JFK should be remembered on his birthday anniversary, not just on November 22

Ayear ago, many organizations celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of John F. Kennedy. But this year, it’s hard to find any groups recognizing JFK’s birthday.

Even the JFK Presidential Library in Boston doesn’t have a special event to remember Kennedy on his birthday, unlike a year ago. The library’s forum scheduled this May 29 is on “contemporary issues facing the heart of America” and doesn’t mention Kennedy in its publicity materials, although someone likely will during the program.

JFK is one of the few former presidents to be remembered more on the anniversary of his death than his birth. Ronald Reagan’s library celebrates his birthday each February. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12 is a national holiday. The anniversary of his death, April 15, is remembered more for the tax deadline, even though Lincoln’s assassination was another controversial one that still raises some questions.

However, in Lincoln’s case, there is no question that John Booth had co-conspirators since eight of them were tried and convicted. That helped allow mourners to move on from Lincoln’s death to celebrate more of what he did in his life on the anniversary of his birthday.

James Garfield and William McKinley were also assassinated while president. Does anyone remember the anniversary of the day they died, without looking it up?

There are good reasons for people recalling Kennedy each November 22. Polls have long showed that most Americans believe we haven’t been told the full truth about who killed Kennedy and why. The latest by FiveThirtyEight in 2017 found that 61 percent of respondents believed that the Warren Commission was wrong and more than one person was responsible for his death.

It’s a real-life mystery, one that sparks controversies over who controls the country and whether there is a secret cabal calling the shots. Growing up in Dallas and sharing a birthday with JFK, the topic has long interested me. I have spent much time researching that question, recently writing a book, Death of the Rising Sun. I lean towards the side with the continued questions.

More than that, many lament the way JFK passed at age 46, how we were robbed of his peak potential. To many, he symbolized hope and youthful idealism. He was strongly for causes that young people of his day embraced: civil rights, education, nuclear non-proliferation. He also maintained a common-sense approach to international affairs and other issues that those who usually didn’t agree with him grudgingly came to respect.

Many lost much of their innocence and youth the day Kennedy died. The late Texas journalist Molly Ivins wrote in a Dallas Times Herald column that after JFK was killed, “everything went to hell. It all turned into manure.”

Many of all political stripes agreed. “The whole country changed,” said Bobby Hargis, a Dallas Police motorcycle officer who was splattered with Kennedy’s blood as he rode by his limousine. Before that day, “we believed that everything was going to be fine, even if things didn’t go right. But now, you can’t believe that.”

Image for post
Image for post
JFK’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery with the eternal flame [Shay photo]

Journalist Jeff Greenfield likened the lesson to war. “What our parents learned in a war, or in a struggle for survival, we learned that November,” he wrote. “No one was safe; if not John Kennedy, then definitely not any of us.”

Greenfield noted the vast increase in mistrust of government and other institutions by Americans since that day. In 1964, some 77 percent trusted the U.S. government to do the right thing at least most of the time, according to a Pew Research Center national survey. By 1974, that percentage fell to 36 percent, and increased some after the 2001 terrorist attacks before further dropping to 18 percent in 2017. Trust in banks, churches, the media, and other institutions saw similar declines.

Such mistrust intensified after the 2007 Wall Street scandals and recession, along with other transgressions, Greenfield pointed out. Another factor was the more public environment in the Internet Age, where the failures of such institutions were more widely and immediately known. “The failures, strategic and moral, in places like Iraq, are on full display. The private lives of politicians, once carefully concealed, are now matters of public speculation,” Greenfield wrote. “How does a nation thrive when, year after year, our motto is, ‘In nothing we trust’?”

The short answer is, we don’t. We bury our heads in reality television, cute animal and baby videos, social media memes, games, and other forms of entertainment. We distract ourselves from the nation’s and world’s problems because it’s enough for most of us to deal with our own challenges. The little free time we have we want to spend doing something that gives us a slight measure of enjoyment.

Little by little, the idea behind JFK’s call to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” erodes like the Arctic glaciers. Perhaps that is also part of the recurring fascination with Kennedy. We want to keep alive some of that belief in self-sacrifice for the good of the whole, even if we seem to be riding on the Titantic.

Of course, many remembrances we have of JFK are based on myths. While many leaders − particularly those in powerful positions − cheat, Kennedy’s infidelity took on legendary proportions. If you believe journalist Seymour Hersh, JFK also employed Nixonian tactics against political opponents. It’s hard to say how much of the latter is true. Hersh fell for a phony story on Kennedy that he said didn’t make it into his Dark Side of Camelot book. But it still raised some questions about Hersh’s credibility.

The late writer Jim Marrs, who researched the Kennedy killing longer than almost anyone, noted in his Crossfire book that despite JFK’s shortcomings, “History will eventually record that Kennedy truly believed he had the best interests of his nation at heart.” I agree. When it came to the affairs of the country and world — and not his personal ones — JFK had a fairly pure heart. There is not much evidence that he used the office to personally enrich himself. He didn’t need to, coming from a wealthy family, many will argue. Yet, that didn’t stop some in the presidency who came from a wealthy family, such as the current occupant, from personally enriching himself and his family.

I understand how November 22 stands out as a date many people remember since they recall that dark time so clearly, even to this day. Perhaps after JFK’s death is “solved,” once and for all, we will come to remember him more on the anniversary of his birthday than his death.

Image for post
Image for post
The site where Kennedy was killed in Dallas was marked with an “X” on the road in 2016. [Shay photo]

It doesn’t help that JFK government documents continue to be withheld. There have been a few interesting tidbits in what has been released, such as accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald being known by at least a dozen CIA officials, according to researcher and journalist Jefferson Morley.

At some point, the full truth will be disclosed, and Kennedy will be remembered more for what he did in his life than how he died. That day, however, will likely come in the distant future than the near future.

Written by

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see https://www.amazon.com/Kevin-J.-Shay/e/B004BCQRTG. Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store