THE POLITICS OF SAD MEMORY: Mega-Moments in Modern American History

PLUS - New Senate, House, and Governor Outlook Summary Charts


The death of Nellie Connally a few days ago brought back an aching shock and a flood of unhappy memories for Americans about fifty years of age and older. The last survivor of the JFK assassination car in Dallas, Mrs. Connally was the final personified reminder of a day that will live in infamy, November 22, 1963. Even now, it is difficult for most older people to recall that day without experiencing anew the terrible horror of an unthinkable act–and feeling the awful melancholy of what might have been.

By the way, Mrs. Connally was a prominent disbeliever in the single-bullet theory, an essential component of the lone-assassin conclusion of the Warren Commission Report . The single-bullet theory, devised by a Warren Commission staffer named Arlen Specter (now the senior U.S. senator from Pennsylvania) suggested that one bullet inflicted critical wounds on both President Kennedy and Governor John Connally of Texas. In a private conversation at the LBJ Library in the early ’90s, Mrs. Connally insisted to me that both she and her husband distinctly heard and reacted to the shot that first injured President Kennedy–and it was not the one that nearly killed Connally. John and Nellie Connally apparently never wavered in reporting that the Governor was struck by a separate bullet than the one that pierced JFK’s neck (the one before the fatal head shot). If the Connallys were correct, it would have been impossible for Lee Harvey Oswald to have acted alone since there was not time for Oswald to shoot both officeholders in the time recorded by the Zapruder film, the only continuous visual evidence of the assassination.

Many other key figures have disputed the Connallys. At that same event at the LBJ Library, I had the opportunity to privately ask President Gerald Ford, the last surviving member of the Warren Commission, about Mrs. Connally’s assertions. Ford stressed that at no time since he was appointed to the Warren Commission, including his White House years, had he found cause to question the report’s basic conclusions. His view was that the Connally recollections were flawed, an innocent mis-remembrance of a traumatic event that took place within a few chaotic seconds.

After forty-three years, there is not, and probably never will be, a final resolution of this “murder of the century” to everyone’s satisfaction. Just as important is the fact that the Kennedy assassination was one of a handful of modern American moments that had major effects on our politics for decades afterwards. JFK’s untimely death at age 46 generated massive public sympathy, congressional guilt that Kennedy’s programs had been given short shrift, and most importantly, a passing of the torch to a very different kind of President–all of which had wide-ranging effects.

To Lyndon Johnson’s credit, he was able to harness all that sympathy and guilt to pass the most extensive civil rights agenda since the Civil War, and LBJ’s domestic Great Society was as dramatic in many ways as FDR’s New Deal. But JFK’s killing also began a terrible decade of unintended consequences. Johnson’s insecurities and bravado led to America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam, with over 500,000 troops committed and 60,000 American casualties suffered by war’s end. Few historians believe that John Kennedy would have been so foolish as to expand the Vietnam conflict to this extent. And would Richard Nixon have staged his successful comeback had Kennedy lived to serve two full terms? Without Nixon, the Watergate scandal would never have happened. It’s certainly possible that JFK’s inexcusably reckless personal life would have created a Clinton-like political frenzy decades before Monica Lewinsky, but given the determination of the 1960s-era press to cover up Kennedy’s dalliances, these revelations likely would not have occurred until JFK was in comfortable retirement.

As we mentioned earlier, the Kennedy assassination was just one of the mega-moments that changed the face of American politics in modern times. How does one distinguish a mega-moment from other important developments? There is a singular aspect to a mega-moment: Every American alive then, even children, can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the dreadful news. These events imprint themselves irrevocably upon the mind, and they stir such deep emotions that the slightest reference to them evokes an intense reaction years later. Besides the Kennedy assassination, modern mega-moments include:

  • The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. World War II united Americans for years (just like 11/22/63 and 9/11/01 did), and the ‘sneak attack’ on U.S. soil changed the face of the war and the world in a way that no other event since has quite done. The era of U.S. superpower status, which continues unabated, began on 12/7/41.
  • The death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. War censorship and a docile press had left Americans in the dark about FDR’s fragile health, and the shock of his passing from a cerebral hemorrhage was enormous. With the Allies on the verge of triumph in Europe, FDR’s sudden demise cheated the President of a hard-won victory. The reverence for FDR sustained not just successor Harry Truman through hard times, but maintained the Democrats as the dominant party in our country’s politics until 1980.
  • The resignation of Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 1974. The United States had endured four presidential assassinations and three natural deaths in the Presidency, but never before had a President been forced to resign in disgrace. The cynicism about government and politics spawned by Watergate (and Vietnam) has survived to the current day, often corroding the ability of public officials to operate effectively and denying them the benefit of the doubt from a suspicious citizenry. Also, Nixon empowered his old enemy, the press, which went from lapdog journalism to attack-dog journalism (still its mode). However, Watergate’s follies generated considerable positive reforms in the Presidency, the Congress, campaigns, federal law enforcement, and governmental openness and accountability.
  • The attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. The new President nearly died from the wounds inflicted by would-be assassin John Hinckley, but his good cheer in the hours and days after the shooting endeared him to his fellow citizens and enabled him to pass his signature tax-cut legislation. A fraction of an inch in the path of the bullet that struck Reagan made the difference between a short William Henry Harrison Presidency and Reagan’s current status as the Republican FDR.
  • The terrorist attacks of September 11th. We are now living through one of these mega-moment periods. Although the full implications cannot be assessed for many years, 9/11 has changed American lives and U.S. politics drastically. It is not an overstatement to say that, without 9/11, President Bush might well have shared the fate of the three other Presidents who lost the popular vote (John Q. Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison) and not been reelected to a second term; on September 10th, 2001, he was already barely above the 50 percent mark in public polls, and his Presidency seemed directionless. In the off-year 2002 elections, the national security issue almost certainly won the election for the GOP, and in 2006, the Republicans are starting to play the security card again–though the unpopularity of President Bush and the Iraq War make it much less likely that it will work as well again. As for terrorism itself, while this evil sometimes appears unstoppable, so did the spread of fascism in the early 1940s and communism in the 1950s and 1960s.

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the latest terrible day in American history, it is worth remembering that tragedy has often produced triumph. A nation’s greatest accomplishments are frequently recorded when collective, unforgettable sadness spurs us on. The events recounted in this essay are difficult to re-live, but in every case grief has yielded some substantial public good. This knowledge is no immediate comfort to those affected by the tragedies, yet history works in mysterious ways to achieve progress.

New Race Outlook Summary Charts for the 2006 Midterms

With just two months until Election Day, things are starting to shake out in terms of race outlooks. The following charts summarize the Crystal Ball’s current breakdown of the 2006 contests for Senate, House and Governor. Seats currently held by Republicans are printed in red text, and seats currently held by Democrats are printed in blue; party totals appear at the top and bottom of each column, respectively. The Crystal Ball’s “Brutal B” bottom-line predictions as of early September appear below each chart.

2006 Senate Outlook Summary Chart

Republican Held Seats up for Election in 2006: 15 (out of 55 held)

Solid R (7) Likely R (1) Leans R (2) Toss-up (3) Leans D (2) Likely D (0) Solid D (0)
IN (Lugar) AZ (Kyl) TN (OPEN) MO (Talent) MT (Burns)
ME (Snowe) VA (Allen) OH (DeWine) PA (Santorum)
MS (Lott) RI (Chafee)
NV (Ensign)
TX (Hutchison)
UT (Hatch)
WY (Thomas)
WV (Byrd)
WI (Kohl)
NY (Clinton)
NM (Bingaman)
ND (Conrad)
WA (Cantwell) MA (Kennedy)
VT (OPEN) HI (Akaka)
NE (Nelson) FL (Nelson)
MN (OPEN) DE (Carper)
MI (Stabenow) CT (Lieberman*)
NJ (Menendez) MD (OPEN) CA (Feinstein)
Solid R (0) Likely R (0) Leans R (0) Toss-up (1) Leans D (6) Likely D (0) Solid D (11)

Democratic Held Seats up for Election: 18 (out of 45 held)

The Brutal B, September 2006: +3 to +6 D

Click here for individual Senate race analysis.

2006 House Outlook Summary Chart

Republican Held Seats in Play: 56 (176 Safe/Solid R)

Likely R (24) Leans R (10) Toss-up (17) Leans D (5) Likely D (0)
AZ-01 (Renzi) AZ-05 (Hayworth) CT-02 (Simmons) AZ-08 (Kolbe)
CA-04 (Doolittle) CT-05 (Johnson) CT-04 (Shays) CO-07 (OPEN)
CA-11 (Pombo) CO-04 (Musgrave) FL-22 (Shaw) IA-01 (OPEN)
CA-50 (Bilbray) NY-20 (Sweeney) IL-06 (OPEN) PA-06 (Gerlach)
FL-09 (OPEN) OH-01 (Chabot) IN-02 (Chocola) TX-22 (OPEN)
FL-13 (OPEN) OH-15 (Pryce) IN-08 (Hostettler)
FL-16 (Foley) PA-08 (Fitzpatrick) IN-09 (Sodrel)
ID-01 (OPEN) TX-23 (Bonilla) KY-04 (Davis)
IL-10 (Kirk) WI-08 (OPEN) MN-06 (OPEN)
KY-02 (Lewis) WY-AL (Cubin) NC-11 (Taylor)
KY-03 (Northup) NM-01 (Wilson)
MN-01 (Gutknecht) NY-24 (OPEN)
MN-02 (Kline) OH-18 (OPEN)
NV-02 (OPEN) PA-07 (Weldon)
NV-03 (Porter) PA-10 (Sherwood)
NH-02 (Bass) VA-02 (Drake)
NJ-07 (Ferguson) WA-08 (Reichert)
NY-03 (King)
NY-19 (Kelly)
NY-25 (Walsh)
NY-26 (Reynolds)
NY-29 (Kuhl)
NC-08 (Hayes)
OH-02 (Schmidt)
WV-01 (Mollohan)
VT-AL (OPEN) WA-02 (Larsen)
TX-17 (Edwards) SC-05 (Spratt)
OH-06 (OPEN) OH-13 (OPEN)
IA-03 (Boswell) LA-03 (Melancon)
GA-12 (Barrow) IL-17 (OPEN)
IL-08 (Bean) GA-08 (Marshall) CO-03 (Salazar)
Likely R (0) Leans R (0) Toss-up (1) Leans D (7) Likely D (6)

Democratic Held Seats in Play: 14 (189 Safe/Solid D)

The Brutal B, September 2006: +12 to +15 D

Click here for individual House race analysis.

2006 Governor Outlook Summary Chart

Republican Held Seats up for Election in 2006: 22 (out of 28 held)

Solid R (5) Likely R (5) Leans R (6) Toss-up (2) Leans D (2) Likely D (1) Solid D (1)
ID (OPEN) GA (Perdue) CA (Schwarzenegger) MD (Ehrlich) AR (OPEN)
NE (Heineman) HI (Lingle) FL (OPEN)
SD (Rounds) SC (Sanford) MN (Pawlenty)
TX (Perry) VT (Douglas) NV (OPEN)
RI (Carcieri)
WI (Doyle) WY (Freudenthal)
PA (Rendell) TN (Bredesen)
OR (Kulongoski) NM (Richardson)
MI (Granholm) ME (Baldacci) OK (Henry) NH (Lynch)
IA (OPEN) IL (Blagojevich) KS (Sebelius) AZ (Napolitano)
Solid R (0) Likely R (0) Leans R (0) Toss-up (2) Leans D (5) Likely D (2) Solid D (5)

Democratic Held Seats up for Election: 14 (outof 22 held)

The Brutal B, September 2006: +4 to +6 D

Click here for individual Governor race analysis.