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Days before his 1961 presidential inauguration, police and secret service struggle to free John F. Kennedy from a surging crowd at Harvard. (Associated Press)
Days before his 1961 presidential inauguration, police and secret service struggle to free John F. Kennedy from a surging crowd at Harvard. (Associated Press)

Memories of JFK: Martyr or satyr – which one was real? Add to ...

It was 50 years ago, on Nov. 22, 1963, that U.S. president John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. His death still evokes strong memories and his legacy remains strong.

In the autumn of 1997, The Dark Side of Camelot landed like a New England squall. The author was Seymour Hersh, the foremost investigative reporter of his time. The subject was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the cultural icon of his time.

As a correspondent with The Globe and Mail in Washington, I saw Mr. Hersh often that fall. The maelstrom around his withering portrait of deception, narcissism and infidelity was too good to miss, even if it felt like a second assassination.

As an admirer of the Kennedys, I was skeptical. How to reconcile Mr. Hersh’s Lilliputian with history’s Sir Lancelot?

One afternoon, sitting in the chaos of his office, Mr. Hersh leaped up and skittered across the room like a waterbug. From a cabinet came a shower of paper. “There, read that!” he said, pulling out a photocopy of some incriminating presidential memorandum and smacking it with the back of his hand. “That’s my boy! That’s my Jack!”

Surveying his crazy quilt of evidence, argument and animus, I learned, in that moment, something about me, him and the president: Seymour Hersh had his Jack. And I had mine.

My Jack. I had been looking for Jack Kennedy since that Friday afternoon in Aphrodite Christie’s third-grade class at Roslyn School in Montreal. The assassination was a cataclysm for all of us that day. It was to affect me in ways – professional, emotional, accidental, almost supernatural – I could not imagine. Whatever stirred this curiosity, wherever it would lead, my search for JFK began on Nov. 22, 1963.

My fascination took flight

“A prince among men,” declared Aunt Elsa the evening of the assassination, an encomium a boy could understand. Events were to fall upon each other that weekend like LPs on a turntable. Lee Harvey Oswald was killed on television on Sunday morning while I was at Hebrew School, and Mr. Kennedy was eulogized and buried on Monday afternoon while I was home for lunch.

It was there, in the blizzard of words and pictures, that my fascination took flight. Who knew? At age 9, future astronaut Chris Hadfield wanted Captain Kirk’s final frontier. I wanted President Kennedy’s New Frontier.

A year later, my father gave me the newly published Report of the Warren Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy. Below the title, its naive declaration: “The Dramatic Official Answer to Who Killed Kennedy.” He knew I had begun to collect memorial material, and today my shelves groan with hundreds of memoirs, diaries, biographies and histories of the Kennedys, their pages creased, sentences underlined, footnotes circled and margins blackened with notes, often juvenile and illegible.

In the beginning, I lionized the man. We all did. He was our Arthurian hero, effortless and unconscious. It was on Aunt Elsa’s colour console television tuned to WCAX-TV in Vermont that I saw those gorgeous images: Mr. Kennedy, white chinos and tortoise-shell glasses, sailing off Cape Cod. Kennedy, coatless and hatless, at his inauguration. Mr. Kennedy, before a crowd in Berlin so large and rapturous it is pure theatre. “We’ll never have another day like this one as long as we live,” he says afterward. That was so him.

During the Cuban missile crisis, he faced down Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. That’s what it meant, as he said, “to pay any price and bear any burden” for freedom. He created the Peace Corps and promised, literally, the moon. He was tossing off witticisms to reporters and celebrating Nobel laureates at the White House. Americans were playing touch football and taking 50-mile hikes. Camelot was a posthumous myth conjured up immediately by his shattered widow, but it captured an interlude of energy and elegance between a drowsy Dwight Eisenhower and a vulgar Lyndon Johnson. For the things undone, blame a recalcitrant Congress. Mr. Kennedy was paladin, a shot to the nation’s solar plexus.

In the 1970s, after Watergate and Vietnam, the tide turned. The revisionists found that Mr. Kennedy had tried to kill Mr. Castro after the disaster at the Bay of Pigs, secretly agreed to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey in return for the ones removed from Cuba, initiated a massive defence build-up, and led the United States into a quagmire in Indochina. The soaring rhetoric had gone flat; after Vietnam, Americans were weary of the price and the burdens.

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