Certainly, no episode from December 7, 1941 until September 11, 2001 so deeply affected America’s shared consciousness as JFK’s assassination. For the first wave of baby boomers — including yours truly — who were teenagers at the time, the death of the nation’s 35th president remains a disturbing recollection. In a few short years, Kennedy projected a measure of optimism that motivated a budding, politically naive generation, which represented the largest demographic shift in U.S. history.
The bullets fired on November 22, 1963, not only altered American history, but shattered the post-World War II/Korean War period of peace and prosperity. Moreover, that incident was the prelude to a progressing, turbulent decade marred by protests, riots, a controversial conflict, and assassinations of other respected leaders.
After reports of the assassination jolted the nation, a period of shock and mourning set in and echoes today as it did that Friday afternoon when a bulletin interrupted the program I was watching. The lunchtime report was soon followed by the most dreaded news possible, “President Kennedy is dead.” That breaking news from Dallas, due to the era’s limited technology, was delayed to the East Coast by nearly 30 minutes.
From the instant when correspondents Walter Cronkite on CBS and Robert McNeil on NBC relayed the awful news, and for the next three, numbing days, my family, and, indeed, most of the nation and world, sat glued to televisions and radios anxiously waiting for any bits of information about the tragedy’s unfolding aftermath.
Some moments and images from that somber weekend continue to stand out: Jack Ruby lunging, shooting prime suspect Lee Harvey Oswald point blank; thousands passing the coffin lying in state under the Capitol rotunda; the precise, painstaking funeral procession moving oddly silent, aside from the synchronized clip-clop of six white horses pulling the flag-draped coffin and the muffled drumbeats, through the ordinarily congested streets of the nation’s Capital; the isolated riderless black horse; an impeccably poised Jacqueline Kennedy holding her young children’s hands; and the poignant image when John-John saluted his father’s casket (below left) as it passed by on his third birthday (and my 17th).
My singular Kennedy experience was when the senator, after winning the Democratic nomination, campaigned in Brooklyn, in the summer of 1960, for New York’s 45 electoral votes. My friend Larry and I went to the rally along Kings Highway that stretched from Ocean to Coney Island avenues, and onto several side streets, and waited hours among the jam-packed crowd. As we stood at the East 16th Street intersection, opposite Dubrow’s cafeteria, we were constantly pushed and shoved by others impatiently awaiting the candidate’s motorcade.
As the police escort cleared a path, the presidential limousine convertible with Kennedy, headed east on Kings Highway, got closer when it passed under the elevated subway platform when we saw him. I remember his full head of reddish hair and appealing smile. Larry and I tried to inch forward, but we never got nearer than 50 feet or so. We wanted to be one of the lucky ones to shake his hand, but were impeded by the crunch of supporters in front of us. The entourage stopped, JFK made a few remarks, but, in minutes, the car moved towards Ocean Avenue.
Though it was nothing more than a glimpse, Larry and I were, nonetheless, thrilled and felt we’d gotten close to the man who might be the next president. In the frenzied crowd dispersal, Larry lost a shoe and my shirtsleeve was torn. Minor damage for an incomparable experience.
In the month before the election, Kennedy made several campaign stops in Brooklyn. This is an excerpt from one of several speeches the senator made on October 20, 1960: I come over here to Brooklyn to ask your help. I run for the Presidency in the most difficult time in the life of our country, but with the greatest confidence, that if this country is given the kind of leadership which I believe it needs, if we are willing to go to work again, this country can meet any obstacle and can serve as an inspiration to freedom around the globe. So I come to Brooklyn to ask your help in this campaign, and if we are elected, we are going to go to work.
Last week, in one of our periodic get-togethers, Larry and I, along with Steve, another lifelong friend, and their wives, Lynne and Sharon, went to see the detailed Newseum exhibit, in Washington D.C., which chronicles John F. Kennedy’s presidency, family life and death.
That exhibition convincingly attests that the four days of around the clock coverage of the assassination and funeral accelerated television as the primary source of current events — until the advent of 24/7 cable news and the immediacy of the Internet decades later.
The emerging electronic medium had already influenced the 1960 campaign and election. Kennedy effectively used television to project an image of vitality and appeal that was sorely lacking in Dwight Eisenhower, the older president he was trying to succeed, as well as his discernible comfort on camera. That was more than evident during the first ever televised presidential debate as Kennedy seemed confident and composed, while his GOP opponent, Vice President Richard. M. Nixon, visibly perspired under the hot stage lights and was perceived as edgy and tense. That difference undeniably attributed to Kennedy’s narrow victory, one of the closest in presidential election history.
Subsequent blemishes on the private Kennedy legacy regarding womanizing, extramarital indulgences and ties to organized crime that surfaced after his death, notwithstanding, cannot erase Kennedy’s public triumphs such as establishing the Peace Corps, advancing the space program, marshaling federal troops at the University of Mississippi that helped facilitate a steady end to segregation and equality for black Americans and, in what was perhaps his finest hour, facing up to the Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a 14-day nuclear confrontation that sidestepped devastating global consequences.
While the portion of his inaugural address that focused on foreign policy depicted the new president as a Cold War advocate, Kennedy’s position had changed several months before his death, when he said, “…our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future…”
Despite holding office for a mere thousand days — too fleeting to sufficiently evaluate a presidency — and few legislative achievements, the sense of hope and anticipation that John F. Kennedy conveyed to many, who were too young to vote for him, is immeasurable. Consequently, Baby Boomers willingly accepted the symbolic torch he passed to a generation preparing to face a changing world. In the ensuing turbulent decade, as they matured, the nation was plagued by protests, riots, a divisive conflict and more assassinations of popular leaders.
The tragedy of Kennedy’s unfinished life has had a lasting effect on the way he is remembered. Traditionally, we commemorate distinguished historical figures, like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, on their birthdays, but, when it comes to our 35th president, his death, not his birth, is observed.
The bullets fired half a century ago altered American history, and also cut short the promising optimism ever fulfilled, but also helped exaggerate the mystique about the fallen president.
|My photo taken in 1989|
In the final analysis, John F. Kennedy’s characteristic vigor and public persona were beacons that not only induced the initial political encounter for an up-and-coming generation, but motivated a lasting consciousness that impacted our lives and, more significantly, our social perspectives.