The eternal flame flickers in the early morning light at...

The eternal flame flickers in the early morning light at the grave of John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery. (Nov. 22, 2013) Credit: AP

Fifty years ago Thursday, President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy left the White House in the morning for a helicopter ride to Andrews Air Force Base.

The president's toddler son, John Jr., went along and was said to be upset when his father left him to board a flight to San Antonio. That was the first stop on the Kennedys' two-day political trip to Dallas.

Less than 36 hours later, the president's body returned in a hastily purchased and battered coffin that had to be manhandled out of the hearse, up the stairs and around the tight corner of the rear door of Air Force One.

So many details of those hours are known, but five decades later, we still struggle for a definitive answer as to what really happened. How could a nowhere man like Lee Harvey Oswald kill the shining symbol of American promise? Each anniversary of the assassination, particularly the major ones, is another failure to reach closure. Maybe we as a society don't want it; there is something maudlin but satisfying about revisiting the gore and grief of the assassination.

From the Zapruder film to Jackie's blood-soaked gloves and stained pink suit to their young son's goodbye salute (did he learn that at Andrews?), it is all vivid and tragic.

For many Americans, the Kennedy assassination serves the role tragedy did for the Greeks: A chance, in Aristotle's belief, to "cleanse the heart through pity and terror . . . to make us aware that there can be nobility in suffering."

Aristotle also said, however, that a tragedy must have a "beginning, middle and end." The end has been the hard part.

Carter Eskew is a co-host of The Insiders blog, offering commentary from a Democratic perspective on Election 2012, and was the chief strategist for the Gore 2000 presidential campaign.

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