Oswald’s act in Dallas gave us a myth that shaped our understanding of the 60s
Opinion: The ‘change’ or ‘hope’ symbolised by JFK was not of the kind normally associated with the political left
Lee Harvey Oswald is led through the Dallas police station in 1963 after the assassination of President Kennedy. Photograph:
Who is the most pivotal figure of the Sixties? JFK? His brother Bobby? Martin Luther King? Lennon and/or McCartney? I would suggest none of the above, but Lee Harvey Oswald. Without him, the decade of peace and love would be without its most enduring myth.
One of JFK’s campaign slogans in 1960 was “The Man for the 60’s”. The misplaced apostrophe is not the only irony in light of what has transpired, with the 1960s remaining at the core of western culture as the imaginative repository of ideals and values which appear incapable of being bettered or refined.
Kennedy was actually shaping up to be a mediocre president. The appalling debacle of the Bay of Pigs had in part been counter-balanced by his careful handling of the Cuban missile crisis, but otherwise his presidency was proving pedestrian. Oswald it was who crystallised the moment and made it seem lost.
I heard that JFK was dead before I actually heard of him. A neighbour, Beatty Haugh, came in and whisperingly told my parents what had happened in Dallas. It must have been the morning after – 50 years ago tomorrow. I remember it being daylight and the silence that hung around the name “Kennedy”. I knew of a man called Kennedy down the street, but something about the silence did not match the idea of his demise. My father doffed his cap and blessed himself. He and my mother remained silent for a long time after Beatty had departed.
Nowadays, we think of the 1960s as an era of youth, but my father was in his 60th year, my mother well advanced in her 40s. Yet, they sat together that day as though personally bereaved. They were not the kind of people to be caught up in fads or fancies, but they knew that day that some dream they had caught on the wind had been extinguished.
It was much more than image. Kennedy was the first politician pop star, his handsome features a boon for TV. But there was no TV in our house, nor even a radio. My parents were keen readers of newspapers – the Irish Independent and the Evening Press, to keep it ecumenical – and would have followed JFK’s visit to Ireland, five months earlier.
For the Irish – unspokenly – JFK was the representation of an ideal already lost to us by the legacy of colonisation and famine.
Kennedy is generally thought of as having promised “change” and “hope”, but not the kind of change or hope we think about now. It wasn’t a left-wing, nor indeed a “liberal” thing. Kennedy was anti-communist, for lower taxes, fought union corruption, pushed for free trade and a strong dollar, and favoured military build-up to assert a higher American visibility in the world. But the “content” of his presidency is not the important ingredient of the narrative. His most enduring legacy is as the public figure who remains and continues to correspond to some deep desire burning deep within us – something intangible, structural, visceral, varying in intensity but somehow suggesting itself as essential. You could describe it “religiously” or in sexual terms – or more neutrally as the life-force, which appears structured to respond to an encounter with an exceptional human presence.
Oswald immortalised Kennedy, freezing his ideal in time, but also unleashed in the rest of us the darker part that insinuates disappointment as something inevitable and ineluctable, whispering – again – that all that seems great will be taken away.
The Kennedy legend has since been added to and conflated with other elements – Beatles, civil rights, student revolutionaries, Apollo 11 – to form our most powerful modern mythology, under the sway of which we still live. Because the hope was precipitately extinguished, it lived on as a frustrated ideal, at once engaging and short-circuiting a desire that gutters but still endures.
Oswald, though, ensured the world would never again look upon someone such as JFK – if such can even be imagined – and anticipate anything other than grief or slapstick.
I remember almost 30 years ago, being in O’Donoghue’s public house on Merrion Row in Dublin and watching a man standing on the bar declaiming sections of the speeches of JFK in an impressive interpretation of that jagged Massachusetts burr. It was the early hours of the morning, and the man was delivering his party piece to the delight of the motley collection of after-hours drinkers. I remember a mood of merriment: partly delight at the fealty of the impersonation, and the strange familiarity of the words. But there was something darker, too, in our laughter: a sense of irony arising from an unspoken knowingness that actually anticipated almost nothing of the pratfalls history held in waiting.
Enda Kenny – for it was he – was re-enacting in us a dream we had all dreamt. Yet none of those present, not excluding Enda, could have doubted that the dream we were delighting in had died a long time before.