I was a small-town second-grader on November 22, 1963. My teacher, Jackie Grant, told the class that the president had been shot and killed, and then we all went home. For me, home was a block away from the classroom door, but my mother still drove to the school to pick me up, and my family spent much of the rest of the long weekend watching television. That much I remember, but I have no direct recollections of any of the TV images, except for this: I went to the kitchen to get a glass of milk just before Oswald was shot, and returned to the living room to find chaos on the screen.
That’s it. Not many memories, and no trauma at all. Which makes sense: I was born in 1956, the exact midway point of the baby boom, making me just too young to have been marked by the JFK assassination or to have served in Vietnam. In both of those respects, we younger baby boomers are more like Gen-Xers than our older brothers and sisters.
I described the difference, as I understand it, in a 1990 essay:
The line of eligibility for military service in Vietnam divides the baby boomers almost exactly in half. The older boomers, the ones who faced the dilemma of whether or not to serve in Vietnam, are the people you usually think about when you hear the term “baby boomers,” and Vietnam seems to have broken them. They were the ones who lost their nerve and were never heard from again. Were they victims of the damage the war did to America’s national self-image? Or was it that most of the boomers didn’t serve in Vietnam, that an entire generation of spoiled middle-class brats never had to undergo any kind of testing experience at all? I can’t tell you. But it’s clear beyond question that the older boomers, whatever their reasons, simply gave up somewhere down the line.
I didn’t include that essay (it’s called “A Farewell to Politics”) in A Terry Teachout Reader because I don’t think it’s held up very well. Among other things, I completely failed to predict Bill Clinton, or anyone like him. But I do think I was right to differentiate pre-1956 boomers from post-1956 boomers. The older ones were touched by the Kennedy assassination, while the younger ones merely remember it, and not very well, either.
Today, of course, We Are All Boomers Now, at least in the eyes of the Gen-Xers and their younger brothers and sisters. I have lots of friends in their thirties and several in their twenties, and for them, JFK is…history. Likewise Vietnam and LBJ and Nixon, and even Ronald Reagan. And, of course, the older boomers are history, too. Clinton was their last hurrah, the exemplary figure who summed up in his person and actions the ethos of the pre-1956 boomers. Even before he came along, I didn’t partake of that ethos, which may explain why I have so many younger friends.
For me, nostalgia is a powerful emotion (if it can properly be called an emotion), and many of the things for which I feel most intensely nostalgic took place in the Sixties. Yet I feel no nostalgia for The Sixties: The Decade, none whatsoever, no desire to hop in the time machine and check out all the things I was barely too young to have experienced at first hand. I’m much more interested in our current nicknameless decade, this astonishing age of anxiety and possibility, of terrorism and Two Americas and the Web.
As for John F. Kennedy, he doesn’t mean a thing to me. As I wrote earlier this year in a review of the latest Kennedy biography:
Once he was a young, glamorous president-martyr whose posthumous reputation was scrupulously tended by the journalists and intellectuals he had so assiduously courted while he was alive. Then a new generation of scholars born too late to be seduced by Kennedy’s charm took a closer look at his life and legacy, and discovered that the crown prince of Camelot was a reckless womanizer who installed a secret taping system in the Oval Office, was soft on civil rights and won the Pulitzer Prize for a book he hadn’t written.
And, needless to say, the victim of an assassin’s bullet, a dark day in American history that I barely remember. It’s…history.