When President Kennedy was assassinated, I was a college freshman. My classmates and I can all tell you exactly where we were when we heard the news of his death. We were stunned; we struggled to process what had happened. But we were on the cusp of profound societal change, including the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. We weren’t afforded much time to grieve. We weren’t given the chance to reflect fully on what we had lost. We had too many other weighty issues to address.
Some of today’s political analysts would insist that, had Kennedy finished his term, he would have made his share of mistakes and would not be so revered by my generation. While that may be true, we can never know for certain. This year would have been Kennedy’s 100th birthday. To honor that, PBS aired for the first time the 1961 film “JFK: The Lost Inaugural Gala.”
Washington, DC had been paralyzed by a freak snowstorm the day of the gala, on the eve of JFK’s inauguration. The narration included entertaining anecdotes about the complications that caused for both the performers and the technicians. As I expected from a PBS special, this was well produced and beautifully narrated. What I did not expect was the emotional impact that program had on me. I’m not sure exactly where during the special I became aware that I desperately needed a box of tissues.
My first thought was that the cause of my waterworks was seeing all the entertainers that are no longer with us, Frank Sinatra in particular. But Jimmy Durante’s soulful and prophetic rendition of September Song (It’s a long, long time from May to December) toward the end of the program made me realize it was something more profound. His song and the companion narration elicited a long-overdue catharsis. I was finally fully grieving the loss of the promise of Camelot.
As so many others had before us, my generation entered college with the hope of a new and bright future. But unlike the others, we began our journey to adulthood, to our own social responsibility, with a young and vibrant leader at the helm of our government. We hadn’t even finalized our fields of concentration when that hope was taken away from us. Not just taken—wrenched away.
What hit me while watching “The Lost Inaugural Gala” was the realization that the promise of Camelot had been stolen from us. Who knows what glorious things our generation and our country could have accomplished in those “shining moments” that would have been? It’s one thing to celebrate one’s fiftieth college reunion and ponder “the road not taken” when the choice was one’s own. To look back and realize that someone erased that path from the map just as you were approaching the fork is something else altogether.
Most of us would admit that we have experienced some bright and wonderful accomplishments, both personal and societal, over the past fifty years. But one truth remains for my generation, made all the more poignant with the drama and the controversy of the current administration. We did not choose to bypass Camelot. Its promise was stolen from us.