restricted access November 22: A Larger Sense (Dallas and Oxford)

From: November

Indiana University Press colophon
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[ ∞∫≤ ] n o v e m b e r 2 2 A Larger Sense (Dallas and Oxford) On this date in 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot. We have the Zapruder film by memory. Each replay is an attempt to unplay, but it always comes out the same. The New York Times headline—‘‘President Shot Dead’’—was not large enough, bold enough, or blunt enough to overcome our disbelief. We are frozen in the frame just before; the last four decades have been a national neurosis. The United States of America has been shot in the head. We The People have collapsed in roses on the back seat of a Lincoln. The Kennedy Generation has been preoccupied with his stunning death for all these years, and our children do not even know what they have inherited. America became like a single mind in late November 1963, being exposed to the same shock. The nation was transfixed by the landing of Air Force One, Jackie emerging with blood on her suit; by the shooting of the assassin; and especially by the long funeral, patterned upon the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. The sixteenth president’s funeral train passed hundreds of thousands waiting along the tracks; JFK’s caisson rumbled through millions of paralyzed minds. In the strange but inexorable logic a l a r g e r s e n s e ( d a l l a s a n d o x f o r d ) [ ∞∫≥ ] of trauma, we have become perpetrator and victim, assassin and assassinated . Perhaps this figuratively explains the popularity of Ronald Reagan, an idealist like John F. Kennedy, a wealthy and glamorous actor taking aim at the deepest values of Kennedy’s children, slinging slug after slug into the New Frontier. We needed a national psychotherapy but never got it. We were naive children when bullets struck the president in 1963; the 1950s had been a Never-Never Land. The good side had defeated the evil side in World War II. Things are as they should be. Things are what they appear to be. The shots in Dallas mutilated those beliefs. * * * The year 1961 had seemed to mark a new birth of the Enlightenment. Kennedy appeared to be a paragon of pure reason. His calculations were intellectual. He was, Jacqueline Kennedy later said, ‘‘an idealist without illusions.’’ He was able to see the irrational around him—the nuclear maniacism that he both fostered and opposed. But he was, in a way, a caricature, not apotheosis, of reason. To be unfeeling is not the same as to be dispassionate in judgment. Furthermore, Enlightenment rationality, a descendent of classical reason, is inseparable from moderation. Selfish, neurotically insatiable, craving risk and excitement , Kennedy found himself gifted with charm, charisma, wit, style— and having the powers these gave, used them immoderately. For JFK, liberty meant the ability to do what you want. Living one deception upon another—the vigorous healthy athlete, the family man, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author—Kennedy was not consistent to the core as was another Enlightenment heir, Lincoln. But he met one requirement of heroes: the Greek ideal of excellence. Kennedy generated hope around the world, and his courage was acknowledged by all who knew him. He thus inspired e√ort and excellence in others. His engaging smile was intelligent; he seemed to preside from scholastic heights of hurried calm, showing just enough amusement from afar to discontent without discouraging. His voice was like the pleading of a psalm against the finitude of what we are. America became aliened without him. What had been the alternatives to JFK in 1960? He was, in his own way, the best hope of the times. But raising the hopes of Enlightenment, he was unable to embody or fulfill them; and hope deferred, around the world and at home, unleashed the dormant forces that have always waited n o v e m b e r 2 2 [ ∞∫∂ ] for the Enlightenment to flicker out. ‘‘The world is di√erent now,’’ John Kennedy said in 1961. As a man who focused the rays of freedom on himself, he was chief among those who made it so. We loved him for it, and still do. * * * Kennedy’s limited idea of freedom became modulated by an understanding of justice because Kennedy did have a conscience: a taut young tough named Robert Kennedy. He was an external conscience, but a conscience nevertheless; and President Kennedy made his conscience attorney general . By championing justice...


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