JFK assassination: When a nation coming of age lost its youth

The flag-draped casket of President John F. Kennedy lies in state on November 23, 1963, in the East Room of the White House, Washington, D.C. Abbie Rowe/White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

(CBS News)  The images of that long weekend of shock and mourning made a lasting impression on countless young people just coming of age . . . our contributor Bill Flanagan among them:

Those of us who were children when President Kennedy died absorbed the assassination through the effect it had on the grown-ups around us.

The shock in the faces of the teachers as they whispered to each other before dismissing school . . . the grief we encountered in adults we met on the way home . . . and most of all, the pained reactions of our parents.

Looking back across 50 years, it seems to me that November 22, 1963, marked the moment when the World War II generation stopped thinking of themselves as young.

President Kennedy was the face of the vast population who grew up in the Depression, putting their dreams on hold, and then fought the biggest war in history.

When those veterans came home they were in a hurry. They got married and had kids. They went to college on the GI Bill. They built the suburbs and the interstate highway system.

They were making up for lost time.

To my parents and their contemporaries, President Kennedy represented the best of the best. The youngest man ever elected President came into office in a rush to "get the country moving again." An author and a war hero, he was charming, articulate and ironic. He was how the children of the Depression liked to see themselves.

My father always said that the day JFK died was the day our country went from optimism to cynicism. His death changed the way his generation saw their country and themselves.

They went almost overnight from young upstarts to the old guard, the squares, the Archie Bunkers. Their own kids were so loud and entitled that they told them to get out of the road, the times they are a-changin', don't trust anyone over 30.

Within five years of the Kennedy assassination, the World War II generation went from being the embodiment of youth to the Silent Majority.

John Updike and John Cheever wrote short stories about fading men and women looking back on lost glories. Frank Sinatra, once the idol of the bobbysoxers, began singing about the "September of My Years," "Last Night When We Were Young," "It Was a Very Good Year." All the disillusioned Don Drapers nodded along.

It was as if in that winter between the death of John Kennedy and the coming of the Beatles, a whole generation went from optimistic youth to disappointed middle age.

After the assassination, the journalist Mary McGrory said, "We'll never laugh again," and Kennedy aide Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously replied, "Mary, we will laugh again. It's just that we will never be young again."

It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's why, 50 years later, the death of John F. Kennedy still resonates so powerfully with those of us who were kids at the time. It was the moment when our parents went from believing in all the great things that were going to be, to regretting what might have been.


Bill Flanagan: Let us praise 1962

Complete CBSNews.com coverage: JFK Assassination - Includes galleries, articles, and streaming video of CBS News' original broadcasts from four days in November 1963.

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