I want nothing to do with it.”
From that point on, at the age of eight years old, I became a committed liberal. Either take the time to explain the rationality of your position and its implications, or I’ll suspect your ulterior motives.
We all get that it is the supposed job of teachers and parents and Sunday School teachers and coaches and siblings to help us learn to make responsible, considerate choices. That’s how we grow. The narrative goes like this: the consequence of making poor decisions is punishment.
But even at six years old, as a first grader running around the playground at Willow Street Elementary, I understood the dichotomy between punishment for bad choices and the injustice that was perpetrated on John F. Kennedy. I stood there on the playground trying to process what I’d just heard. “What had our President done,” I wondered, “to deserve assassination?”
Somehow I knew what the word meant ‘assassination’ meant right away. It was clear enough from the manner in which someone said that word to me. Someone had actually killed the President of the United States. Shot him dead with a gun. Right through the head. But why?
The broader narrative
It struck me immediately that our President had not been given a chance in that situation. Someone according to their version of authority had made that decision on their own. This related deeply to the emotions I felt about the relatively unjust choices I was being offered on a daily basis by people in authority in my own life. I knew what it felt like to have my options canceled without question.
Years later as I read about the events surrounding the Kennedy assassination, two things became evident. 1) There was obviously far more to the broader narrative than a single gunman acting on his own and 2) the President was far from a perfect person, yet still an inspiration to many people.
Both of these were revelations the sort that require deeper investigation. So like many millions of Americans, I tried to learn more about the situation of JFKs assassination. It didn’t take long to discover that the “official” version of the assassination was a load of bunk. The Warren Commission was a hastily arranged opinion, if not an outright coverup.
From that point, the map opened wide. A broad range of conspiracy theorists dissected the Kennedy murder from (literally) every angle. These narratives involved various elements including the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, Cuba, Soviets and you name it. Yet one thing was clear. All of them had a different vision of government than President Kennedy. And all of them operated in the shadows.
Some authors investigated the personalities driving the conspiracies and produced convincing works about the motivations for some people to want Kennedy dead. Some accused Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) in the plot to kill Kennedy and assume the Presidency for himself. LBJ was something of a surly bastard and he had a trail of ugly incidents and murders surrounding his legacy. He was a man desperate for the position of Vice President because it afforded him an opportunity to bury some of the skeletons he’d generated during his own drive for power.
Still others accused George H.W. Bush of running the CIA operation that killed the President. This much was clear: Kennedy had actually threatened to close down the CIA, or defund it, and that pissed some people off. JFK had plenty of other enemies as well, including FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. But the most intriguing piece of evidence about a CIA plot is a quite convincing photo of what appears to be a young George H. W. Bush on site in Dallas the day that Kennedy died.
Operations on the fly
Then there was the horrific theft and transport of President John F. Kennedy’s body from Dallas back to Washington. During the flight on Air Force One or Two, depending on who you believe, doctors obviously messed around with the wounds on Kennedy’s head. There was clear evidence that surgeons patched up a blast hole in the back of his skull. Talk about the ugly signs of a coverup…
But that operation almost perfectly symbolizes a longheld American tradition in which the narrative acceptable to the populace is pieced together from a combination of bloody fragments and blown out narratives. But once the stitching is in place, people move on and don’t look back at the scars.
This is the very process by which millions of white Americans choose to ignore the genocide of Native Americans, which stands like a gaping wound in the settlement of the continent. Others choose to dismiss the horrific practice of slavery on black Americans. It’s as if the echo of that institution leaves no marks on the collective psyche. The result is a nation deeply conflicted by its interpretation American history.
Throw a bit of religion into the mix and what do you get? Even more confusion and anger over who is right and who is wrong.
Political stitchery and bloody truth
So let’s admit something about John F. Kennedy. He was an ardent womanizer. He hid medical conditions from the public to keep his candidacy alive. He was not a perfect human being. Neither was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Robert F. Kennedy. All had flaws in personality and practice. Yet all stood for civil rights and social justice. And it cost them their lives. There is no getting around that simple fact. The leading civil rights and liberal political leaders of the 1960s were all shot dead. Murdered in cold blood. This is not some coincidence of history. This is the ugly, blown out fact on the back of America’s head. It has been covered up with decades of matted hair and political stitchery because the truth is just too ugly and real to reveal.
So we’re left to wonder what might have happened if Kennedy and his brother Bobby had survived those plots to erase them from history. The same goes for one of the leading black political and religious figures in American history, Dr. King.The political genius and moral vision of these people far surpassed the limited thinking of conservative American politics that produced McCarthyism, protected racism all across the American South and battled progress from science to medicine all across America. Conservatism stood for anachronism while the Kennedys and Dr. King stood for progress. This is the remaining battle for the soul of America, and it continues to this day. It is the battle of positive governance versus negative, light versus darkess, and enlightenment versus patent and dogmatic ignorance.
Positive versus negative
John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country…”
Compare Kennedy’s positivity to the likes of Ronald Reagan who made this famously negative statement, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Though he was considered by many conservatives to be a positive ray of light for the nation, and his ‘government is not the solution to our problem’ bears some resemblance to the inspiration words of Kennedy, Reagan assassinated the memory of JFK a second time with his negative statement about the role of government in America. Kennedy did not consider government an evil. It was a tool for good. His contention was that Americans needed to helped direct this tool for good. Reagan’s contention was that government should, in many cases, simply be abolished. That is the legacy conservatives have since embraced with fervor, and have held that belief to the head of America as if it were a loaded weapon about to go off.
We now know that the guns of conservatism were aimed back at Reagan himself, whose administration turned on him with the shadowy acts behind the Iran-Contra affair. Once unleashed the forces of darkness and negativism are too powerful to control by mere politics. The belief by zealots that they represent a higher power was quick to fill the void created by the negative space Reagan created with his criticisms of government.
It’s true: very same forces within the CIA that conspired to undermine Kennedy took matters into its own hands with the Iran-Contra affair. As a result, Reaganism finished its term in office disgraced as one of the most corrupt administrations to have ever run the nation. Such is the power of negativism and self-fulfilling prophecy.
The reasons for the disgrace were simple. The secret form of government that evolved from the hot, smoldering coals of the Kennedy assassination fanned the flames of conservative zealotry during the Reagan years. These fires spilled across the globe under the guise of “American interests,” a loosely defined term that stands for imperialism.
It remained for the likes of Dick Cheney to come roaring in with his a conspiratorial version of Reaganism. Under Cheney’s watch, the American military was privatized into a mercenary operation accountable to no one but cash. War profiteering went wholesale. The Iraq War was an unbudgeted farce answerable only to the shadow government created by Dick Cheney.
Military wakeup call
The reality of this ugly truth took a while to sink in with those commissioned to serve the nation in our military. Soldiers participating in multiple tours of duty became disenfranchised by the lack of focus, and many eventually learned that the Iraqi people afflicted by America’s imperialistic aims were not, in fact, the enemy at all. America had been bilked into a war of choice, based on lies, and no exit strategy to boot.
This is what happens when secretive revolutions take place within a government. But even the public face of the government during the Bush years was an undeniable parade of one destabilizing event after another. First came the stolen election. Then 9/11. The war of choice in Iraq. The mess of Hurricane Katrina. And finally, the economic recession.
Yet conservatives refuse to admit or take responsibility for any of this. They prefer the patched up version in which liberalism is cut from the belly of America and slapped into bloody position over the wounds created by the assassination of American character that took place during the Bush years. The cognitive dissonance of governing by negativity as Reagan confusingly proposed was the undermining influence on American confidence.
To counteract this grandiose would in political will, conservatives threw fear in the faces of all who lived under the American flag. “Elect us or be killed by terrorists!” was the battle cry. And Americans, ever susceptible to the patched over tradition of American history, accepted fear as a replacement for courage.
Killing JFK again and again
This was proof of the pain and suffering produced by the Reagan Revolution. Those who don’t believe in government should never be given the reigns of power. And yet, millions of Americans have embraced a new candidate of negativity in the likes of Donald Trump. The man promises to murder the positive legacy of John F. Kennedy in all new ways. He has called the free press to his offices to chastise them for doing their job. He has threatened immigrants and women and gays and even children with his incurious, vicious and bombastic mode of communication.
To some, Trump must feel like the New Reagan. A supposed visionary. And yet, like Reagan, the hidden negativity of his message and communication style will also be his downfall. There can be no good outcome for an American president who simply does not understand or believe in the basic tenets of freedom and governance built into our Constitution. It is a very liberal document, originating the very freedoms of enterprise and thought that John F. Kennedy so aptly communicated when he said, “Ask what you can do for your country…”
Fighting blind authority
As a six-year old kid running around the playground, I already had encountered the ugly whims and force of blind authority. I understood what the price of freedoms were, and how rules and regulations guide that freedom, but are not the end answer to any of our problems. In other words, I understood at the age of six years old what liberalism was all about. I linked it to the lessons I was learning in Sunday School and how Jesus promised freedom to those who understood the rules but unlike Satan, did not use them to
manipulate others. That’s how the serpent tricked Eve and Adam, by twisting God’s words to get them to do what he wanted. This, I understood, was the root of all evil.
I also understood that the forces that killed John F. Kennedy were similarly dark and negative. They had welled up from those places in the human soul where people confuse the will to win with the desire to cheat, to control and to gain control. Those forces are always heavy handed and hard at work in the world today.
And today, fifty-three years after the Kennedy Assassination, I remain determined not to let those ugly forces win the day. Because recess is worth it, and so is running around without people calling you inferior because you are black, or Mexican, female or gay. Liberalism is the heart of American virtue. That is lost on those who prefer the words and darkness of Satan (as Trump’s key advisor Steve Bannon has claimed) to those of the Constitution.
And please take note, before you cease following this blog because you disagree with these assessments, try to prove me wrong. Write a rational response in your own words, not just the sputterings of Alt-Right websites or talking heads like Limbaugh. This is important stuff. Freedom matters. I invite your discussion and will listen and respond to all rational attempts to describe why you think this current course is the right path for America. History speaks otherwise. But perhaps you’ve got greater insights.