Ask not what’s happened to America since JFK

I’d just walked into my second grade classroom after going home for lunch. Oddly, a radio was on a table at the front of the room, with a voice saying, “…and we pray for the health of our president.” I wondered, why are we praying for that? What could happen to President Kennedy? Then I heard what had happened.

The assassination of John F Kennedy has become a great dividing line in the America of my lifetime. It was the nation’s first great television event, profoundly sad black and white images shared by every American live: the caisson carrying the president’s casket down Pennsylvania Avenue, the riderless horse with the boots upside down in the stirrups, John-John’s salute, Oswald’s surreal shooting in the Dallas Police Headquarters basement. Then, in living color, came Vietnam, the riots in cities across America, the killings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy that made us all question what kind of country we were living in, questions that only deepened with escalation of the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal.

Yes, much of the Kennedy presidency and legacy is about image, not substance. (The highs and lows of the Kennedy years are well chronicled in Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis and The Best and the Brightest.) In the early 1980s, I was waiting for rush tickets at New York’s Public Theater. As the curtain was about to rise and our chances for tickets evaporate, in walked Jacqueline Kennedy on the arm of her post-Onassis companion Maurice Tempelsman. I was struck by how tiny and fragile she looked, short and so thin, the quintessential “social x-ray” of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. She wore the facial expression of someone whose shoes were too tight.

Or maybe it was her just profound disappointment at where America had gone since the heady days of Camelot and where it was going. The clarion call of JFK’s inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” would be ridiculed in today’s toxic political atmosphere. Ask yourself, is this the America you want?

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.