He was a part of our club. He knew it, and we knew it. Other adults were clueless.
By Steve Kluger
November 22, 2013
“Let the word go forth, from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans……”
He had us at “torch.” And the only reason nobody in third grade could remember the whole thing the way we could remember “Ask not what your country can do for you” is that there were too many words for a kid to keep in his head at the same time. But he’d definitely said something about a torch. And that he was giving it to us. Not to our parents and not to the Good Humor man. It was our torch.
If you were eight, or eleven, or even thirteen during the thousand-day presidency of John F. Kennedy, you shared a confidence with each other that nobody in the world could have guessed in a million years. It started in Wisconsin when he promised to keep his speech short because there was a football game in two hours: “I don’t mind running against Mr. Nixon,” he told the crowd, “but I have the good sense not to run against the Green Bay Packers.” He did it again at an early morning rally in Illinois when he pretended to be surprised by the kind of hard work that went into a campaign: “After reading about the schedules of the President, I thought we all stayed in bed until ten or eleven, and then got out and drove around.” But what clinched it was his visit to the West Coast when a little boy asked him, “How did you become a war hero?” Kennedy thought about it for a second and then said, “They sank my boat.”
That’s when we were cross-my-heart positive. After 171 years of old-guy presidents, Americans had finally decided to nominate a grownup who was secretly one of us. He knew it and we knew it, but nobody else suspected a thing. And that automatically made us his sidekicks.
For 1960, this was huge. Up until then you were either a kid or a teenager, and no one recognized the members-only clubhouse in between when you were old enough to make up your own mind about things but still young enough to consider the possibility that you might be wrong. We already knew that Leave it to Beaver was junk, that Ike and Mamie Eisenhower made us sleepy, and that it was okay to drop Fizzies into the toilet as long as you blamed someone else. But nobody ever asked us for our opinions, because we weren’t supposed to have any yet—especially about Serious Issues like “If there’s an atom bomb but you duck and cover, do you still melt?”
And then JFK said he was running for President. That was the game changer for at least five reasons:
1. He goofed around with his brothers and sisters just like we did.
2. He played football.
3. He talked weird, but he acted like it was normal. (By 1961, we were calling that long yellow thing a bananer, too.)
4. He had hair.
5. We liked him.
We knew he was going to win—he had to. Just like all hundred and one Dalmatians had to be rescued by the end of the movie. Why else would we be watching it? What we hadn’t counted on was seeing the Kennedy grin on the front page the next day and suddenly feeling as though we’d just gotten straight A’s and a new Schwinn bike. Somehow, the collective will of a few million kids had elected a new President, and we weren’t even old enough to vote yet. He must have figured that out already, because when you wrote him a letter telling him so, he wrote you one back that said, “I hope the next four years continue to justify your faith in me.” Even though you were practically still eight!
He wasn’t fooling around about the next four years, either—but he was depending on his country’s imagination in a big way. And guess who came through for him first?
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
It was May 25, 1961, and with those thirty-one words, President Kennedy gave us permission to throw out all the old rules and make up new ones as we went along. Congress wasn’t convinced, and adults were generally skeptical—but there was one fact that they couldn’t ignore: They’d all gone broke buying us spacesuits and walkie- talkies once they’d figured out that the Spin and Marty t-shirts just weren’t going to cut it any more. If they hadn’t believed in the space program before, they did now. We made it real.
After that, we more or less appropriated the New Frontier as our own turf while JFK sat back and watched. We no longer needed Bat Masterson or Wyatt Earp because we had new cowboys called astronauts. If you got punished for something that was mostly an accident, you didn’t tell your parents that you were going to run away from home, you threatened to join the Peace Corps instead. (That usually made them a little nervous, because there was always an outside chance that you were serious—especially since you knew where Ghana was and they didn’t.) We probably could have lived without the Council on Physical Fitness, but the White House didn’t exactly agree with us and we knew better than to whine. By then President Kennedy had already taught us that there was more to growing up than wearing ties and marrying Donna Reed or putting on jewelry before you glazed a ham—and if going to the moon was possible, so was liking sit-ups. Probably.
Andrew Burstein, the Charles Manship Professor of History at LSU, was eight years old when President Kennedy was elected. “JFK’s appeal to the Sixties generation was first and foremost one of competence,” says Burstein. “It was his comfort with command, his ready answers at any moment, his deliberative, ruminative image in the published photos we all saw. Our parents viewed Franklin D. Roosevelt as a paternal figure; we took JFK to be a wise older brother, and we fantasized being on his team in a touch football game at Hyannis.”
Even though we didn’t know it at the time, JFK had pretty much taken over as CEO of the Hero Industry. For the three years that followed the inauguration, Mickey Mantle was just another ballplayer with bad knees, James Bond was an ordinary cop with a British accent, and Superman was some guy who had a problem with green rocks. At any given moment, President Kennedy was our father or our teacher or our best friend or our camp counselor—but no matter what role we assigned him, he always managed to show up in the last place we expected: our conscience. When Alabama and Mississippi wouldn’t let African American students into white schools and JFK sent in federal troops to persuade them otherwise, you found out what a racist was. Sometimes you also found out that you were one, too. Yet, along with that conscience came a sense of confidence. It was okay to make mistakes like that provided you fixed them, and nothing was going to hurt us as long as President Kennedy was in charge. The Cuban missile crisis may have scared the holy heck out of us, but only for one-and-a-half of the thirteen days. Once we remembered who was running the show, we left the worrying to the adults—we already knew how it was going to play out.
That’s why the first bulletins from Dallas went right over our heads. We understood what the words meant, but that’s as far as we were willing to go. Things like that just didn’t happen to JFK—he was in a whole different category of his own. So when the teacher from across the hall came into your sixth grade classroom and blurted in a shaky voice, “We’ve been listening to the radio….,” all you wanted to do was make her stop talking before she said something she couldn’t take back. And then she did, and it was over.
Much has been said about the impact that November 22, 1963, had on ’tweens and teens like us: According to the prevailing wisdom, we found a way to transform our grief into a purging frenzy when the Beatles gave us a reason to smile again eight weeks later, and we turned the smoldering anger that the abrupt loss of innocence had dropped on us into a crusade: A war ended, a president resigned, barriers to human rights toppled, and half a million kids pulled off a small miracle on a dairy farm near Woodstock. Most of it is probably true; God knows, we were pretty mad for the rest of the decade. But unless you were one of us on November 8, 1960, three weeks before Camelot opened on Broadway, you couldn’t possibly understand the depth of what it was that had been taken away. We knew nothing about international politics or iron curtains or steel monopolies, and we never worried about how John F. Kennedy’s presidency would be considered in the larger context of history. Because for us, it was a lot simpler than that.
Nobody had ever promised us the moon before.