Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot.
Forty-nine years ago on this day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas by a former US Marine sniper Lee Harvey Oswald – shots heard around the world.
For those of you not around at the time, the Kennedy presidency was considered Camelot by many including JFK himself, who used to recite the lines above from the Broadway musical about the days of King Arthur, based on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, the retelling of the Arthurian fantasy saga.
His widow, Jackie Kennedy, told White, a few days after the assassination, that other great presidents would be elected, “but there’ll never be another Camelot again.” If you want to read more on the Kennedy and Camelot legend, I’d recommend William Manchester’s One Brief Shining Moment (Little, Brown), which remembers JFK on the 20th anniversary of his death.
I have remembered John Fitzgerald Kennedy every November 22 since then, and today was no different, although next year, there’s likely to be a media frenzy of nostalgia on the 50th anniversary. The conspiracy theories will get a mention: prominent among them, Anthony Summers’ book, Who Killed President Kennedy and the Oliver Stone movie, JFK, based on the views of former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison. The Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone as did Jack Ruby when he shot and killed Oswald a few days later.
My most vivid memory of that awful weekend was the live broadcast of the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being led to an armoured vehicle in Dallas police headquarters for transport to the county jail. Looking like your typical Mafia gangster, Jack Ruby stepped up and shot him amid a crowd of police and media, and I remember shouting out to my mother and father in the next room: “You won’t believe this. A guy just shot Lee Harvey Oswald – live on television.” That black and white shot was repeated endlessly for the rest of the day – it was Sunday, November 24 at 12.21pm US Eastern Standard Time – and the rest of the week.
Of course, I also remember when I first heard the news. It was a Friday afternoon around 12.30 (EST), and I was in an economics class at Villanova University, outside Philadelphia. A fellow teacher came in to whisper something to our professor – a very unusual occurrence. Then he told us: “President Kennedy’s been shot. All classes are suspended,” and he got up, obviously shaken, and left the room.
Most of us went to the university cafeteria, called the Pie Shoppe, and watched the coverage on television, until Walter Cronkite took off his glasses and made the announcement: “President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.” He then glanced up at the clock and said: “2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”Cronkite, ever the professional, fought back the tears and continued to read the report. There was a collective gasp in the cafeteria, and tears flowed among the students, faculty and staff.
The rest of the weekend is a bit of a blur. I know, like many others, I watched television a lot, but in some cases the TV networks were doing voiceovers, then going to the studio when the cameras were warmed up, and then, believe it or not, going back to normal programming and commercials. These, of course, were the days before 24-hour news channels and rolling coverage.
But the live assassination of Oswald and the memorial services, with highlights of the three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jnr, saluting his father’s coffin; the images of a profoundly sad Jackie, and the lighting of the Eternal Flame at JFK’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery by Jackie and his brother Robert Kennedy, still remain vivid in my memory.
So why do I still remember JFK on this day? I guess it’s a combination of Camelot and the Kennedy family legacy. In just about every Catholic home I visited in Philadelphia in the early sixties, there was a plate or a cup or a medallion with John F. Kennedy’s face on it. Sometimes it had the Irish blessing on it: “May the road rise up to meet you/May the wind be always at your back … And until we meet again,/May God hold you in the palm of His hand.” Or in most cases, it simply said: “John Fitzgerald Kennedy May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963”
THE WIT OF KENNEDY
After eight years of Eisenhower and Nixon, Kennedy was like a breath of fresh air. A young, handsome lover of the arts, an author (Profiles in Courage) well versed in foreign policy, with a picture-perfect family that included the Hollywood star, Peter Lawford, John Kennedy was almost too good to be true. And not only that, he also had a wonderful sense of humour.
I remember watching snippets from his press conferences, and he was not only funny, but quick as an ad libber. This from a conference where he was asked about the press treatment of his administration in May 1962: “Well, I’m reading more and enjoying it less.” (The quotes are from my well-worn paperback copy of The Kennedy Wit by Bill Adler, 1964). Or this from a July 1963 presser: Question: “The Republican National Committee recently adopted a resolution saying you were pretty much of a failure. How do you feel about that?” President Kennedy: “I assume it passed unanimously.”
One of my favourites is his quip to a group of Nobel Prize winners at a White House dinner in 1962: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together here at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. “
And here’s a witticism Tony Abbott might be able to use if he ever becomes Prime Minister. This time it was at a dinner honouring JFK’s 44th birthday in May 1961: “When we got into office, the thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we’d been saying they were.”
JFK wasn’t perfect. There were rumours of his affairs with a number of women while he was in the White House, including Marilyn Monroe, Judith Exner, linked to Frank Sinatra and a Chicago mob figure, Sam Giancana, and two young staff aides, known as Fiddle and Faddle, who nearly got caught in the swimming pool with JFK by Jackie.
But Kennedy stared down the Russians during those Cold War days – over Berlin in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963 (I remember waiting for World War Three to break out in an earlier economics class with the same professor); launched the Peace Corps; took on the Deep South over civil rights; and welcomed Martin Luther King Jnr to the White House after his “I have a dream speech,” by saying: “I have a dream – the same dream.” They loved him and Jackie overseas, particularly in Paris and Germany, where he proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner” in the shadow of the Berlin Wall.
And while Vietnam was one of his failures, Kennedy refused to send combat units there, and his Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, claimed JFK was considering withdrawing from Vietnam after the 1964 election. We’ll never know.
After the assassination, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson became president and was re-elected in 1964. Vietnam killed off his prospects of a second term, but he did declare a War on Poverty and signed the Civil Rights Bill.
Kennedy’s legacy has always loomed large to those of us who lived through those Camelot years, then LBJ, six long years of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Jimmy Carter’s one term, the Reagan years, George H.W. Bush, the highlights of the Clinton years, and a long, long eight years of George W. Bush. Barack Obama’s presidency is a work in progress, still promising high hopes.
JFK’s presidency began with one of the great political speeches in history, using Lincoln-like rhetoric at his 1961 inauguration: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed …”
It’s been more than 50 years since I first heard that speech on a cold, sunny day in January in Washington where the President had also invited one of America’s greatest poets, Robert Frost, to read a poem. Fancy that, I thought, the president invited a poet to his inauguration. The 87-year-old Frost was afraid he couldn’t read his new poem, Dedication, in the bright sunlight, so he recited from memory, The Gift Outright, which begins: “This land was ours before we were the land’s.”
And I can still remember these words often repeated during JFK’s presidency and the years since. A ringing endorsement of America’s compassion: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”