August 13, 2005

A Happy Day in Dallas, 1963

I've been watching a documentary about the United States Secret Service, and of course I'm thinking about presidential history, and assassinations, and attempts on the lives of the presidents.

Like many Americans I have been exposed to the iconography of the Kennedy assassination for years, and of course we all know Jackie's pink suit and pillbox hat, and the shaking of hands at Love Field, and the Zapruder footage.

What I found myself drawn to last night while watching this footage was all of the clips from that day in November before the shootings occured. All of these people were so happy, and delighted, and thrilled, and excited. This dashing, young, hope-inspiring President was visiting their town, and they loved it. Before that terrible moment, it was the best day of their lives.

This still is taken from film taken by what must have been a news organization camera on a truck or car, swirling through the streets, in a pre-media saturated era when people saw a news camera and brightened at the sight, and waved and smiled and hoped they would see themselves on tv when Walter Cronkite appeared on the fuzzy black and white to tell us how things were. This still in particular is just so striking to me in terms of the incredible cheerfulness and joy on these people's faces. Have you ever seen six genuinely smiling faces together in a photo like that?

It's interesting to think what life in America might have been like if Kennedy had lived to finish out his term, and then served another. Those split seconds count for so much. With Reagan's shooting, he took a piece of bullet that ricocheted off the door of the car, yes, but then he dodged another one coming straight for him because of the instantaneous reaction of Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy, who did exactly what all of his training and refresher training had instructed him to do: spot the shooter, step between him and the President. The footage of that is amazing. This young intense man, watching all around him, seeing the danger, and instantaneously stepping right into it. He takes the impact of the shot, grabs his abdomen, spins as if being danced with, and crumbles. He lived. Reagan lived. What if Kennedy had?

We tend to romanticize what might have been, to bemoan the lost potential, to wax poetic about Camelot (which had never been mentioned before), but what if, by some unpredictably dark turn of events, Kennedy would have unintentionally caused great worldwide harm? Yes, I'm venturing into Harry Turtledove territory, science fiction of the alternative historical variety. What if, even after stepping up to Kruschev, keeping the lid on Vietnam, and averting the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy had somehow been fated for something far worse than a premature death?

When I look at pictures like the one above, I, like a lot of people, try to dream of the future we might have had, if Kennedy had returned home from Dallas and continued his life. Sometimes it is a better future, and sometimes it is much, much worse.

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