Choosing the topic of this article was easy for me, because it’s a personal story. No, it’s not your usual “Kennedy and me” tale. I never even shook hands with John F. Kennedy. But his presidential saga, tragic assassination and evolutionary image coincided with my coming of age, influenced the career path I chose and defined the political world I analyze for a living.
Kennedy is bound up with the memories of my youth. When I think of Kennedy, I think of my devout Roman Catholic parents. My father was exactly JFK’s age and a fellow World War II veteran, while my mother was only a few years older than Jackie, with Caroline and John-John the image of my younger family members. I visualize my Catholic school, the priests and the nuns, my lay teachers and classmates, and a time distant and yet near. As a person piles up the years, writing about the past has an irresistible allure as powerful sentiment and a yearning for what once was become a part of many evenings.
Born in 1952 and raised in the military town of Norfolk, VA, I had one of those idyllic white middle-class childhoods of the 1950s, sheltered from controversy in a segregated post-war project neighborhood on a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, with a Catholic school nearby. Because I was but a youngster, I have not a single recollection of President Eisenhower, and I doubt I even knew he was president. But with the onset of a new decade, things began to change. Kennedy’s “New Energy for the ‘60s” wasn’t just a slogan.
I recall first becoming aware of JFK at the age of seven in the spring of 1960. Even my second grade class at St. Pius X parochial school felt the excitement of the first serious Roman Catholic candidacy for president since Al Smith (D) in 1928. At least in the region I called home, the South, there was more than a little prejudice about “Papists.” When we visited a rural, heavily Baptist part of Virginia every summer, I was told not to bring up my religion. Maybe the inhospitable climate that Catholic children sensed generated a natural tribalism that caused us to cheer on a co-religionist. After all, Kennedy received 78% of the Catholic vote in November, according to Gallup. Nixon got 62% of Protestants. More than race, gender or region, religion explained the election results. Catholics were traditionally Democratic, and early skepticism that Kennedy could actually win the party nomination had melted away after JFK’s 61% primary victory in heavily Protestant West Virginia on May 10, 1960.
My father believed deeply in civic participation, partly because of his study of history and his recent experiences in Europe during the war. Other than casting a ballot for his former Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, in 1952, Dad had voted straight Democratic. His Uncle Joe, an Italian immigrant who was befriended by the Democratic machine in New York after his arrival at Ellis Island, actually told my father that he would be struck dead by lightning if he ever voted Republican. Dad said he listened carefully to the weather reports in November 1952 and decided it was safe to cast a ballot for Ike — but he never told Uncle Joe.
Despite that apostasy, the Kennedy campaign was right up Dad’s alley, and not just because of religion. A large part of JFK’s public biography was centered on PT-109, Kennedy’s boat that was sunk in the Pacific by the Japanese during World War II. Kennedy’s efforts to save his crew won him plaudits and medals. Just 15 years removed from the war, military service was an expected part of the resume of most serious candidates. As a federal employee working for the Department of the Navy, Dad was forbidden from participating in overt partisanship — he was “Hatched,” as the term of the day went, a reference to the Hatch Act (since modified) preventing federal workers from becoming foot-soldiers for the parties. But that didn’t stop him from tutoring me.
An early political education
In an era when most families ate supper together in the dining room, the topic at the table would often be current events. Dad subscribed to several newspapers and magazines, and with his and Mom’s help, I got into the habit of looking at the news rather early in life. I kept hearing about John F. Kennedy, and I knew he was our candidate. Dad took me to the local Democratic headquarters which was well stocked with Kennedy literature and bumper stickers. I loaded up, and took some to school, with a Kennedy sticker emblazoned on my book bag. And wouldn’t you know it? I was severely reprimanded for this by the priest, and had to collect the pamphlets and strip off the Kennedy sticker from my own satchel. As it turned out, I had what must have been the only Republican Catholic priest in the area. A native of Mississippi, Father Francis Xavier Toner — a wonderful man in other respects — would have none of this Kennedy business. He was a Nixon man (and more incredibly, an avid Goldwater backer in 1964). It was my first real understanding that politics makes for strange bedfellows, and that not everyone is going to agree on this controversial subject even when they had a lot in common.
I was not to be denied, and so I took the Kennedy literature ejected from my school and went door to door in my neighborhood. The reception was mainly good because most people on my street were Catholic and others considered it irresistibly cute that a boy of my age was doing this. Basking in public approval for the first time, I was hooked. This was despite the hostile reaction of one woman, who slammed the door in my face after making clear her view of Catholicism.
Every day I searched for the news article about the presidential campaign and slowly read it. My parents and I watched most of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles when Kennedy was nominated in July. It was hard not to watch, since all three networks carried gavel to gavel coverage and thus nothing else was on TV in this pre-cable era. Still, I was transfixed by the spectacle of adults marching around in silly hats and pumping placards while bands played and the crowd roared. I focused only on Kennedy, and paid no attention to the other candidates. When I first saw the “Kennedy-Johnson” signs, I thought the hyphenated contraption might be JFK’s full name, rather than a ticket that included Lyndon Johnson. I couldn’t have understood much that Kennedy said in his acceptance speech, but I liked the way he said it.
Later that summer we watched snippets of the Republican National Convention. Just snippets. Richard Nixon was not a favorite in my household. I first learned the meaning of “SOB” after Dad applied the term to Nixon. I’ve since come to appreciate some of Nixon’s accomplishments as president, despite Watergate, but it took a long time to shake off familial dogma about the original SOB in my life.
Other memories from that fall still resonate. I don’t recall if I watched all four of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, but I certainly remember the first. That was a big deal, unprecedented in American history. We discussed it in class, and I sat with my parents in the den, where the old giant black-and-white Zenith TV was located. Just like the convention, the debate was “road-blocked” on all stations simultaneously. You could have heard a pin drop in and out of the house. No one was outside, few were stirring inside. The audience figures were through the roof. Most anecdotal evidence suggested that Americans who saw the debate on TV thought Kennedy had won. He was tanned and assertive, more than holding his own against Nixon, who had been ill and hadn’t worn a presidential-looking suit or prepared with professional makeup to hide his pale, sallow looks. It is often reported that Nixon won the debate among those who listened on radio, and that may well be true. But only one such study was ever done, and it was plagued with methodological problems.
JFK comes to Norfolk
My indelible memory of the 1960 campaign didn’t come from TV, however. In the mistaken belief that Kennedy had a chance to carry Virginia — he lost it 52% to 47% — JFK visited Norfolk on Nov. 4, 1960. This was just four days before the election, and we couldn’t believe our good fortune. Even better, JFK’s motorcade drove within a block of my school. My mother, who worked at the school, took me over to see the drive-by. I can still recall the fleeting image of Kennedy sitting on the back of an open-top convertible, waving to us on the side of Little Creek Road, a major thoroughfare leading from the Norfolk Naval Base to downtown. There was a police escort, but essentially no one around the presidential candidate. After the commotion passed, I turned to my Mom and said something we recalled on Nov. 22, 1963: “Where were his guards?” I meant Secret Service agents, of course, but in those days, incredibly, Secret Service agents were not assigned until the night of the election after a candidate had become president-elect. (The Secret Service began officially protecting Kennedy in the wee hours of Nov. 8, 1960, when it became likely that he was the next president; they moved en masse to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, MA, where Kennedy was awaiting further returns.) Anyone could have taken a potshot at the leading presidential candidate that day in Norfolk or any day of the campaign. JFK and his fellow candidates were sitting ducks, so terribly vulnerable. It was a tragedy waiting to happen. It was the practice of the day, even though it made no sense, given our long national history of violence in politics.
Shortly after the street sighting of JFK, my dad took me to the Kennedy rally at Granby High School, not far from my home and just yards from the Catholic high school I would attend in a few years’ time. To a small boy, the crowd seemed gigantic, and the atmosphere was undeniably electric. All the local political pooh-bahs were there, and the cheers were constant and deafening. I cannot recall a thing Kennedy said, though my father later recounted that Kennedy invoked Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson and suggested, in essence, that he knew Vice President Nixon, Nixon was a friend of his, and Nixon was no Thomas Jefferson.
Many years later, I learned that a friend and future fellow graduate of the University of Virginia, John Charles Thomas, was at the rally and actually got to speak with Kennedy and shake his hand. “I sure hope you win,” said Thomas. “I sure hope I win, too, young man,” answered Kennedy to a 10-year-old who would one day become Virginia’s first African-American justice on the state Supreme Court at the age of 32. Thomas’ memory is that the crowd was segregated, with blacks told to congregate separately around back of the school; this was just a year after the fall of the vicious Massive Resistance doctrine that had closed all public schools in Norfolk to prevent token desegregation. Racial tensions were high, but Kennedy depended on the black vote; blacks were not as monolithically Democratic then as they would become in the wake of JFK’s assassination and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Instead of over 90% of the vote, JFK received the ballots of around 70% of blacks nationwide — but that margin probably made the difference in an election decided by less than one vote per precinct.
Election and inauguration
I could hardly wait for Election Day. The Gallup Poll did not fully reveal the squeaker that was to come, so most observers expected a Kennedy victory. (The final two Gallup samplings just before the election were both in Kennedy’s favor, but just barely, 49% to 45%, then 49% to 48%.) On election night, my family watched Chet Huntley and David Brinkley of NBC. There were no “remote clickers” in those days, so you tended to stay with one channel to avoid the herculean effort of rising from an easy chair to turn the TV knob. The early returns, mainly from the friendly Northeast and some loyal Democratic Southern states, were heavily in Kennedy’s direction. It looked deceptively like a decisive margin. That’s certainly what I thought as I was coaxed to bed at about 9:30 pm. Instead, of course, there was an all-night, see-saw battle that would yield an infinitesimal Kennedy margin of 118,574 votes out of 70 million cast. (The final Electoral College vote was wider, 303 to 219.)
When I awoke at about 6:30 a.m. to get ready for school, Dad told me the race was still undecided but he thought it was leaning Kennedy’s way. That was good enough for me; when you’re eight, parents are pretty much infallible on the big things. I can’t remember a day when my classmates and I were so excited. All of the talk on the school bus and in the classroom was about the election of the first Catholic president. One of my chums seriously asked a nun if the Pope would still have his powers. She assured us that Pope John XXIII remained in the saddle over in Vatican City, and was probably very pleased with the news from America. Following the election, in many Catholic homes, a photo of Kennedy was placed right next to the Pope’s.
Actually, there was one other school day with about as much exhilaration: Jan. 20, 1961. Dad had mentioned the possibility we might actually travel to Washington, D.C., to see the ceremony, but heavy snow in and around D.C. on Jan. 19 eliminated that possibility. “We’ll go up for the next inauguration after Kennedy is reelected,” he promised. We always regretted not making the trip; that missed opportunity has spurred me to go personally to nine inaugurations since.
This was a time before television was a regular part of the classroom set-up, but a creaky 1950s-style “cathode ray” tube was wheeled into my class for the Kennedy swearing-in. The reception was awful, and the antenna didn’t help much, but through the buzz and fuzz, we heard JFK’s inaugural address. The hush in the room was testimony to our concentration. We didn’t truly comprehend what the new president had said, but like everyone else, we knew he’d done a fine job. We didn’t get to watch the parade, much to our dismay, and it was hard to concentrate on diagramming sentences after living history had intruded.
I shot home after school to grab the evening paper — yes, we had a fresh home-delivered newspaper on the porch in both morning and evening, Monday through Saturday (morning only on Sunday). I read the inaugural address over and over. I had key parts memorized in no time. The next day I was disappointed to discover that my friends had done the very same thing, so no one was impressed with my achievement. That speech has lingered in my memory, no doubt due to repeated viewings over the decades, and I can still recite large portions of it. Other than Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, no presidential swearing-in speech has ever had such an effect on Americans. We realized we had seen and heard something very special. Every four years, I show it to my classes just before Kennedy’s successor delivers his own.
A new normalcy shattered
After the campaign and inauguration, I went back to being a kid. I didn’t follow politics closely, though there was always talk at the dinner table about Kennedy’s actions on this and that. I did notice that mom and her sisters and friends got new hairdos. They were dead ringers for Jackie Kennedy’s “do.” My mother was a strikingly beautiful brunette, and everyone agreed she had some of Jackie’s features, which were highlighted all the more by her imitation of Jackie’s French bouffant. Millions of women followed the styles set by the new first lady. That certainly hadn’t happened under Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman or Mamie Eisenhower.
I finally got to go to Washington for the first time at age nine in the summer of ‘62. The family made a beeline for the White House, and we took photos aplenty outside the gates, all the while speculating on what the Kennedys were doing inside, if they were inside. I was determined to get as close as possible, so I pressed into the gate — and managed to get my knee stuck between the bars. Two White House policemen, one inside the grounds and one on the sidewalk, came to the rescue and after a few minutes of pulling the bars apart and tugging on my leg, it came free. This was embarrassing, and a crowd gathered, but I had my self-deprecating theme for the traditional “What I Did Over the Summer” essay in September.
Then there was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even children paid attention, and we were scared. At least I was. We lived less than a mile from the largest naval installation in the United States, and though no one had seen the Soviet Union’s strategic targets, we had a pretty good idea that we were in the bull’s-eye for a Russian nuclear bomb. No one believed that “duck and cover” would save us, though we did the school drills required by the civil defense program. Far worse to me in October 1962, dad would not be able to evacuate with us due to his position at the base. I still remember that we packed up the family car so everyone but dad could high-tail it out of town to my mother’s relatives in rural far Southwest Virginia, if and when an attack was thought imminent. I had nightmares and I’m quite sure other kids did too, though in those days we didn’t talk about our feelings much. Oprah and Dr. Phil hadn’t been invented. Fortunately, the crisis was peacefully resolved after the two superpowers came within a hairsbreadth of destroying the world. Life returned to normal, even if it was a scarier normal.
As Kennedy’s presidency wore on, the uniqueness of it wore off. This is true for all leaders. The radical notion of an African-American president in January 2009 now seems ordinary and expected. After almost three years of JFK, it had become obvious to everyone but the peculiarly hardheaded that the Pope was not calling the shots in Washington. Kennedy’s Catholicism was mentioned less frequently by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
In the late fall of 1963, young minds were sharply focused on Thanksgiving and the religious season of Advent, with Christmas barely a month away. I don’t remember anything about Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, until there was a knock at the door of my sixth grade classroom a little after 2 pm EST. Our classes were rarely interrupted, and Sister Robert Miriam of the Immaculate Heart of Mary order looked startled, even though we could see only the frame of her face behind the heavy black and white habit that covered every other square inch of her body. I can see her clasping a hand across her chest, as though her heart had skipped a beat. The sister motioned for silence — not an easy thing to achieve in a classroom with 62 boys. (We were separated by gender in those days, and a lack of funds created a room so crowded that it is incredible to think that one nun could teach us all. But she did, quite well, aided by corporal punishment that was frequently employed to keep us in line.)
Sister Robert stepped out of the classroom, and when she came back in a minute later, she was clearly in distress. “Children, I have terrible news. President Kennedy has been shot in Texas.” The class gasped as one. Unaware that the president was already dead, she said, “He is still alive and we must pray for him. Take out your rosary beads.” Rosaries were standard equipment in a Catholic school of 1963, and we lifted our desktops and grabbed our beads. Led by Sister Robert, we began the series of Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s as we held onto each bead for dear life.
Perhaps 20 minutes later, a second knock stopped us cold and we held our breath. Sister Robert had to say nothing. Her tears told the story. We sat in stunned silence, which gave way to widespread sobbing. Someone from the main office came onto the old-style public address system — a speaker inside a brown wooden box mounted on the wall — and intoned, “The President of the United States is dead,” he repeated twice. “Please pray for the repose of President Kennedy’s soul. School is dismissed. Gather your things quietly and wait on the breezeway for the buses or your parents.” At my locker, collecting my belongings, I remember saying to a friend, “He was the only Catholic president and he didn’t even live to finish his term.” It was perhaps an odd way to instantly interpret the assassination, but I think this reveals how and why the impact was so intense for many Catholics. To this day, Kennedy has been the only Catholic chief executive.
My mother was already waiting in the car to pick up my cousin Donna and me. She had had the day off from work, and was grocery shopping, when a friend came up to her and blurted out, “Oh Margaret, it’s awful. Have you heard? President Kennedy’s been shot.” Mom was as orderly a person as has ever lived, but she left a half-full cart in the aisle and ran out into the street to try to call my Dad on a pay phone. The lines were already overloaded and she couldn’t get through, so she hopped into the car and drove to my school. So did every parent who was free. The buses went out half-empty. People needed to gather their families together as quickly as possible for emotional support — and to gird for what lay ahead.
With the Cuban Missile Crisis just 13 months old, more than a few people feared that a Soviet nuclear first-strike could follow the assassination. (The new president, Lyndon Johnson, had the same thought.) Fortunately, my family knew early that this threat was false. After driving from school to my aunt’s house, my mother reached my father, who calmed her by saying that most people were being sent home from the naval base to be with their families. Had there been any realistic suspicion of a Soviet attack, all personnel would have been kept on the base.
With telephone service spotty, everyone gathered around the television set, and the natural choice was CBS’s Walter Cronkite, who was thought to be close to JFK even then and who had been on the air within minutes of the shots in Dallas. CBS re-played the terrible moments when Cronkite announced the death of the president. The long pause to control his emotions as he took his eyeglasses off and put them on again captured the extreme distress we all felt.
Television was our link through four sad days in November, a combination church and town hall, providing news, instant history, and comfort. As a relatively new medium, it had never performed these roles before, though it would forevermore at times of national calamity. We sat and watched and cried, with normal routines suspended — save for special Requiem Masses through Monday, Nov. 24, a national day of mourning. With the quick capture of Lee Harvey Oswald, law enforcement officials appeared to answer the whodunit. (That wouldn’t last long.) We focused instead on the dinner-time landing of Air Force One, containing the body of President Kennedy. Everyone has seen the film so often that it is difficult to recall the shock of our first glimpse of the coffin and Mrs. Kennedy, still in her blood-stained pink suit, with Bobby Kennedy at her side. We were completely unaware of the turmoil on the plane, or the first actions of new President Johnson, or the icy lack of civility between RFK and LBJ.
It was jarring to hear Lyndon Johnson, president for just a few hours, step up to the microphones and make his short, simple statement about the “loss that cannot be weighed,” while pledging to “do my best.” The photo of the oath-taking on Air Force One had already been shown, of course, and we knew the reality of presidential succession. Yet Johnson’s lined jowly visage, slow Texas drawl, and lack of rhetorical polish, not to mention the sight of Jackie’s able but dowdy replacement, Lady Bird Johnson, was another cold shower on an already chilled evening. “I’m sure he’s a good man,” said my Dad hopefully, “but he’s no John Kennedy.” It is difficult to believe today, in an era when vice presidents receive so much attention, that a poll taken just weeks before the assassination showed a majority of Americans had no opinion at all about Johnson. This was despite his many years as Senate majority leader and vice president. I would wager that many television viewers had never before heard Johnson speak, except perhaps to take the oath of office in January 1961.
“This is no accident. They want Oswald dead.”
The TV networks signed off around midnight, not having the personnel or capacity to do the 24-hour coverage to which we are now accustomed in crisis. On Saturday we learned bits and pieces about the shooting in Dallas and the plans for President Kennedy’s viewing and funeral. It was a day for coping as the immediate shock wore off. My mother frequently called her sisters and cried. We were starting to get a picture of Lee Harvey Oswald, who was offering statements to a press gaggle as he was shuttled from place to place. Dad made trips to the newsstands for the instant commemorative editions of newspapers and magazines — even a record album of JFK’s speeches. We were hungry for news and remembrance, and the opportunity to make a buck had not gone unnoticed.
The stabilizing picture was obliterated on Sunday, when the first live murder took place on television. Everyone is familiar with the film clip of Oswald being mortally wounded by Jack Ruby, and unfortunately live violence is very common on TV today. In 1963, though, it was an unknown fright. My father and I were watching and couldn’t believe our eyes as a startled reporter yelled, “He’s been shot! Lee Oswald’s been shot!” My father called for my mother to come back to the TV; she was shaking as we told her what had happened.
At first blush, most people watching probably thought or uttered, “Oswald got what he deserved.” It was said in my household. But after a few minutes, Dad said something else that was heard in almost every home and has echoed through the decades: “This is no accident. They want Oswald dead.” Who were “they?” It was unspoken then, and a hundred theories have been floated to uncover “them” since. To most Americans, even in that naïve era when one really didn’t question authority much, it seemed too convenient, right from the start.
An industry was born as Oswald died.
Now, the nation had combined a modern Shakespearean tragedy with a real-life episode of “The Twilight Zone,” the popular sci-fi TV show of the day. The networks cut back and forth between Kennedy coverage and Oswald’s murder, as the Keystone Kops running the Dallas police department tried to explain what had happened.
Monday was solemn, as funeral marches must be. The long procession to Arlington, the riderless horse, the drums and mournful sounds, the weeping thousands everywhere, the lighting of the eternal flame — these are images never forgotten by Americans alive at the time. Jacqueline Kennedy’s courage and grace touched everyone, a widow at 34, covered in black. John-John’s salute to the flag as his father’s coffin passed left an entire nation sobbing. “Those children, fatherless forever…”
Thanksgiving occurred just three days later. It was the saddest holiday most people could remember. My large Italian-American family gathered at my Great-Aunt Mary’s for the usual feast of turkey and pasta. There was only one topic of conversation the whole day, as uncles and nieces and cousins exchanged views. What I most remember, other than the sorrow, was the unanimity of belief in a conspiracy. Literally no one thought Oswald had acted alone. And for the first time, I heard the cynicism that was to spring from Nov. 22, 1963. “We’ll never find out the truth. The government will hush it up.”
The view toward conspiracy quickly hardened, and nearly guaranteed a negative reception for the Warren Commission report when it was released in September 1964. Throughout the last month of 1963 and most of 1964, small details and occasional photos of Nov. 22 leaked out, but there was no gusher. We had only a relative handful of photographs of the actual assassination scene, and some color film of the Kennedy arrival in Dallas.
The Zapruder film had been taken by the government and was under lock and key for the official investigation. It was years before the public realized just how gory the shooting really was. Many frames of the Zapruder film appeared in Life magazine on Nov. 25, 1966 — but the editors published only the ones preceding the fatal head shot. It wasn’t until March 1975 that the public had an opportunity to view Zapruder’s historic piece.
We were told repeatedly that Mrs. Kennedy had climbed on the back of the presidential limousine to get help from the Secret Service, when in fact she was trying to retrieve portions of her husband’s skull or brain. It was a very different time; the American public was not deemed mature enough to handle the gruesome facts, and most people didn’t demand much additional information from the media or government. We took what we were given, assuming that wiser heads had made appropriate decisions in our best interests. This kind of deference is utterly foreign to Americans in the 21st century.
Bobby and Jackie
The Kennedy family soap opera became a permanent staple of news and culture after the assassination, a tale of triumph and tragedy interwoven. Sen. Ted Kennedy was nearly killed in a summer plane crash in 1964. My family had just arrived for a vacation in Myrtle Beach, SC, when the news hit; again, we gathered around a TV at the Holiday Inn awaiting news of his fate. “Not again!” everyone said, as the possible Kennedy “curse” came into national lore. But Ted pulled through, and Bobby was nominated (and elected) to the U.S. Senate from New York — unstoppable even though he was a carpetbagger who ran against an Empire State veteran, moderate-liberal Sen. Kenneth Keating (R).
RFK also stole the show at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ, in August, when he introduced a film about JFK at what would have been his brother’s coronation for a second term. The delegates would not let him speak after his introduction. They screamed and cheered and cried for more than 20 minutes, the convention hall (and people watching at home) swept up in a torrent of emotion that recalled the aftermath of Nov. 22. Bobby felt that intensity himself. Once his task was done, he went outside and, in the semi-privacy of a stairwell, wept uncontrollably. LBJ had feared just such a pro-Kennedy emotional wave, and had structured the convention so that his vice presidential choice, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, had already been announced and nominated. The last thing Johnson wanted was a “draft Bobby for VP” movement on the convention floor. The hatred the two felt for one another had not waned — though earlier in the spring RFK had hoped LBJ would choose him for the ticket, reviving the Kennedy-Johnson alliance of convenience from 1960.
In effect, the alliance was still operational, whatever the principals thought of one another. LBJ’s long coattails helped RFK win his Senate seat, a fact that Johnson pointed out to his associates. It wasn’t an idle boast, with Johnson winning 68.6% of New York’s ballots while Kennedy had a far narrower majority of 53.5%. At the same time, even though Johnson was loath to fully accept it, it was national sadness and guilt about John Kennedy’s death that propelled LBJ to his massive national landslide victory of 61.1%, a higher percentage even than the 60.8% achieved by FDR at the height of his power in 1936.
These pro-Kennedy sentiments made the Republican challenge to Johnson a guaranteed failure, even if a more moderate candidate than Barry Goldwater had been selected. The New York Times could not have had it more wrong when on Nov. 23, 1963, just below the screaming headlines about Dallas, a front-page essay asserted: “President Kennedy’s assassination [has] increased immeasurably for the leaders of the Republican party [their] prospects of electing a President next November.” The idea that Americans would elect a third president inside a year was always absurd, but the article’s thesis — widely shared at first by that era’s press cognoscenti — reminds us of the eternal dangers of instant analysis.
As the 1960s progressed, we saw Jackie Kennedy on the cover of every magazine. The speculation about her love life was constant, and though her marriage to the unattractive Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis in October 1968 came as an unwelcome stunner to most Americans — Onassis appeared to be an ugly frog by comparison to Jackie’s earlier Prince of Camelot — she retained a kind of secular sainthood. Everyone understood why she wanted to flee the United States. Concern about her children’s safety had become uppermost in her mind after the assassination of brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968.
JFK’s killing would have been vividly remembered in any event, but the second Kennedy murder was so resonant of the first that old horrors were rekindled and reinforced. The country had just been through the disaster of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder in Memphis on April 4, and was on edge because of the rioting that followed in most major cities. But 1968 was not the year when the United States would be spared any suffering. The assassination terror was replayed during the peak of the presidential primary season. Lyndon Johnson’s presidency had been destroyed by his terrible mishandling of the Vietnam War, and after long hesitation and much criticism from anti-war forces, RFK had finally decided to run for president. His timing was poor, coming shortly before LBJ bowed out and long after Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D) had become the anti-war hero by challenging Johnson for re-nomination — and nearly defeating the sitting president in New Hampshire. As a high school student, I had become disenchanted with LBJ (after running around town with “LBJ for the USA” paraphernalia in 1964). While I admired McCarthy and his well scrubbed “Clean for Gene” student advocates, I could not break my emotional tie with the Kennedys. Virginia was not a primary battleground, but I looked forward to working for another Kennedy in the fall.
After the shock of RFK’s Oregon loss — the first primary defeat for any Kennedy — we anticipated a different result in the California showdown on June 4, 1968. I stayed up long enough to see that RFK was winning, 46% to 42% for McCarthy, and happily went to sleep after preparing for my final exam in Latin scheduled for the next day. My next conscious moment was at around 6 a.m., as my father shook me awake. I can still hear his words precisely, “Larry, Bobby Kennedy’s been shot, he’s been shot!” This flashback nightmare unfolded for millions in precisely the same way. Oh God, no, this can’t be happening again! We took heart in that, unlike JFK, this Kennedy lived through the shooting and subsequent brain surgery. Could he recover? How we took our school tests that day, I do not know. In between the tests, we pulled out those rosaries again. I recall my Latin teacher, another Immaculate Heart of Mary nun, saying, “God won’t let this Kennedy die. There will be a miracle.”
There would be no miracle this time either. That evening, RFK’s brain functions ceased and he passed away in the early hours of June 6. As a nation, we returned to our family television for comfort. The funeral train, the grieving crowds, the Requiem Mass, the devastated clan and all those Kennedy children — the fatherless kids, 10 of them with an eleventh on the way — that is what is still etched in our memory. For some reason, I also recall President Johnson’s plaintive assertion at a press availability that, “200 million Americans did not strike down Robert Kennedy any more than they struck down President John F. Kennedy in 1963 or Dr. Martin Luther King in April of this year.” Johnson was trying to deflect talk that America was a sick society. His argument was reasonable but no one much bought it at the time. To most of us, events seemed to be spinning out of control, and we were collectively depressed in an era before Prozac could help.
The general election only added to the country’s sense of unease. The unpleasant choices for president were a recycled Richard Nixon, LBJ’s chosen successor, Hubert Humphrey, or the vile racist George Wallace. Kennedy nostalgia was rampant. That the man defeated by JFK in 1960 became his successor in 1968 — though with a mere 43% of the popular vote — added insult to injury for those still devoted to John F. Kennedy.
A tarnished Camelot
Post-RFK, hopes for a Kennedy revival focused on Teddy, still in his 30s but already a seven-year veteran of the Senate. His moving eulogy at brother Robert’s funeral caused many to point to the TV, as my father did, and say, “He’s going to be president.” But few understood the pressures on the last male Kennedy of his generation — his own demons, fears of assassination, the need to look after all the children of his dead brothers. There was a long history of private recklessness in his family, but it first burst into full public view in July 1969 at Chappaquiddick, MA, when Kennedy’s car drove off a bridge late at night. A former RFK staffer, Mary Jo Kopechne, was drowned, and Kennedy inexplicably and illegally failed to report the accident for many hours. There is no remaining doubt that he received special treatment, and though home-state love for his family saved Kennedy’s Senate career, his future presidential hopes were doomed. Ted didn’t run for the White House in 1972 and 1976, and when he announced for the 1980 race, the Kennedys incorrectly believed that Chappaquiddick was a dead letter, not a scarlet letter. In fact, the “character issue” at the heart of Chappaquiddick barred Kennedy even from the Democratic nomination. Had he been the party’s 1980 nominee, Kennedy almost certainly would have met a fate similar to Jimmy Carter at the hands of Ronald Reagan.
Ted Kennedy’s collapsed presidential bid dashed hopes for a White House family restoration, at least for his generation. Revelations about John F. Kennedy, beginning in the 1970s, also undermined the Kennedy mystique. While insider journalists and top D.C. politicians had long known of JFK’s many extramarital affairs, they had been treated as virtually a state secret after the assassination. But the truth began to spill out indirectly when Sen. Frank Church (D-ID) undertook an investigation of CIA misdeeds in the wake of Watergate. Many horrors came to light, and not just about what the CIA had been doing in the American people’s name. It was revealed that Kennedy had been keeping company with a beautiful brunette, Judith Campbell (later Exner), before and during his presidency. That alone shocked many; the Kennedy “perfect family” image had been carefully stage-managed since the 1960 campaign, and because of Kennedy’s assassination, no one wanted to ruin the fairy tale.
What put this particular liaison into the sphere of legitimate news was a startling fact: Campbell had simultaneously been a mistress of Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana. Messages from the government had been carried back and forth to Giancana by Campbell, mainly about how to dispose of Fidel Castro in Cuba. The disclosure that a woman was being sexually shared by the president and a Mafia don was front-page news, and nothing better demonstrated the personal irresponsibility of President Kennedy. A breathtaking series of eye-opening exposés about JFK’s extramarital affairs followed over the years, from nude White House pool parties to famous actresses being escorted in to “see” the President. Mrs. Kennedy was painfully aware of her husband’s wanderings, even pointing out JFK’s White House secretarial mistress to a French magazine correspondent (in perfect French, no less). Senior members of the press corps knew, and Kennedy had bragged about his sex life to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was intimately familiar with Campbell’s relationship with JFK and Giancana, as well as other JFK dalliances — and used it to his great personal advantage. Foreign intelligence services had to be aware of some of this, so it was a security risk. Presidents cannot put themselves in the position of being subject to blackmail.
Everyone knew about JFK’s philandering, apparently, except for average Americans who had loved Kennedy and bought the phony image. Even after all the revelations of the Watergate era — not just about Nixon but other presidents — I was not prepared for this. I distinctly remember being crestfallen. Idealized in death, Kennedy was — like all his predecessors and successors — very, very human. His prematurely conferred sainthood was revoked.
Interestingly, though, the new, more realistic portrait of JFK had little effect on the public’s evaluation of his presidency, nor did it lessen at all the interest in his 1963 assassination. Watergate strengthened the belief that the Warren Commission had sold the country a bill of goods. Since the government had hidden so much else, it was a decent bet that it had lied about the facts of Kennedy’s murder. Millions believed firmly that the CIA had been behind the assassination, and millions more thought it was Mob-related or had been masterminded by Fidel Castro. (Privately, Lyndon Johnson subscribed to the Castro theory.)
A three-year investigation by the House of Representatives in 1976-1979 produced the startling conclusion that a second gunman had indeed been somewhere in Dealey Plaza, based on a sound recording made by a motorcycle policeman’s stuck-open microphone. (Other experts have since disputed that finding, and new research conducted for my book, The Kennedy Half Century, demonstrates that the recording contains no gunshots, thus ruling out its use as evidence of a conspiracy.) Nonetheless, the U.S. government has had two official conclusions, never reconciled — that Kennedy was killed by Oswald acting alone, and that the President died as a result of a conspiracy. Hundreds of books and articles have been published on the debate, all contradicting one another, and dozens of major TV specials and Oliver Stone’s movie JFK have been aired. The public’s appetite for information on the topic has barely waned after a half century.
So much has happened and changed since Nov. 22, 1963. There has been no additional Kennedy nominated or elected to the White House. Truth is, the next generation of Kennedys has not proven to have staying power at the polls, and they have filled only lower offices for brief periods of time. Jackie Kennedy died of a cancerous blood disorder at the young age of 64 in 1994, John F. Kennedy Jr. — the crown prince with the most potential — followed his mother five years later in a self-piloted plane crash, and Ted Kennedy passed away from brain cancer in 2009 at the age of 77.
Presidents have come and gone, unpopular wars and scandals have scarred the landscape, and a frequently sour economy and other intractable problems have reduced Americans’ faith in the future. Presidents are no longer placed on a pedestal, and they are subject to withering criticism, 24 hours a day, in a multi-media world. After all the revelations about JFK and his times, few view him quite the same way they once did.
Yes, much of the Kennedy story has been transformed and amended since Nov. 22, 1963. But John F. Kennedy has not changed in one vital sense. He will be forever young, always the picture of vigor and glamour, frozen in time at age 46.
We will always see Jack and Jackie in the majestic black presidential limousine, smiling, waving, bathed in adulation and glorious sunshine. It was a time when the United States was on the rise, when all things seemed possible, when idealism was a practical goal. We yearn for that time, even though we understand that our naïveté colored the portrait, that the image we saw was not fully reality.
November 22, 1963, was a crucial line of demarcation, much like Pearl Harbor or the day Lincoln was shot. A certain kind of history ended, and another began. Our outlook, as individuals and as a country, was much different before and after the event. Generational innocence died.
A baptism of blood in Dealey Plaza gave John F. Kennedy an almost religious dispensation, wiping away the sins of his personal life and the inadequacies of his presidency. He had everything taken from him at the peak of his power, and the nation lost a great deal in that tragedy. The outrageous unfairness of the moment seared and bonded us together. The JFK generation was determined to preserve his legacy, and also our own.
John Kennedy rode off into history that November day, and a half-century later, while we cannot begin to forget the horror of his unjust end, we still feel the need to honor the man who lived at 12:29 pm, not just mourn the one who died at 12:30.
|Note: The Crystal Ball is taking next week off for Thanksgiving. We hope you and your loved ones enjoy the holiday, and we’ll return on Thursday, Dec. 5. — The Editors