Where were you on that fateful day in November?

It’s a question everyone is asking: Where were you when President John F. Kennedy was shot fifty years ago this day in November? (The AP photo on the left shows Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson leaving Fort Worth Texas for Dallas on that fateful day.)
Nothing dramatic in my case. I was in an economics class in my sophomore year at Villanova University on Philadelphia’s Main Line, trying to understand the Keynesian way of the world, when our professor was called to the door by a fellow teacher.
He came back to his desk, shaken, and said: “I’ve just been told President Kennedy has been shot. The class is over.” We all looked at each other in astonishment, and most of us headed for the Pie Shoppe, the cafeteria in Dougherty Hall, the student centre. On the way, I ran into my English teacher, usually a gregarious fellow, and asked if he was having a class that Friday afternoon. Distracted, he said: “No, there won’t be any classes for a while.” He was right.
The Pie Shoppe had a TV mounted to the wall, and it was crowded with students, professors and staff. It was 2.30pm in Philadelphia, 1.30pm in Dallas, when the famous news presenter, Walter Cronkite, took off his glasses, and with tears in his eyes said: “President Kennedy died at 1pm Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 30 minutes ago.” He put his glasses back on and choked back the tears. It’s a moment no American will forget. http://bit.ly/1c7HTMU
The rest of the weekend was a blur. Commercials were dropped on US television and we were all glued to our sets with teary eyes. Another moment I won’t forget took place two days later on Sunday morning November 24, when the President’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot by Jack Ruby, live on television. It was the first time I saw anyone shot, and no one was home – they were all at church. Catholic Church, of course, since this was Philadelphia.
At the time, it was one of the most Catholic cities in the country. You didn’t come from a particular section of the city, but from parishes. When someone asked where you were from, the answer was: “MBS (Most Blessed Sacrament), Transfig (Transfiguration), De Sales (St Francis de Sales), Good Shepherd,” to name just a few. Just about every house I ever entered in the early sixties (and most since) had a picture of John F. Kennedy on the wall, or on the mantelpiece, a porcelain plate or cup or medallion, before the assassination, celebrating his election as president. After his death, the photos and memorabilia multiplied, with his dates of birth and death added to the souvenir. I grew up in an Irish Catholic neighbourhood, and JFK was one of us.
We all remembered what they – meaning the Republicans and non-Catholics – had done to Al Smith, the four-time Governor of New York, who ran as the Democratic presidential candidate against Herbert Hoover in 1928. We were taught by our parents and teachers – in the latter case for me, nuns and Christian brothers – that the Protestants and big business were afraid that Smith would be under the thumb of the Roman Catholic Church, and ran an anti-Catholic campaign. There were enough people who believed the Pope would rule to vote against Smith, and for Herbert Hoover, the eventual winner. When his Catholicism became an issue in the 1960 campaign, John Kennedy took it on, telling a meeting of Houston Ministers: “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters — and the Church does not speak for me.”
So the Kennedy campaign was living history for me, and when Brother Leo gave us an assignment to watch the debates between Senator John F Kennedy and Vice-President Richard Nixon in 1960, and decide who won, it was a labour of love. Nixon was a figure of hate in the Krause household, and he looked a bit like the criminal he was later to become (“I am not a crook”), with his 5 o’clock shadow and bad makeup, against the handsome, smiling Kennedy, who also had a sense of humour. He would have won the debates on looks alone, but he also had been prepared by some of the best and brightest political minds in the country, like Ted Sorenson, his lawyer, adviser and speechwriter. And the best line about Nixon in the debates came from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who helped Kennedy win the election in Cook County (some say illegally): “My God! They’ve embalmed him before he even died.” That quote came from the definitive biography of JFK by Robert Dallek: John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life 1917-1963.
Okay, you say, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was good-looking, charming, witty, and a historian, but he was also a womaniser and hid his medical history, and all his ailments, from the public and a forgiving media. But what about his legacy?
Well, John Kennedy was as inspiring as Richard Nixon was insincere. In an interview with Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National Breakfast this week, the respected Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne said Kennedy’s “greatness lay in the inspiration he left behind.”( http://ab.co/1h6cJeC ) He inspired people in my generation to join the Peace Corps (I applied and was accepted, but it wasn’t a draft deferment, so I chose to teach in Harlem): “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” If Richard Nixon had asked me the same thing, I would have replied: “What you can do for your country is resign.” Thank God he did it without me having to tell him to do it! I’d agree with EJ that Kennedy wasn’t as great as Washington or Lincoln or even Reagan (though Reagan had two terms and JFK only had a thousand days), but I would agree with Kurt Campbell, the former Assistant US Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, also quoted in the same interview on RN Breakfast this week, who said Kennedy “is the defining image of modern American political life.”
Kurt Campbell said he remembered seeing his mother crying while ironing on the day of the assassination, and EJ Dionne said he was in the seventh grade at St Matthew’s primary school at Fall River, Massachusetts, when the nun came in and told the students to get down on their knees and pray because President Kennedy had been shot. There were rivers of tears in America the day the President was killed.
EJ Dionne also recommended Robert Dallek’s 2003 biography of the President as a “great fair-minded look at Kennedy.” In fact, it’s such a great book, I’d like to leave you with the last words of Dallek’s epilogue about JFK’s legacy: “ … it must be acknowledged that the Kennedy thousand days spoke to the country’s better angels, inspired visions of a less divisive nation and world, and demonstrated that America was still the last best hope of mankind.”

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