Friday, November 22, 2013

November 2013: Reflecting on the Assassination of John F. Kennedy

Sometimes I am not sure what my monthly letter will be about.  In September, a topic did not emerge.  I ended up doing a potpourri and titled it September 2013: Musing and Meandering Along.  That does not happen often.  Certainly, it is not the case this month. 

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy which happened on November 22, 1963.

I was ten years old at the time and in the fifth grade.  I was old enough to really begin to realize the importance of the President of the country. During the election, I was seven years old and old enough to say I was for Nixon at school because that is who my parents were voting for.   I was old enough to appreciate the fascination the country was experiencing with this charismatic president, his charming wife, and their two cuter than cute children.  They were all photogenic and it seems their photos were everywhere.  He had a great accent that was lovable.  He had a boyish charm and enviable level of education.  He was a role model for a ten year old kid for sure.  People talked about him been Catholic but that seemed normal to me as many of the students in my elementary school were Catholic.

It was a horrible shock when he was killed.  It was an aftershock when his accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was gunned down on live TV by Jack Ruby.  I remember actually seeing that.  There has been a non-stop debate about various conspiracy theories ever since.  For people who lived through it, the assassination is one of those moments that everyone remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when they found out.  These kind of shocking history changing events are like that Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the death of Princess Diana are all like that.

So, where was I on that fateful day?  Like this year, November 22, 1963 fell on a Friday.  It was the Friday before Thanksgiving.  I was at Burns Elementary School in the City of Detroit.  The President was shot at 1:30 pm EST and declared dead at 2 pm.  I heard the news shortly thereafter.  I remember being in gym class.  A girl in the class asked if we had heard the news.  What news?  “Someone shot Kennedy with an elephant gun!”  I was stunned. I immediately wondered how and why someone would shoot Douglas Kennedy?  My classmate, Douglas Kennedy, was not in school that day and I assumed this shocking news was about him.  Douglas Kennedy was a good guy and kind of a friend.  He was a slight fellow and I just could not believe that anyone would shoot him let alone shoot him with an elephant gun of all things.

What can I say?  I was ten and I was thinking locally and not on a broader scale.  There was a temporary sense of relief when I realized that it was the President who had been shot and killed and not my friend.  That sense of relief was very short lived as I saw how everyone around me, in my family, and the media were reacting to the tragic event.  At the time, I felt pretty stupid for making that error.  It was not well into my adulthood that I realized it was an innocent error.   

As the weekend unfolded, the nation was in total shock.  It was the news on all of the channels.  In Detroit, we had a whopping four channels ABC, NBC, CBS, and a station, CKLW, from Windsor, Ontario.  It must be noted that the television stations were not 24/7 in those days.  In 2003, I was watching a special on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. The show I was watching showed footage of Walter Cronkite reflecting on the events of that sad and shocking day. Cronkite was pointed out that it was 11:40 pm and they had stayed on the air 10 minutes past their normal broadcast day because of the gravity of the events.  He said that they would pick-up the coverage in the morning and wished everyone a good night.

I saw another documentary the on the eve of the anniversary:  Four Days in November.  This film was released on November 21, 1964, one year after the assassination.   Per IMDb :

From more than eight million feet of newsreels, amateur footage, tape-recordings and more, David L. Wolper presents a priceless detailed account of the time and events surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The documentary was beautifully and richly narrated by Richard Basshart.

It was very well done. It was a straightforward presentation of the facts that most people held true at the time.  Oswald killed Kennedy.  Two days later Jack Ruby killed Oswald.  There was extensive coverage of the funeral. There was no conspiracy theories floated, no Zapruder film, no CIA,  no Cubans, no Mafia, no Russian, no Marilyn Monroe, and Oliver Stone.  

John F. Kennedy was the first President of the United States that seemed to understand and take advantage of the relatively new media of television.  There is a general consensus that Kennedy was elected primarily because of the televised debates he had with then Vice-President Richard Nixon.  As much as the camera loved Kennedy, Nixon came off stiff, shifty, and not nearly as likable.  This might not have had an impact in previous elections but it did in that 1960 election and every election since then. 

From my youth, I did not know about the much of the politics of President Kennedy.  Other than the assassination, I remember three events that stood out in my mind back then.  First, I recall that in August 1963, Jackie gave birth to their youngest child, a son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy.  Patrick died after two days.  It made me a little sad as I was young and believed things like that were not supposed to happen and they certainly weren't supposed to happen to such famous and special people.  It was something a nine year old could relate to.

Second was the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I understood the basics of this crisis and the threat of having Soviet missiles ninety miles of our cost.  This was the first international crisis/issue I remember.  I was old enough to know it was important but also old enough to be curious about it.  The Cold War and Vietnam were just words to me before this crisis.  Cuba, Castro, Russia, and Khrushchev were just names to me.  With the Missile Crisis, they became threats.  It was a scary time of air raid drills in school and bomb shelters in the news.  The threat of war, and attack, coming to the American homeland was real enough to concern everyone.  The crisis dominated the airwaves and preempted, seemingly, all television as we only really had the three network channel compared to the hundreds of choices we have today. 

I was concerned, scared, and fascinated by the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I tried to follow it the best I could.  I tried to listen to President Kennedy's press conferences and speeches but to no avail.  They were simply too long and the vocabulary beyond my grasp.  I did understand that we have missiles in Europe at the time that could strike Moscow and was admittedly a bit perplexed by the double standard.  I am still perplexed by the double standards such as this. 

Because of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I wanted to know more about communism.  I knew it was bad and we were good but no one could really explain the differences in our capitalistic system versus communism.  So, I got an age appropriate book and learned about it.  Also, if we were going to be victims of atomic bombs, as we called them back then, I wanted to know about them.  I wanted to know who invented them, how they worked, and what made them so powerful.  This curiosity led to more books and a passion for physics which turned into a passion for mathematics that I have had ever since.

Thirdly, I get the impression that he was my President.  I felt I could write him and ask him things and that I would get an answer due to the helpful and engaging nature of my President and the Federal Government.  This memory is due to a Christmas gift in 1962.  It was a book of letters children had sent to President Kennedy.  Some were funny.  Some asked silly questions or made requests of the President that he could never consider fulfilling.  Then there were letters from young people, my age at the time looking for information about various federal programs.  I found these letters inspiring to the point that I sent President Kennedy two letters of my own.  I expressed my desire to learn more about the space program.  A few weeks later, a large manila envelope arrived from NASA. 

This package had a huge influence in my life.  I was mildly interested in the space program before getting the various books and booklets.  After getting this package from President Kennedy, I felt that it was my duty to read them and learn about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo Missions the made up the race to the moon.  I was hooked and could not get enough of it.  Thank you Mr. President.  I was completely dedicated to him.  A few years later, I realized that President never saw my letter and therefore did not personally direct the folks at NASA to prepare that envelope for me.  It did matter; to this day I still think it was pretty special.  It does not seem like much when fifth graders today can simply go online and get any government publication available to the public.  These last two points make no difference to me.  I will always think it was something pretty special.

Oddly, I knew very little about the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam when Kennedy was President.  I did not quite understand what the Bay of Pigs or Vietnam were all about back then.   Compared to the above items, the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam were grayer than the black and white, good and bad, in my ten year old world.

The Presidency of John F. Kennedy was and is referred to as Camelot.  This magical reference to King Arthur’s castle and court gave the Kennedy White House a nostalgic, mythic, and idealistic image.   I did not realize until fifty years later that this reference was coined by Jackie Kennedy herself… after the assassination.  Per The Guardian:

The name "Camelot" is such an accepted sobriquet for the Kennedy Administration that many don't recognize it as a creation of Jackie Kennedy's during a Life magazine interview following JFK's assassination.

 The power of his charisma and this image of Camelot made us all long for that ideal almost immediately after the assassination.  That longing has lasted for many of my generation until this day.  Consider the photo of the President chosen for this blog.  It is a photo taken by the famed Tony Spina a photographer for the Detroit Free Press.  Sonia Harlan, a family friend, posted this photo on Facebook earlier this week.  I knew immediately because of the nostalgia and longing for that return to Camelot that this is the photo I would use for this blog. 

The photo shows John F. Kennedy in Detroit.  At the time of the photo, Detroit was a vibrant industrial powerhouse of a city, the fourth or fifth largest city in the country.  In the fifty years since, the country has changed in size, demographics, economics, and technology.  The City of Detroit has changed even more and for the worse. 

It seems the days just before the assassination we were at the pinnacle of the post war bliss.  With the assassination, we all felt things changed and they in fact did.  In the years to come, the country would be in a war that made no sense and embroiled in the civil rights movement.  We experienced the generation gap, the hippie movement, the SDS, Black Panthers, race riots, and antiwar social unrest.  The assassination of John F. Kennedy was a prelude to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and his brother Bobby both in 1968.  It was almost like the assassination of John F. Kennedy was an inflection point in the history of this country.  Whether that is really true, it was certainly an inflection and reflection point in how I look at the history of this country.

If John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated that fateful day fifty years ago, it would have been interesting to see what he might have accomplished as President, what he might have done after his term was over, and how we might be looking back on his life and career.  It is pure speculation which is how I view the various conspiracy theories as well.  If he were still alive today, he would be 96 years old.  When I think of John F. Kennedy, I think of the William Butler Yeats poem, In Memory of Major Robert Gregory where the Irish poet asked:

“What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?”


  1. I remember feeling very insecure and vulnerable. That was all and I wanted to go home.

  2. I remember being at home and my mom crying.. I was younger than you and didn't quite understand the impact until I was older and it became history. I wonder too, what his legacy would have been if he was able to live longer.

  3. Mark, I was in the gym that day, too! I have a super distinct memory of trooping up that narrow stairwell to get to the first floor after they dismissed us to go home. Pretty sure we knew each other...

  4. I remember that day too. We.watched the news on tv at school, then went home early. My parents cried over his death that day.