It was 50 years ago. If you are old enough, you probably remember where you were when you heard the news. It was a total shock from out of the blue. For many it was kind of like a punch in the stomach. You didn’t have to be American to have the feeling of emptiness and futility. There were other things that might have frightened many back then including the threat of nuclear war but not much ever came of that. The JFK assassination was real, too real really. How could this happen? Where did it happen? Many of us had no idea that JFK was in Texas and if we did we thought it was just the president visiting one of the US states with his pretty wife.
Just as most people in the US were unaware of FDR’s crippling affliction most people knew very little about JFK’s private life and his affairs with a number of women. The media back then mostly stayed away from political gossip and what politicians did away from politics unless it involved some criminal activity. There were some that were aware that JFK’s father was pulling the political strings behind the scenes and that brother Bobby had done a lot of arm twisting in getting JFK elected. Little was ever mentioned about Bobby’s connection to Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s.
We watched the presidential debates between Nixon and JFK in 1960 and JFK was clearly more photogenic and looked younger than his opponent. It wasn’t as if either debater beat each other up. The sweat over Nixon’s lip made him look a bit nervous. Out on the campaign trail America and the world got to see a lot of Kennedy’s pretty wife Jacqueline. Was it time for America’s first Catholic president?
The election of 1960 was pretty close with about 100,000 more American voting for JFK than Nixon. JFK took many of the key states. The electoral count ended up 303 to 219 in favour of JFK and the Democrats. Over 34 million voted for each candidate. Many on Nixon’s side were not too fussy about there being a Catholic president and during the campaign Kennedy addressed that by saying his personal religious beliefs would not affect his political judgements. That wasn’t enough for some.
America had been used to older white presidents but there was a certain amount of weariness about the same old status quo. A number of Americans realized that a number of things were going to have to change including the Jim Crow laws in the US South.
It may sound odd but I believe popular music was a part of the changes. In the conservative 1950s sex was pretty well taboo as far as being openly discussed and rock and roll was considered to be kind of evil and a bad influence on America’s youth by some. Slowly a number of parents started to realize that rock and roll wasn’t all that bad and they were getting tired of old men telling them that it was.
Times were pretty good economically and with a steady upward mobility occurring in the US a lot of Americans started to think about making the country a better place for all. In the late 50’s and early 60s more and more families could afford to send their kids off to college. Folk music was becoming more and more popular and the lyrics often spoke of fairness to people who had been abused by the system.
Kennedy gave a speech that included the words “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The Peace Corps was formed and a number of young Americans went to countries in Africa and Asia to assist with agriculture, education, and things like irrigation.
Many American parents at the time could identify with JFK, a number of them had participated in WW2 as he had or lost love ones in that war as he had. JFK was the first US president to have young children in the White House which many housewives could identify with. As a couple, the president and his wife appeared to be Hollywood perfect.
There was also the hip or hep aspect. Kennedy had pals in the entertainment business like Frank Sinatra. Sinatra’s music was sexy at the time and cool. Many Americans were blown away by the images of Kennedy family. What other president had had touch football games on the White House lawn?
It was as if the US had its own royalty. This wasn’t Ike and Amy, Harry and Bess, or FDR and Eleanor. These were two stars that magazines and newspapers couldn’t get enough of.
During JFK’s almost 3 years as president most Americans were unaware of what was happening in Viet Nam nor had they heard of the “Domino Theory”. Kennedy’s time in office as far as foreign threats were concerned was mostly about the Cold War and the Soviet Union. He blocked the Soviets from having missiles in Cuba but also had to agree to withdraw US missiles from Turkey which many Americans never knew about. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world has ever come to a nuclear war. There was a worldwide tenseness in 1962 for a few days before the matter was resolved. The Bay of Pigs assault in Cuba a year before was a total fiasco and left Kennedy with egg on his face and some doubting whether or not he was capable of standing up to the Soviets. The outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis erased some of those doubts.
So what was Kennedy doing in Dallas that fateful day? The common opinion is that it was thought that he and his wife and their charm could win over southern Evangelicals who were still hesitant to vote for a Catholic president. The general election of 1964 was just a year away and some of Kennedy’s backers thought the trip to Texas could be prep work.
I never bought into any of the Kennedy assassination theories. I have always thought that Oswald was the lone gunman. Recently PBS did a documentary using updated ballistics that show that one bullet could indeed do more damage than theorists have believed. If there is one question I have it is how Jack Ruby managed to get so close to Oswald and how he ever got into the building when security should have been at a maximum.
Oswald was a despicable little guy and he wasn’t the first or last of people with misguided hatreds that would go to extremes including murder. He did, however, change the course of history dramatically. LBJ would probably never have become president had Kennedy not died. In all likelihood JFK would have been re-elected in 1964 by a wide margin.
Although Kennedy had compassion for civil rights it wasn’t likely that he would be presenting any major bills on the subject before a second term in office. Racist or not, and a lot of southern Democrats were at the time, Kennedy needed these people to get re-elected. After LBJ became president the racial stuff became very evident when he passed The Civil Rights Act in 1964 and many southern Democrats switched to being Republicans, the same party that many southerners had hated because Lincoln was the Republican president during The American Civil War.
LBJ had his faults but he changed a lot of things in America including implementing Medicare and Medicaid. His “Great Society” legislation included laws upholding environmental protections, a war on poverty, and aid to education. He appointed the first black man to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately he also escalated American troops in Viet Nam. It is hard to say if many of the good things that LBJ brought about would have happened if Kennedy had not died.
Many of us remember John Jr. saluting at JFK’s funeral. None of us back then could have imagined that John Jr.’s life would be so short or that Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy would both also be assassinated 5 years after JFK’s assassination.
The tragedy of JFK’s death hit people all around the world hard. Christmas was just a bit over a month after his death and adults and young people who understood what had happened had to pull things together for one of the biggest family days of the year. New Year’s Eve came and went and my guess is that many wondered what the future really held in what seemed like a crazy world at the time.
My own personal belief is that a lot of people were in a funk at the beginning of 1964 and something that got people back to thinking ahead and about things they could be positive about was the arrival of the Beatles in February of 1964 followed by the British Invasion. The Beatles weren’t about deep messages at the time and many seemed to be ready to ride with the music and have fun once again.
In the mid-1990s I spent a few days in Dallas on a free trip one of my suppliers provided. We stayed at a hotel that marched ducks through the lobby once or twice a day. There was a reception at the local aquarium and we spent an evening out at the South Forks ranch where the TV series Dallas was shot for the exteriors. Martina McBride was the entertainment and line dancing lessons were available for those that were interested.
Dallas had a lot of skyscrapers. It struck me that I hardly saw any pedestrians out and around the downtown core in the daytime. Perhaps it was just too hot. I found my way to the Dealey Plaza and the grassy knoll where JFK was shot. The area is close to the Dallas train yards. There really wasn’t much to see other than a divided road that leads to an underpass.
I went over to the Texas School Book Depository close by where Oswald fired the fatal shots from a top floor window. There was an admission fee if you wanted to see the room where Oswald stood with his $12.00 1940 Italian rifle. On the ground floor there was a souvenir shop that among other tacky things sold plastic shopping bags with Jaqueline Kennedy’s picture on them. My guess is that they might have been using this kind of commerce for the upkeep of the building. It still seemed kind of sleazy to me. Mind you, there is a gift shop at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France too.
I don’t think that JFK was a great president (FDR was) but I do think he has a legacy of inspiring a great number of people. His life remains a picture only partly painted.
I found out about the assassination at about 3:15 p.m. after school. I will never forget Walter Cronkite on TV announcing with a trembling voice after taking off his glasses that John Kennedy was dead.