John F Kennedy at a press conference in August 1963. Photo: Getty
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Where were you when JFK was shot?

Bonnie Greer remembers how “Mom and Apple Pie America” came to an end with the assassination of John F Kennedy fifty years ago.

The question “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” is becoming one of those archetypal measures of age, place etc. There are more people now who can’t answer than who can because either they were too young or they weren’t born.  But I can answer. I know.

A lot has been said about us baby boomers, mainly because most of us are still alive. Humans on the whole have never lived as long and as healthy as us, nor been as wealthy and active. It was all set up to be like this by our parents. We were the hoped-for babies after the catastrophe of total war and genocide. Our births would erase the horror of man’s inhumanity to man and so we were given golden childhoods. We boomers were brought up in a sunny Fifties and early Sixties “everything-for-the-kids” time.

Fathers and mothers were just that – with all of the safety/coddling and security/overprotection those two words imply if you’re old enough to remember “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” or the original “Mickey Mouse Club” or Alfred Hitchcock scaring the hell out of everyone weekly on TV.

Black, white, Latino, rich, poor, no matter, all of our parents tried their best to make our lives as sweet and as safe as possible. Yes, we had the threat of atomic annihilation hanging over our heads – “duck and cover” and the shrill alarm that went off every Wednesday afternoon to tell us to prepare for “the Russians”.

Protecting us from Khrushchev and his minions was an old guy in the White House who was like a grandfather and his wife Mamie who wore pearls all of the time and smiled a lot. How could we know that President Eisenhower had been Supreme Allied Commander in WW2? We weren’t around then, so who cared? That made John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Senator from Massachusetts mine and my fellow baby boomers’ first president.

We were kids and young teens during his campaign and so didn't know much about the politics. I’m from Chicago and my hometown played a huge part overtly and covertly (nothing’s ever straight forward in Chi-town ) in getting him elected. His picture was everywhere. I was a young black girl with a dad who’d grown up in “Mississippi goddamn” as Nina Simone called it so I watched the Civil Rights stuff in the south on TV with a particular interest.  

All that mattered and at the same time it didn’t.

JFK seemed to be a breath of fresh air, a new deal. Maybe he could bring equality – help little black kids like me go to school in the south without an escort from the National Guard. Plus he was young, cute, his wife “Jackie” was beautiful and young and wore fab clothes and they had a sweet little girl, Caroline, and Mrs JFK was about to have a baby. If you’re a typical teenage girl – and I was – what’s not to like?

I had just turned 15 the week before the assassination. Chicago is in the same time zone as Dallas. I was at school in the middle of a lesson, Latin, I think. It was a girls’ school, the last fee-paying school that our dad could afford. The following year I would have to transfer to the local high school, leaving all my girlfriends behind. I was very focused because I didn’t know what my education would be like after the following June. In addition, I was one of a handful of black girls there. It wasn’t easy.

Suddenly, we were all called to assembly. I walked past an open door and peered into the empty classroom. I saw one of the nuns crying. I had never seen that before. Not a good sign. Had the Pope died or something?

After we sat down, we were told that the President had been shot. One of my friends (I was going to say “black friends” but we had no white friends) asked the principal if we black people were now going to go back into slavery.  It was a stupid question and embarrassing, too, but for a second I knew that all of us black girls had asked that inside of ourselves. We finished with a prayer and then were dismissed for the day.

It was raining outside, just like in a corny movie, and people were crying in the street. It was lunchtime and folks were just milling around in a daze. Some guy tried to hit on me and I told him off. He hadn't heard the news.

When I got home, Mamma was in front of the TV. Suddenly, Walter Cronkite, the most respected journalist in America – in short, God – announced that the President had just died. And I still remember this: Cronkite looked behind his right shoulder at the clock on the wall, turned back to camera, and slowly took off his glasses. Mamma and I broke down.

JFK was assassinated live on lunchtime TV. Lee Harvey Oswald – his supposed assassin – was gunned down – on live TV, too. Somebody else – we figured – pulled all of this off. Somebody Big.

My generation – whether left , right, or nothing – started developing a deep, deep distrust of “The Official Version”.  What Ed Snowden discovered doesn’t surprise a boomer one bit, whether they admit or not. We’re all conspiracy junkies. And we’re all a bit crazy, too. Because our golden childhoods got literally blown away. While we were at school.

“Mom and Apple Pie America” ceased to be on 22 November, 1963 at about 1pm CST right after our sandwich, apple, and milk.

I was there. I saw the end. Like Jim Morrison sang.

 

Bonnie Greer is a playwright, author, and the Chancellor of Kingston University.

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit