President John F. Kennedy

For half a century, I thought one of our great unfinished national tasks was coming to terms with the death of President John F. Kennedy. As we observe the 50th anniversary of his death, I finally realized our unfinished business is coming to terms with the life of Lee Harvey Oswald.

JFK, perhaps because of the suddenness of his demise, continues to embody our idealized notion of ourselves — who we want to be. Privileged, intelligent, sophisticated, witty, preternaturally handsome, a war hero, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, married to a beautiful, elegant wife. He was FDR with legs. Having his life so suddenly, shockingly snuffed was doubly traumatic because of what he symbolized — the New Frontier, Camelot Revived.

Over the last 50 years, however, we also learned that he had feet of clay. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, there was foul dust in the wake of his (and his father’s and brothers’) dreams. There always is for people like Gatsby and the Kennedys.

JFK was not a great president. He didn’t have time to be. But he was a good president who might have become extraordinary. Visit the JFK Library overlooking Boston Harbor, as I did in 2010, and you’ll probably reach the same conclusion.

John F. Kennedy didn’t have a lot in common with us, but we identified with him as the personification of our exceptionalism.

The guy who more closely resembles us, however, was the guy on the other end of the rifle in Dallas that day — which isn’t an easy thing to admit because to look at Lee Harvey Oswald is to pity or despise him. Not handsome, not suave, not privileged and definitely not a winner.

Oswald undoubtedly despised himself. Yet like the country that spawned him, he believed he was exceptional, destined to be extraordinary, just like the handsome young president. JFK achieved it. LHO did not — except in a through-the-looking-glass way. Life’s judgments are hard. If you aspire to greatness and succeed, you are admired. If you aspire and fail, your dreams are deemed delusional.

Oswald couldn’t impress anyone, not even his wife. But as a million half-time pep talks have urged, he never gave up. In the end, he made a very deep impression indeed on his country of origin.

He was great only in resentment and frustration and his inability to fit in — equally maladjusted in the Communist and Capitalist systems. He bought into the dream we were all raised with, but unlike most of us, who either give up on that dream or come to terms with more modest achievements, Oswald, the anti-Kennedy, believed too much in his own greatness and through some bizarre combination of skill, timing and sheer dumb luck, pulled off what is still incredible to so many.

Our conspiracy theory industry is a direct outgrowth of our inability to accept that such a miserable “loser” could rob us of our idealized notion of ourselves. Time would have done so anyway, as we learned more about our ideal’s underside, but the trauma has preserved our wound. It is still, for many, unconscionable that someone like Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, could extinguish such a bright light.

And therein lies our unfinished task: coming to terms with the reality that this country, this culture, could produce both John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Both are “us.” And when they collide, someone on the Oswald end of the spectrum is often the winner — equality turned upside-down. Until we figure out that conundrum, we will continue wallowing in our ineptitude, with all those neo-Oswalds running around the halls of Congress, fighting tooth and nail to prevent us from giving ourselves health care and, in the process, neglecting all the other pressing issues that need addressing.

The Oswalds are still winning because there are so many more of them now. He more closely personifies who we have become as a nation: Resentful, frustrated, delusional and largely impervious to reason.

A similar drama played out in Ford’s Theater in 1865. Lincoln, this nation’s only fully actualized ideal, collided with John Wilkes Booth, a much more flamboyant version of Lee Harvey Oswald.

It’s strangely appropriate, then, that two poignant anniversaries should coincide within three days of one another, as they also did in November of 1963. On Nov. 19, 1863, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, which became our national “vision statement.” Yesterday we celebrated the 150th anniversary of that elegant turn of phrases. On Friday we observe the 50th anniversary of this nation’s second most painful assassination. If Kennedy had been in Pennsylvania marking the centennial of the Gettysburg Address on Nov. 22, 1963, this country might be very different now.

Government of the people, by the people, for the people — in spite of the people — shall not perish from the Earth, but Booth and Oswald, two homicidal bookends, derailed this country in profound ways.

What kind of country are we? The kind that can produce four individuals so divergent yet so connected. Together, they define the parameters of who we are.

And we still haven’t come to terms with either

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