“More Than A Man Has Died”: Serling on Kennedy’s Death

Those of us who weren’t alive when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 know what a horrendous and brutal crime it was. But it can be hard for us to grasp just how deeply this tragic event shocked the nation.

John F. Kennedy

Leave it to Rod Serling to put it into perspective for us. As his daughter Anne once noted on her blog:

“After President Kennedy’s assassination, my father wrote something perhaps intended as a letter to a newspaper or magazine editor. It was written on his letterhead and clearly typed by him, not his secretary.” It read:

More than a man has died. More than a gallant young President has been put to death. More than a high office of a land has been assaulted. What is to be mourned now is an ideal. What has been assassinated is a faith in ourselves. What has been murdered is a belief in our own decency, our capacity to love, our sense of order and logic and civilized decorum.

To the Leftists and the Rightists, to the Absolutists, SerlingFireplaceto the men of little faith but strong hate, and to all of us who have helped plant this ugly and loathsome seed that blossomed forth on a street in Dallas on last Friday — this is the only dictum we can heed now. For civilization to survive, it must remain civilized.

And if there is to be any hope for our children and theirs, we must never again allow violence to offer itself as an excuse for our own insecurities, our weaknesses and our own fears. This is not an arguable doctrine for simply a better life. It is a condition for our continued existence.

Small wonder that Serling was moved to write “I Am The Night — Color Me Black” in the aftermath of that dark day.

Fans of The Twilight Zone will likely recognize the line “For civilization to survive, it must remain civilized.” It occurs, in slightly different form, in the closing narration to “The Shelter” (which aired two years earlier).

In that episode, mankind appears on the brink of annihilation, only to get a last-second reprieve. How telling that Serling would resurrect that line to express his anguish in the wake of Kennedy’s death, at a time when it must have felt that the world had ended.

shelterTZ

In a sense, of course, it had. An age of relative innocence gave way to an age of skepticism and doubt that echoes even to the present day.

The remedy, I think, is found in the quote above. We need more faith and less hate, and in that order. And the sooner we start — even if it’s just in our little corner of the world, regardless of what others are doing — the better off we’ll be.

***

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About Paul

Hard-working, hard-playing fan of all pop culture, especially the Twilight Zone. Which led to a Twitter page. And then to a blog. And then to ... stay tuned. Yes, that's a picture of Rod Serling, not me. You can find the real me under the "Your Host" tab on my blog, along with biographical details that, while 100 percent accurate, sound kind of boastful and braggy. Sorry.

Posted on 05/29/2015, in Rod Serling and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I can agree with most of what Rod Serling wrote after the death of President Kennedy, Paul. Most of the so-called civilised world was in shock when that happened. He was a hugely popular President in the UK too.

    The only thing I take any issue with is the call for more faith. Less hate I can go along with in spades, but more faith in a religious sense is what creates fanaticism. If more faith was meant in terms of a political belief, I’d worry too, since we’ve seen time after time that too strong a belief makes some people react violently towards the opposition. More faith in one’s Country to do the right thing I can accept, even though that’s often misplaced with hindsight.

    I remember being shocked to the core when Kennedy died even though I was only 12 at the time. Somebody special had died and something special had ended. I saw smug politicians pronounce and heard religious leaders exhort and it worried me. Rumours flew, the opposition had done it, the Protestants had done it and the Russians had done it, even the CIA. Hate for the Russians was at a high again and that was fuelled by some Politicians.

    For me, less hate would be the thing to concentrate on like making sure the Arabs in general are not hated for what a few ‘More Faith’ fanatics chose to do.

    I have no intent to offend you and am just offering my own opinion. The difference in our opinion on this subject in no way lessens my enjoyment of your writing.

    • No offense taken, David. I don’t mind someone taking a contrary position. In fact, I enjoy a good discussion. And I’m glad you liked the post. I especially appreciate hearing from someone who remembers that dark day. I was struck by the eloquence of Serling’s grief and wanted to share it with my readers.

      As for the troublesome passage: First off, I believe that (as Frank indicates below in his second comment) Serling meant faith in the general sense. Faith with a small “f,” if you will. Believing that the violence that cut down the president grew out of a negative attitude born of pessimism and a sense that things are bad and can’t improve, Serling criticizes those who harbor “little faith.” I used the word the same way in my own conclusion.

      But while we’re on the subject, I must say that I’m deeply troubled by the assumption that more faith in the religious sense leads inexorably to “fanaticism.” A deep adherence to one’s religious faith (as distinct from faith in the generic sense) can indeed lead certain people to commit sins both large and small. In the most extreme cases, they can decide it’s right and just to set off bombs and steer planes into buildings.

      If that’s what you mean by “fanaticism” — if it’s code, even unintentionally, for people who commit violence in the name of God — then I can agree we need less “faith” in this sense. But if we mean (and I honestly don’t know if you do, so forgive me if I’m reading too much into your words) that people who take their religion seriously and make a concerted effort to live it out in their lives are ipso facto “fanatics,” then I emphatically do NOT agree.

      People motivated by religious faith in this latter, more positive sense are far more widespread and do far more good in our world than we often realize. The media tell us about the bad people, but do they tell us about the clergy and lay people who feed the hungry? Visit prisoners? Educate children? Volunteer in their communities? Donate their time and money to help the poor and downtrodden? And that they do these things because of a deep-seated conviction that we all deserve, as children of God, to be treated with dignity and respect?

      Give me a world filled with such “fanatics.” Surround me with more Mother Teresas, please.

      Look at what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accomplished — a man who drew inspiration from the Bible and quoted it often. He knew that a man equipped with faith in the best sense of the word can, as Jesus said, move mountains. It can even lessen hatred. Which is why I think calling for less hatred but not more faith is like thinking you can create ice with water but no cold temperatures.

      It may well be that you didn’t mean to implicitly deny any of what I’ve just said. But even if that’s the case, I don’t regret writing it. Because in a world in which hostility toward religion is on the rise, and a militant form of atheism is trying to put religious people on the defensive, it’s more important than ever for those of us on “the other side” to acknowledge that faith in God is not a bad thing. It’s a very good thing.

      If my neighbor wants to be an atheist, hey, live and let live. But more and more, my neighbor isn’t taking the same attitude toward ME. And as long as that’s the case, I’m going to speak up, both in defense of faith and of FAITH.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, David, even if it put me on a soapbox for a few minutes. As you can probably tell, your comment brought out some things I’ve been thinking about for some time. Anyway, stop by any time. :)

  2. This is a fantastic post. And I’m glad that you waited to publish it on JFK’s birthday. Very appropriate.

    I must admit, I don’t share Serling’s admiration for President Kennedy, but what you’ve highlighted here is an absolutely incredible piece of writing by Serling. He really had this knack for saying a LOT, in a very powerful way, but still doing it in a beautifully eloquent manner. When Serling says something, you sit up and pay attention. There’s such feeling and strong conviction here. What a shame that his letter never did get sent out and published somewhere. Or perhaps it did, but it’s certainly not something that just anybody would get to see today.

    But that’s what we have you for, isn’t it? You’re always giving us these little Serling treasures that we’d never see otherwise.

    “We need more faith and less hate, and in that order.” I couldn’t agree more, my friend.

    • Glad to hear it, and delighted that you like the post. I suppose the anniversary of the assassination would be a more fitting time for it (and I’ll certainly promote it then), but when I came across this item, I hated to wait that long. And let’s face it, Serling’s writing is so timeless, there’s no INappropriate time for it, so here it is.

      As you indicate here, even those who don’t count themselves as Kennedy admirers can appreciate the power of Serling’s words and the sense of loss that gripped the American people at that time. Very glad I didn’t live through it — it must have been awful.

      This may never have been published in Serling’s lifetime, but thanks to Anne, it’s out there now. Glad to think he’s still able to inspire and uplift us, even posthumously. Thanks for the comment, my friend.

  3. Have to basically agree with David above, but I took the intent of the post as “less hate” is needed. I think “less hate” covers all that needs to be covered, but get your point, Paul. :-]

    • Thanks, Frank, for this and your follow-up comment below. As you can see from what I wrote to David, I think we need both sides of the equation, but I’m glad we can at least all agree on one! :)

  4. Oh, and I also thought “faith in the GOOD,” however defined, was also what could be meant by your post! :-]

  5. I doubt Serling meant “faith” in any dogmatic religious sense. In fact, the sentence in the quote Paul found for us is, “What has been assassinated is a faith in ourselves.” Serling was a member (or at least associated with?) the Unitarian Universalist Association, and this sentiment about faith in ourselves seems in line with that tradition, and a sentiment I can second, too. Sometimes (maybe even most times?) resorting to violence is admitting we no longer have faith we can find a better, peaceful way.

    This is a fitting observation of JFK’s birthday, Paul. (I happen to share his birth date, along with Patrick Henry — and, like the two of them, I am also a redhead!) Thanks for this post.

    • You’re welcome, Mike. That’s a very good point — that violence can flow from a lack of faith. We despair of finding a higher, better way (perhaps rightly, but often, I suspect, wrongly), and so we take the easy, quick path. We fill our hearts with hate and lash out.

      You can hear Serling in the words of the preacher in “I Am The Night — Color Me Black,” pleading with the crowd to reject the hate that’s all around us, because it’s suffocating us. Sobering words indeed.

  6. I agree with Michael that Serling was not referring to religious faith. And I completely disagree with David’s contention that “…more faith in a religious sense is what creates fanaticism.” This broadly-brushed statement is both a non-sequitur and an attack on billions of people who hold religious beliefs, without ever descending to whatever he means by “fanaticism.”

    • As you may have seen from my reply to David, I agree with you, but I will say that I don’t think he meant it as an attack. Nevertheless, your point is well-taken. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  7. I was a junior in a Catholic high school and was acting as a tour guide for potential freshman students when the voice over the loud speaker announced President Kennedy had been assassinated. Every person in the building dropped to their knees to recite the rosary. For the next several days, coverage of the event ran on the television over and over. It’s like remembering where you were on 9/11. I thought November 22, 1963 was an anomaly, but we had so many more and now we hardly go a week without mass shootings. I’m not sure we’ve learned a lot from our past.

  8. I think Rod’s words make an excellent Eulogy for Mr. Kennedy.

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