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Plain Talk: 2020 was bad, but 1963 wasn't so hot either

Plain Talk: 2020 was bad, but 1963 wasn't so hot either


U.S. President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy are riding in the backseat of an open limousine on Main Street at Ervay Street as the presidential motorcade approaches Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. Only moments later the ride ends in the president's assassination. Texas Gov. John Connally, who will be wounded in the ambush attack, and his wife Nellie are seated in the limousine's jump seat. (AP Photo)

David Clarenbach, who once was to Wisconsin politics what actor Ron Howard was to the movies, posted this message on Facebook a couple of days ago:

"For my parents' generation, the defining seminal event was Pearl Harbor. For those from Gen X and many Millennials, it was perhaps 9/11. For me and many from my generation, this was the worst single day of my life: 57 years ago, Nov. 22, 1963."

Clarenbach was but 10 years old when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in the streets of Dallas on that fateful day. I was 23 and on active duty with the Army at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, a little less than three hours from the School Book Depository Building where Lee Harvey Oswald ended the life of a man who had come to represent the hopes and dreams of so many Americans. In the year before his assassination, JFK's approval rating stood at a remarkable 70%.

The young Clarenbach went on to be elected to the Dane County Board at the age of 18, then to Madison's City Council in 1974 at the age of 20 and, that fall, just after he turned 21, to the state Assembly, where he served for 18 years before running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1992. David is now semi-retired, working as a political consultant, and still active in many Madison endeavors.

Like many young people back then, he was inspired by Kennedy's call to give back to their country, to get involved, whether it was in politics or by lifting up others to enjoy the fruits of what America is all about. If you don't want to do military service, join the Peace Corps, go work in the inner cities on programs to give kids hope. Just contribute, not ask what the country can do for you.

Some insist that it was this day 57 years ago that forever changed America, that it has been downhill since. In truth, like after 9/11, the assassination did bring the country together briefly. Under his successor, Lyndon Johnson, Congress finally agreed to pass historic civil rights laws, it created innovative programs like Medicare for the seniors, Head Start for at-risk kids, and launched a war on poverty.

Still, young people like me viewed 1963 as the worst year ever. Then came 1968. In that year, while the awful, wasteful and idiotic Vietnam War continued to rage, the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., and JFK's brother, Bobby, were assassinated to the disbelief of the entire country. Were any of our leaders safe from the increasing hatred that was sweeping the nation?

And now we have 2020. As it mercifully comes to a close, there's hope that new vaccines will help bring an end to this national nightmare that has ruined lives and jobs and killed and disabled so many of our friends and neighbors.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has come on top of deeper problems that face us all — deep and violent social upheaval and a deep-seated hatred for each other in no small way thanks to the actions of a president who has fanned that hatred and continues to fan it for his own political gain.

So is 2020 the worst year ever? For the young among us today, the answer is no doubt yes. But, for many of us, this day in 1963 still seems like it started it all.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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