Did you see the newly released color film clip of President and Mrs. Kennedy’s arrival at Love Field in Dallas on November 22, 1963? If you haven’t yet, you can see it here: http://jfk.org/go/collections/ward-warren-film
Ward Warren, a 15-year old high school student, took his 8 millimeter camera to the airport that awful day, and captured stunning images of the president just about an hour before his assassination (you can read more about Warren here). JFK’s vigor, Jackie’s beauty, and the corralled ambition of the soon-to-be President Lyndon Johnson were on full display. Now 61, the videographer decided at last to share these haunting frames with his fellow citizens, via the worthy Sixth Floor Museum—the converted Texas School Book Depository from which some or (probably) all of the shots at JFK were fired. At one point Dallas actually had wanted to tear down the Depository, seeking to escape the long shadow it cast over the city. Luckily, wiser heads prevailed.
These freshly circulated frames stir deep emotions. Knowing what is waiting on Elm Street, we still want to shout, “Get back on Air Force One! Don’t climb into the limousine.” But the celluloid figures can’t hear us. The grief and tears will just have to flow.
Warren explained the significance of 11/22/63 well: “To me, it was more traumatic than 9/11.” My students have sometimes asked, ‘How can that be? One person was killed versus 3,000 on September 11th.’ But Kennedy’s assassination was the cold-blooded decapitation of the U.S. government in the midst of the Cold War, the murder of a man with a lovely family that we all thought we knew, the sudden shocking violent end of the life of the nation’s youngest elected president far before his time—and so much more.
The horror of seven seconds in Dallas has reverberated for nearly a half-century, triggering an unending nightmare for those of us who lived through the assassination—and via the new medium of television we were all a part of the drama. Just as JFK’s presidency was shifting into its highest gear, it was obliterated in a nanosecond. One sick sorry excuse for a human being, a punk who had failed at everything but marksmanship, negated the votes of nearly 69 million Americans who had cast a ballot in 1960.
In the light of history, we know that the bullet fired into Kennedy’s brain became a bullet in our own. America lost the spring in its step as the 1960s wore on. The sunny optimism of a youthful administration gave way to the dark maneuverings of an insecure chief executive who couldn’t say no to the military and was afraid of losing a war because of the effect it would have on his legacy—thereby costing the lives of tens of thousands of young Americans.
After the 1961 Bay of Pigs, JFK never fully trusted his generals, as he proved during 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis when he pointedly ignored their bellicose advice. Few scholars believe that Kennedy would ever have escalated the Vietnam War into a U.S. force of half a million men. In contrast to JFK’s understated New England style, LBJ did everything Texas Big—a full blown War on Poverty (instead of a realistic battle to reduce it), a we-can-have-it-all “Guns ‘n Butter” policy that was economically ruinous, and a Vietnam War that very nearly tore the country apart.
A tiny bullet did all this—essentially the same comment from the doctors performing Lincoln’s autopsy in the White House in April 1865 as a deadly pellet fell from the 16th president’s brain and clattered to the floor.
No one can say what might have happened had Kennedy lived. It is always possible that his reckless private life—filled with feel-good drugs and wanton adultery—would have become known, forcing a presidential resignation in disgrace. Society would never have tolerated JFK’s feverish extramarital dalliances in the ‘60s as it did Bill Clinton’s in the ‘90s, the latter a far more permissive decade. Goodness knows, there were enough women who could have told the tale on JFK, even a mobster’s moll named Judith Campbell, simultaneously the mistress of Kennedy and Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana. This strange triangular relationship was facilitated first in early 1960 by Frank Sinatra, an enthusiastic supporter who sang JFK’s campaign tune, “High Hopes”. The smarmy, prying FBI director J. Edgar Hoover finished the ménage off after informing the president he had the goods on him in 1962.
While many high-level members of the press were well aware of Kennedy’s wild life, the public was oblivious. We knew only the pristine Catholic church-going, family-man image, as well as the eloquent speeches and high-minded deeds of a dashing leader who inspired Americans, especially the young, to “ask what we could do for our country.” The episodes one can view in exhibits at the JFK Library in Boston leap to the mind of anyone 55 and older: The dramatic, extremely close presidential contest between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the first TV debates, the best inaugural address ever delivered, the witty televised press conferences, the Peace Corps, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the space program with an outlandish goal of landing men on the moon, the trips to Berlin and Paris and Ireland, the elegance of the Kennedy White House.
These are the images that linger, the reality and the myth we still want to cling to. A river of blood on November 22nd washed away the sins the public learned about many years later. And every time we see an evocative image from that day of infamy, we think about how uplifted we once were, about the might-have-been’s and never-were’s. The paralyzing melancholy comes anew.
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As hard as it is to believe for the children of the mid-twentieth century, the nation has arrived at the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy years. This spring, the U.Va. Center for Politics will be announcing a new annual series of 50th anniversary programs and events that will commemorate the great themes, movements, and moments of JFK’s White House years and the decades that followed. We intend for the series to go on as long as there are golden anniversaries that can be instructive.
Fifty years is just about right for a true retrospective. Enough time has passed so that a fuller truth can be told. Some first-hand participants are still alive to add to recorded history. Older Americans will want to remember, partly for nostalgia, partly to put the headlines of their early life into proper perspective. Younger Americans will want to ask what these long ago headlines can teach us about the present and future. This last question is by far the most crucial, and the real goal of the series.
The Center for Politics plans to begin the Golden Anniversary series with a retrospective on the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaign and TV debates, in cooperation with the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Nixon Presidential Library. Details will be forthcoming in April.