By Arthur H. Gunther III
Nearing the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, so much reflection has already been written, some by younger writers who were not alive to absorb the year 1963, the 1950s and God, what happened in the killing’s aftermath, that turbulent continuation of a decade still changing America.
Kudos to scribes who analyze and who get it right, especially if they did not feel the earth, smell the air, taste the water of the time. Yet, first-person reflection is as valuable as primary research, for setting the record, for authenticity. It’s a check on analysis after the fact. So, here goes, from someone who was there, before, during, after.
Fifty years ago, Nov. 22 was a Friday, as it is in 2013. About 12:30 p.m. I was flipping TV channels when I paused at WCBS-TV, New York. A soap opera was in progress, of no interest to a young fellow age 21, but the long thread of its story line, including every emotion there is, caught my interest and I lingered. But not for long. Quickly, on the simple black and white set, with just seven channels available through a rooftop antenna, came a bold screen with large letters shouting “CBS-TV NEWS BULLETIN.” Then the signal switched to a live newsroom, Walter Cronkite at a small desk, professional but with almost incredulous tones, reading wire service copy: “There has been an attempt on the life of President Kennedy . …” The venerable reporter and commentator did not leave his post for a day, and this America remained glued to the TV for even longer, over an increasingly somber weekend and through JFK’s burial.
So much changed on Nov. 22, 1963, when 90 minutes later, after numerous news flashes of increasingly negative tone, Cronkite read another bulletin: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash is apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. today, Central Standard Time, 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.”
As a young man, idealistic as so many of us were in that folk-singing era when youth had infused stodgy government, when hope seemed a sure bet despite a lingering recession, the Cuban missile crisis and still-distant war drums in Vietnam, the president’s death shortened our sunny days, coinciding with the coming winter solstice. In JFK’s place was an older man, the less articulate, old-style politician Lyndon Johnson. He reassured the country as an uncle might after you lose your cool dad, and perhaps that made you get into bed, feel a bit tucked in and have some sleep. But the next morning you knew things would never, ever be the same.
And they have not been the same. Presidencies since JFK have become increasingly isolated, surrounded by necessary security to protect our national leader from nuts but in the process putting the person into a cocoon apart from the people. Elect a president and you never see him (her?) again except through the filters his advisers employ. They have his ear, these special interests of whatever bent, not the citizens who cry when their presidents are taken from them.
Ever more complex is our government today, and the super economic power concentrated in the secretive military/industrial complex that Eisenhower the old warrior warned us about is much stronger and deeply entrenched. Moneyed lobbies increasingly rule the nation.
Today no president has simple choices, for the world is so very complex. Idealism seems reserved for the political stump, not for the Oval Office.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, may he rest in peace, kept the stump with him for much of his short tenure, continuing his well-phrased speeches, strumming the rhythm of the song of hope. What success or failure or a mixture of both he might have brought to the nation – in the economy, in dealing with the Cold War, in Vietnam – can only be conjectured. Was his the last approachable presidency? That, too, is speculative.
The writer is a retired newspaperman. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.