Around two in the afternoon, the school principal’s voice boomed out of the loudspeakers located in each classroom of my middle school. He announced the absolutely unbelievable information that our president had been shot. Students were to gather their coats and books and then proceed to board their respective school buses and go directly home and be with their parents. Any American who was over the age of six or seven when it happened certainly remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard an announcement like the one heard in my school. At that moment, I was in my algebra class, just beginning to puzzle out the mysteries of the quadratic equation, when those startling words were announced and suddenly none of this mattered at all. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.
Events moved quickly. He had been on a quotidian political trip to Texas and now our president was dead. The vice president was sworn in as the new president, the president’s remains were taken to Dallas’ airport and flown back to Washington, and the (presumed) assassin – Lee Harvey Oswald – had been captured in a movie theatre as a Dallas policeman was shot and killed while trying to capture him. Then, improbably, that same Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered right inside a police building – on live television no less – by local nightclub owner, Jack Ruby.
The president’s casket was placed to lie in state in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building and hundreds of thousands of people queued up quietly to pay their respects. For the next four days, along with an entire stunned nation, we watched television as the rituals unfolded, slowly calming a shattered nation. There was the funeral procession with the rider-less horse skittering nervously with boots inserted in his stirrups, toes pointing backwards. There was the gun carriage with the casket on board. And there was the poignant image of Kennedy’s small son, Jon-Jon, giving an uncomprehending salute to his father’s remains.
Then there was the ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, on the hillside with the eternal flame (or at least a temporary installation) already prepped for marking the president’s final resting place in front of the Custiss-Lee Mansion. The military bugler, assigned to play “Taps”, whether by accident or design, had allowed one mid-tune note to break, creating a heart-rending, sense of loss spinning out from that familiar musical line. And all of it, every bit of it, day after day, was live on national television across the country on all three networks, virtually without interruption. Before the funeral, together with several friends, I had gone to downtown Washington to try to enter the Capitol Building too, but the lines were enormous. Perhaps it was enough just to enter into the national grief and to wander the streets, looking at all the sombre faces, none of us knowing what was to come next.
Photo: President John F. Kennedy’s brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, his sister Patricia Lawford, his son, John F. Kennedy Jr, his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and his daughter Caroline Kennedy watch as his casket departs the White House bound for the U.S. Capitol on November 24, 1963 (JFK Library/The White House/Cecil Stoughton)
Soon enough, fuelled by the bizarre events linking Oswald and Ruby into a chain of killings, there was the extraordinary bewilderment over what all of this had meant, who had done it, had they acted alone or with accomplices, and why they had done so? And there were no immediate answers for any of these questions.
It was a supreme national puzzle. After all, the most recent political assassination in the country had been that of Louisiana Governor Huey Long, around thirty years earlier, and before that, President William McKinley had been killed, yes, but that was way back in 1901. (Of course, this first Kennedy assassination seemed to unleash the furies – Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy all fell victim to assassins in the span of the three years between 1965 and 1968.)
Who would have done this deed and why? The communists? The Russians? Castro’s Cubans or anti-Castro Cubans? The Mafia? The John Birch Society? A lone madman? Or even a vast conspiracy involving all of them? There was a proponent for every one of these theories as the scanty evidence came forward.
First there were the tantalising moments of the Zapruder film that detailed Kennedy’s final seconds, captured on 8mm amateur film by a man who had come downtown on his lunch hour to watch Kennedy’s motorcade during his visit to Dallas. Then there was all the conflicting testimony about a possible mysterious man on the grassy knoll nearby, and firearms experts who evaluated (and strenuously disagreed about) the weapons Oswald had owned or used. To further confound, there was all that information quickly publicised about Oswald’s connections to Cuba and Russia. Was he some kind of foreign agent? Eventually, people would also learn of murky CIA plots to do away with Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar or worse and that became ripe ground for pondering other possible connections.
The quickly rising tide of rumours was threatening to affect the stability – and even the legitimacy in some minds – of the new president’s administration – the newly sworn-in Lyndon Johnson. In response, the new president appointed a blue-ribbon commission headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren, and Johnson charged it with getting to the bottom of the story as quickly as possible.
The voluminous report on the assassination has been the subject of a whole shelf of critiques ever since it was released – on methodological, evidentiary, and even geo-political grounds – although most people have grudgingly accepted the view it was a lone gunman – Lee Harvey Oswald – who did the deed, for whatever reasons that were in his mind. But there continue to be dozens of proponents who offer those complex theories that blame everyone from Cuba’s Fidel Castro (because of the Bay of Pigs invasion that had taken place in the early months of the Kennedy administration and later CIA plots to kill Castro), to mobster Sam Giancana (because of a federal crackdown on illegal mafia activities led by Kennedy’s brother, the attorney general), or even to the NKVD and the CIA – or both, together – for commissioning the actual deed. What is clear is that Kennedy’s death and the mysteries that lay behind it helped spark an era in which every government action or claim became increasingly subject to disbelief or ridicule.
The Kennedy mystique continues to propel authors to write about the president and his unfulfilled – and uncompleted – presidency. He served less than three years of his term, after all. In advance of the 50th anniversary of his death, “USA Today” now estimates that there have been over 40,000 separate volumes already published about the young president – and still more are coming off the presses this year – and there will inevitably be more in the future. There have been cinematic treatments ranging from the hagiographic “PT 109” about Kennedy’s service in World War II, to Oliver Stone’s conspiratorial “JFK”, to the adulatory documentary, “Years of Lightning, Day of Drums”. There have been several mini-series for television, exploring (or exploiting) the presidential backroom boudoir story and the tense, taunt thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. One thing for certain, there will be many more to come.
Certainly there are many reasons for the durable, continuing attraction of the Kennedy administration to linger on into our present. First there was the obvious, indeed overwhelming difference between Kennedy’s avuncular predecessor, Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower, and Kennedy, with the new president the living embodiment of what he himself had called “a new generation of Americans”. In his case he meant the generation that had fought and won World War II (the president was a war hero as captain of a PT boat in the Solomon Islands campaign) and then the baby boomers following right behind that wartime generation. Kennedy’s America was now a nation convinced it could do anything it put its mind and energies to – from delivering the cornucopia of consumer goods from a burgeoning economy to everyone in the nation, to landing a man on the Moon.
There was the carefully burnished image of an elegant family – a beautiful wife and two golden children in the White House and a whole pack of friends and relatives who exulted in physical activity as well as the life of the mind. Thee were the pictures of the Kennedys sailing off Hyannisport, Massachusetts or playing rollicking games of touch football, as well as enjoying glittering concerts in the White House, such as the one featuring the legendary Puerto Rican cellist Pablo Casals. “Vigour” became the watchword for the Kennedy era.
His wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, transformed the White House into a living museum filled with authentic period furniture, gathered from donors, by dint of her efforts to appeal to the donors’ patriotism. She then took the American people on a televised tour of the beautifully refurbished building, further enhancing the allure of her stewardship of the building’s revival. During her time as First Lady, she even charmed the notoriously prickly French during the Kennedy’s official visit to Paris. The concerts in the White House and other glittering gatherings were all lavishly publicised by the print and electronic media of the day, helping fuel the image of the Kennedy administration as a kind of democratically elected, American-style “Sun King” reign.
Rather than assailing it as an affront to their collective dignity, the Kennedys even embraced satires of their life by comedian Vaughn Meader and his troupe – in their runaway best-selling record, “The First Family”. These comedy routines parodied the Kennedy clan on record, in live performances in theatres, and on the nationally televised Ed Sullivan Show. Along the way, the president even managed to play off against these skits in his press conferences, good-naturedly mocking the jester.
Photo U.S. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson (C) takes the presidential oath of office from Judge Sarah T. Hughes (2nd from L) as President John F. Kennedy’s widow first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (2nd from R) stands at his side aboard Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas, Texas just two hours after Kennedy was shot in November 22, 1963. (JFK Library/The White House/Cecil Stroughton)
The Kennedy administration came into office with a burst of enthusiasm for new efforts to advance the American cause, vis-à-vis the Soviet bloc. It adopted the idea of the Peace Corps (a plan originally proposed by Senator Hubert Humphrey who had been another contender for the 1960 presidential nomination) to send energetic young Americans to serve in third world villages around the world as teachers and development exemplars. Via their infectious enthusiasm they would engender a love for the US and greater support for democratic ideals, along with economic growth. Proposing the “Alliance for Progress”, his administration promised a new, democratic and development alternative for America’s famously testy relations with Latin America. Similarly, it determined that counter-insurgency tactics (sometimes borrowed from British efforts in Malaya in the 1950s) rather than regular full-scale military operations could help halt – or even roll back – Russian and Chinese-backed guerrillas in Southeast Asia.
However, the Kennedy administration accepted the other half of that Faustian bargain as well. Its support for freedom translated into support for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by Cuban émigrés (albeit an invasion force that had been established and trained during the Eisenhower administration) who had fled the island after Castro had overthrown the dictator, Fulgencio Batista. This poisoned the Kennedy administration’s relationship with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, for their first meeting Vienna, contributed to a Soviet decision to build the Berlin Wall, and led to the Russian installation of ballistic nuclear missiles on the island as a way of protecting its ally in the Caribbean.
Meanwhile, America’s embrace of counter-insurgency efforts in Vietnam set the stage for an eventual escalation of American forces in that part of the world. The hubris implicit in, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any”, words from Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, eventually led to much more than tears as America ended up mired in an unwinnable war in Vietnam under Kennedy’s two successors, Lyndon Johnson and then Richard Nixon.
Back in 1962, however, the Soviet missiles in Cuba also gave Kennedy an opportunity to demonstrate how he had learned in understanding how to negotiate his administration’s way through international crises. When the missiles were discovered in September 1962 by surveillance plane over-flights, the world literally faced the possibility of a nuclear face-off, full-scale invasions, or even nuclear war.
I can still remember clearly, when watching him on television, how the president’s speech to the nation on 22 October 1962 about those Russian missile in Cuba and the need for them to be withdrawn, had stopped the nation in its tracks. It became clear the world as we knew it could actually come to an end, just like the events in those apocalyptic films, science fiction stories and Twilight Zone episodes on television that were so popular in depicting the unstable balance of nuclear terror. (Curiously, years later I ended up living down the street from John Scali, the very news reporter who had been the crucial behind-the-scenes go-between during the crisis. Scali had carried the messages between the two world leaders that had ultimately ended the tense stand-off between the two nuclear armed superpowers.)
While the Cuban Missile Crisis did bring the US and Soviet Union about as close as could be to a complete rupture in relations and on to nuclear war, it also led to the first limited nuclear test ban treaty, signed on 5 August 1963. In fact, Kennedy’s speech at American University, a few months earlier, had become the first presidential argument that pointed to a way out of the balance of terror – at the very height of the Cold War.
Domestically, although it took a while, the Kennedy administration slowly came to realise the civil rights revolution was unstoppable. The president eventually threw his weight behind the March on Washington, and then began the push for congressional action to pass national civil rights legislation. (Of course it took the legislative mastery of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and ’65 to gain the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts – but to win their passage he had cast them as acts of homage to the memory of a martyred John Kennedy.)
What helps keep his memory alive, of course, is a feeling that, somewhat like Abraham Lincoln, Kennedy had given his life in service to a larger tonational cause. Lincoln, however, had died as the Union was triumphant over the Confederacy and on the cusp of ending slavery – a dying Moses on the hilltop overlooking the entry into the land of Canaan. The poignancy of John F Kennedy’s memory seems as if Moses had been allowed to tell the Hebrew slaves they were on their way to freedom, only to find out that he would never even cross the Red Sea, let alone enter the promised land himself.
It was a great irony that just as Kennedy was murdered, the Broadway musical, “Camelot”, had become immensely popular (and had in fact been a particular favourite of the late president as well). Its bittersweet tale of the handsome, youthful King Arthur, forced to accept the troubles of his kingdom, concluded with the poignant words from Arthur:
Yes, Camelot, my boy!
Where once it never rained till after sundown,
By eight a.m. the morning fog had flown…
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
And it was these words that were seized upon by the bearers of the Kennedy flame to become the informal anthem of the vanished kingdom of the Kennedy administration and its foregone future.
For those of us who grew up with the Kennedy saga in our minds, even after the shadier sides of the story had eventually become public knowledge, it still sometimes seems as if his administration was the last one not ultimately overwhelmed in scandal or political duplicity. It is still possible to read – or listen to – his best speeches and see the youthful promise of a politician summoning Americans, on that sunlit, winter day of 20 January 1961, to embrace the nation’s destiny to carry out the largeness and optimism of his – and our – dreams. DM
Main Photo: President John F. Kennedy delivers a speech at a rally in Fort Worth, Texas several hours before his assassination in this November 22, 1963. The 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination will be on November 22.
(JFK Library/The White House/Cecil Stoughton)