Next month we will enter a period of reflective mourning for John Kennedy as we remember the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas. It is hard to believe that 50 years have passed since that terrible weekend and for my generation, it still an emotional touchstone that we will carry for the rest of our lives. Looking back, the assassination seemed to herald a terrible period of American history when our national leaders were cut down by a successive volley of gunfire.
When I look back at the pictures from that period, I am still struck by how young John and Jacqueline Kennedy look — even to this day. As others around them look older to modern eyes (like Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson), both Kennedys remain perpetually young. The president was only 46 and his wife had yet to cross into her mid 30s.
The images easily rush back to us all who experienced that weekend first-hand and those terrible moments that remind us of the pain are all available on YouTube, the newsreel shots of Kennedy and his wife emerging from Air Force One, the still photos of Kennedy’s last wave to the crowd, the horror of the Zapruder film which shows the assassination in heartbreaking detail, the quiet weeping of Walter Cronkite when he announced that the newsflash was official, the swearing in of LBJ, the salute by the little boy who lost his father, and finally the quiet dignity of Mrs. Kennedy, who led by example and kept the nation from falling to pieces even as she was going through her own personal hell.
Compounded with that were further events in Dallas, where the prisoner transfer of Lee Harvey Oswald was interrupted by a hail of gunfire from Jack Ruby, who not only killed Oswald but kept investigators from uncovering his real motives. Ruby took matters into his own hands and cost us all a great deal. Because the Oswald explanation for the shooting expired the moment he died, a million conspiracy theories soon flourished.
Soon there was a cottage industry of conspiracy buffs. Every little anomaly in the timeline was soon blown out of proportion as conclusive proof that something else was amiss. Within a short period of time, it seemed that the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, Cuban exiles, Russians, right-wing Texans, Lyndon Johnson, and even actor Woody Harrelson’s father were the subject of conspiracy theories. There were “Dark Forces,” Umbrella Men, “suspicious” deaths, doctored photos, and cover-ups of the greatest magnitude that fell to pieces whenever they received a serious look.
However, we live in a confessional society and people cannot keep secrets. We are a nation of blabbermouths. If there was a deep conspiracy, somebody would have come forward after 50 years. With all of the people doing research, there would have been proof of a greater conspiracy. Even “Deep Throat,” the informant who fed Bob Woodward information during Watergate would himself be outed by his own daughter because she wanted a book deal so that she could pay for her son’s law school education.
However, nothing has emerged to replace Lee Harvey Oswald as the assassin. Perhaps it is hard for people to realize that one person, equally troubled and self-important, could extinguish the life of a president of the United States. In many cases, Oswald became the template for other troubled loners who would follow in his footsteps, like Sirhan Sirhan, Arthur Bremmer, Mark David Chapman, and John Hinkley. The only thing that Oswald lacked was the obligatory copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which every other nut seemed to have on them and later used as a defense.
What was different about Oswald is that he was on the radar screen of a number of groups who felt embarrassed that they did not step into stop him. Oswald, an army sharpshooter, defected to Russia, came back with a Russian bride. He was under surveillance and he somehow slipped through and killed the president. What took place post-assassination was nothing more than self-preservation by groups who should have communicated their concerns upward.
What remains certain is that Dallas back in those days was a highly reactionary city, where “Kennedy hatred” was incredibly intense, and where UN Ambassador Adali Stevenson had been attacked only weeks earlier. The state Democratic party was coming apart at the seams with Texas Governor John Connally leading the conservative faction and Ralph Yarborough leading liberals, Kennedy needed to mend fences so that he could win the state in 1964. Many people forget that the trip to Texas was a kick off of the next election and Lyndon Johnson’s state was a place that Kennedy could ill-afford to lose. What took place in Texas would soon spread as conservative Democrats soon became conservative Republicans.
When I look at Dallas back then and compare it to the visceral hatred some on the far right have against President Obama, complete with protesters who demand to openly carry their weaponry within sight of a presidential event, I wonder if we have made any progress at all. During the 1990s that same visceral hatred of Clinton, stoked by the Rush Limbaughs of the world only quieted down after Tim McVeigh and his colleagues blew up the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring another 800.
However, that terrible day in Dallas had a collection of young journalists who would later go on to higher profiles. Dan Rather reported for the local CBS affiliate and relayed unconfirmed reports to Walter Cronkite that Kennedy had died. Bob Schieffer was a young journalist who ended up driving Oswald’s mother into police custody and phoned in his astonishing story on the way to the Dallas police station. Robert MacNeil, who would later co-host the MacNeil-Lehrer hour on PBS, was working for NBC and may have stumbled into Lee Harvey Oswald. MacNeil was climbing the stairway of the Texas Book Depository while Oswald was quickly exiting.
John Kennedy died before some of the more unsavory elements of his life became well-known. Biographies since the 1980s have dedicated a chapter or two to better understand his extracurricular behavior. Had some of these high profile liaisons, like Judith Exner, emerged while still in the White House, it might have cost him the presidency. However, Kennedy was a president who could learn from his mistakes and the growth between the disaster at the Bay of Pigs and his success with the Cuban Missile Crisis was self-evident.
Kennedy’s desire to go to the moon was a Cold War gamble designed to get us to leap frog ahead of the Soviets in technology; after his death getting there by the end of 1960s became a matter of national will.
What Kennedy did not live to see were the two great questions of the 1960s. While he supported the idea of Civil Rights, it took until late 1963 to send a bill up to Congress. When Lyndon Johnson made his first speech as president, he told Congress that the best way to preserve John Kennedy’s memory was the passage of what became known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended Jim Crow once and for all. That law would become the launching pad for other monumental legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Open Housing Act of 1968.
The other issue took Americans down a different road. Kennedy was hawkish on Vietnam and there remains a big question if he would have withdrawn troops before the 1964 election. Johnson took another approach and followed the advice of his military advisors and reinforced the beleaguered country until the Vietnam War became an albatross around our national soul. By 1968, there were 500,000 American troops in Vietnam.
Today, everybody who was in that limousine has passed away. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis passed away from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1994, John Connally died in 1997 and his wife passed away in 2006. Most of the members of the Kennedy administration have passed away too. 50 years have come and gone but as a nation, we have still not come to grips with what happened on that weekend; we may never do so until the last one of us passes away.