The day the curtain dropped

President John F. Kennedy (White House photo)

It was to my generation what Pearl Harbor Day was to my parents’ — a moment etched so deeply that everyone remembered exactly where they were when they found out.

The bell for eighth period had rung and I’d just left the art room, headed to French class, when Kathy Klein ran up to me, wild-eyed.

“The president’s been shot!” she yelled.

“What? What?” I yelled back.

“President Kennedy’s been shot in Dallas,” she said.

I’d heard her the first time, of course; I just couldn’t believe it.

Those times, if not simpler, were more illusory. Many of us lived in a bubble. We believed good conquered evil, hard work got rewarded and, though things might go wrong now and then, the rest of the time we were safe and secure … and always would be.

On that Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, the bubble burst.

The whole nation was in shock, and so was the rest of the world.

And why would they not be? JFK was probably the most charismatic good guy of the 20th century. He was young, vibrant, drop-dead gorgeous and witty. He was a war hero with a beautiful, talented wife and two adorable kids. With his presidency came the promise of A Whole New Day Ahead. He’d labeled his administration the New Frontier, and we believed him.

Then, in one fell swoop, he and The Dream were dead. And as bad as that was, things got worse.

Within hours of the assassination, the shooter had been arrested and jailed. He was a complete nobody, a luckless, clueless loser full of homicidal rage named Lee Harvey Oswald. Then on Sunday, as Oswald was being taken from the police station to the county jail, another complete nobody named Jack Ruby burst out of the crowd of cops, reporters and who-knows-who and shot Oswald — all on live TV. A few hours later, Oswald died.

It seemed like a world gone mad, which it was.

President Johnson created a commission to investigate the assassination known as the Warren Commission. About a year later they released their findings, concluding Oswald acted alone. And then a world gone mad became a world gone even madder as conspiracy theories and theorists sprang up everywhere, seemingly overnight.

The conspiracy …

Essentially, all the theorists said the same thing — that Oswald had the help of a vast network. As for who was in cahoots with him, the choices were infinite. It was the CIA. Or the FBI. Or anti-Castro Cubans. Or Lyndon Johnson himself. Or ______ (you fill in the blank). None of the theories had any empirical evidence for support, and some of them weren’t simply unsupported but were downright insane (and the same can be said of the theorists themselves).

That said, I — like many of my peers — got drawn into the controversy. I read everything written on it, year in and year out. And also like many of my peers, I was a conspiracy believer.

In all fairness, it was hard not to be. For one thing, almost everything written about the assassination, other than the Warren Report, was pro-conspiracy. And why wouldn’t it be? First, although LBJ wanted the Warren Commission to deliver the report as soon as possible in order to reassure the country there was no conspiracy, it was taken by conspira-philes as a rush to judgment (not so ironically, the title of one of the most popular conspiracy books).

Second, when JFK got killed, we were a nation of believers when it came to government. We trusted the government and thought its leaders had our welfare in mind and were honest with us. However, as the ’60s went on, given all the skullduggery that came to light about government corruption and lying, that shifted. So conspiracies in all realms seemed not just possible but likely.

And finally, conspiracies are intriguing, compelling and attention-getting, and always have been.

… refuted

Over the years I read dozens of books and hundreds of articles on the Kennedy assassination and stayed a conspiracy buff till the 1990s, when two books changed my mind. One was “Case Closed” by Gerald Posner, and the other was “Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery” by Norman Mailer. Both are meticulously and thoroughly researched and point to the clear and logical conclusion that there was no conspiracy but that Oswald acted alone.

Even now, 50-plus years on, that’s still a bitter pill for many people to swallow, and I understand why: Most people can’t accept that a great man like Kennedy could be brought down by an incompetent misfit like Oswald. But this is magical thinking at its worst, for a couple of reasons.

First, a whole lot of Kennedy’s “greatness” is a product of public relations and spin, pure and simple. Yes, he was handsome and charming, loved by the camera and a whole lot of the country. But as a president, he was mediocre. He did successfully lobby for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and deserves credit for it. But beyond that? He was no champion of civil rights (in fact, he tried to discourage the March on Washington). He alienated the business community. He kept us involved in Vietnam, and even though there are rumors he wanted to pull out, there’s not a shred of proof. He handled the Cuban Missile Crisis brilliantly, but that’s because he followed the strategy thought up by his brother Bobby.

None of this makes his death less tragic, especially since we never found out the president he could have become. But that said, I doubt many reputable historians will ever label him “great” as a president.

And second, there’s Oswald himself. He was a failed student, a failed Marine, a failed commie, a failed husband and father. He couldn’t hold a job, make a friend or do much of anything, and on top of that, he was decompensating at warp speed. So how, the thinking goes, could such an abject loser manage to kill the president of the United States all by himself? The answer is as simple as it is obvious: With a high-powered rifle and a scope. Period.

But assuming Oswald was the lone assassin, one vital question remains: Why did he do it?

And that question raises an even bigger one: Why does anyone do anything we can’t understand?

The answer, by definition, is I don’t know.

And neither does anyone else.