THE VIEW FROM HERE
Everyone of a certain age remembers where he or she was 50 years ago this November 22 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. To the Baby Boom generation the death of President Kennedy was as memorable as the attack on Pearl Harbor was to the preceding generation or that 9/11 would be to a later generation.
I was an 11 year old sixth grader in Catholic elementary school that sad Friday. Our school had a monthly assembly featuring a rotating production by one of the classes and the fifth grade, which included my sister, Mary Anne, was still on the stage in the school auditorium when the principal told the assembly that the President had been shot or hit over the head. There was a gasp in the room and we all went back upstairs to our classroom. The principal played the radio on the public address system.
I remember a description on the radio of two priests attending to President in the hospital and the announcer describing the President as “moribund”. I wasn’t positive of the meaning of that word, but I knew that things didn’t look good. A few minutes later came the announcement that Kennedy was dead. The nuns were all very upset and of course reminded us that Kennedy was the first Catholic a President. Although the school day was ending, we were all pretty much ordered to go across the street to church to pray for the President’s soul.
All that evening, and indeed all weekend, there was nonstop coverage of the assassination on all three television networks. I remember the coffin arriving in Washington from Dallas and the newly sworn in President, Lyndon B. Johnson, making a brief speech urging national unity and seeing images of the presumed assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Two days later, I was at choir practice before church when I was told that Oswald himself had been murdered. We had the next day off to commemorate the funeral and many of the stores in the neighborhood were closed.
Even looking back at the events of that week from half a century later, the death of President Kennedy continues to seems very tragic and unnatural. Kennedy was the youngest elected President and his youth was in great contrast to his predecessor, the grandfatherly Dwight Eisenhower. He had a beautiful and stylish wife, Jackie, and two young children. That this young and seemingly vigorous man (Kennedy actually had more health problems than was generally known) was taken from us in the prime of his life by a sudden and wanton act seemed almost beyond the pale.
Of course, the Kennedy legacy and the events of that week have been the source of intense scrutiny in the last 50 years, even beyond the many questionable claims that Oswald was not the lone killer. We now know, for example, that President Kennedy’s private life was not beyond reproach and that the Camelot image of his administration was overblown, even if Kennedy remained very popular throughout his term. His successor, President Johnson, proved far more adept than Kennedy in getting his agenda through Congress. While Kennedy continues to receive credit for his resolute handling of the Cuban missile crisis, he is also blamed (somewhat unfairly in my view) for the escalation of the Vietnam War.
Still, whether you liked Kennedy’s policies or not, we were all united that day and that week, which happened to include Thanksgiving, in a sense of profound grief. We remember the salute by Kennedy’s three year old son, the Eternal Flame at Arlington, his brave widow, the outpouring of sentiment from all around the globe. Kennedy never really presided over the administration of legend, but something very important was ripped from us and we still remember that loss a half century later.