Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The horror of a U.S. president being murdered was, by itself, enough to ensure the event would burn itself into most memories and into the history books. But he was more than just any president. He was young, charismatic, handsome, and carried himself with a "vigah" (to borrow his broad Boston accent) that belied his many health problems. He was a rock star of a president, one who made the country feel that we could and would change the world for the better.
When he was shot to death in Dallas, we were robbed of the opportunity to see if JFK could fulfill the promise he personified.
Thoughtful people - historians, political analysts and pundits - understand that speculation on what might have happened had he lived can never have much certainty about it.
Some have said his death marked an "end to innocence" among Americans. For those of a certain age, perhaps so. But most Americans in 1963 were far from naive about social problems, the economy and the prospect of world peace. We were embroiled in a cold war that almost boiled over into nuclear confrontation with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. There was great concern that the assassination was the signal for an attack from the Soviet Union, that their missiles would not be far behind.
Kennedy's death and its aftermath launched the age of conspiracy theories that continues today. The Warren Commission Report concluded Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, but uncounted numbers of people around the world doubt that, and say he was just part of a conspiracy to kill the president. It is puzzling, of course, why so many who assume one man could not have been so evil are quick to believe a whole group of people were.
We can debate, look at grainy films and pore through mountains of books to look for the real story - but the truth of the matter, again, will probably never be known.
Kennedy's assasination launched the age of 24-hour televised news coverage. For days, Americans watched their TV screens for the latest developments. We saw the accused assassin gunned down by Jack Ruby on live TV. We mourned together at his funeral and the sad procession to Arlington National Cemetery. Images of the riderless horse, boots backward in the stirrups, and of young John Kennedy Jr. saluting as his father's body went by remain engraved in the minds of those who saw it.
Beyond all that, though, Nov. 22, 1963 was an American tragedy. Our government was shaken, our history was changed, our president was murdered. That is reason enough to remember it.