It’s been a long and rich day for me, complete with two church services, two voice lessons, a birthday party for our niece Lorelai, a concert at Holy Communion, and a rehearsal with Musici Amici . . . but instead of heading upstairs to bed, which is where I really should be, I find myself camped out in front of the television, watching an amazing documentary about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which happened 46 years ago today – the third documentary on the assassination which I have watched this weekend. I have known all of the central, essential facts about this shocking tragedy for many many years – and yet I find myself compelled to learn still more about what transpired in Dallas- what it felt like to witness something so awful and shocking- and how the media sought to cover these bewildering events.
By the way, I was only three years old at the time, so I obviously have no first-hand memories whatsoever of the day in question. But one thing which gives me an odd sense of connectedness to the tragedy is that my mom actually met J.F.K. when he campaigned in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1960 (the year I was born.) As she liked to describe it, candidate Kennedy apparently walked past my mother and said something to the effect “how are you today, young lady” to which my mother ecstatically replied “I’ll vote for you!!! I’l vote for you!!!” Somehow the fact that my own mother shook hands with John F. Kennedy makes him seem much less like a remote figure of distant history and more like someone who is part of my own life. And somehow that makes the matter of his assassination one of acute interest to me.
Some random thoughts after watching these documentaries:
*It is so intriguing to watch the footage of Kennedy and his wife arriving in Dallas early that morning – both looking absolutely radiant – and of course, neither of them having the slightest idea that unspeakable horror and tragedy were about to befall them.
*Journalist Jane Pauley – in a special called “JFK:Breaking the News” pointed out that even though there were dozens of journalists in the motorcade, not a single professional photographer on the scene managed to capture any clear image of the actual assassination. The only worthwhile photographs and video of the shooting itself were done by amateurs on the scene. . . including the 26 seconds of film shot by a dry cleaner named Alexander Zapruder.
* In that same special, I saw film shot of the Dallas Trade Mart where J.F.K. was to have given a speech later that day. There were all kind of people on hand who became increasingly troubled by delay in Kennedy’s arrival, until finally the awful news began to slowly circulate amongst those gathered. (This was many years before cell phones, so people only got information by crowding around a couple of transistor radio.) And eventually as it becomes clear that President Kennedy will not be coming to make his speech after all, someone on the staff of the Trade Mart begins to remove the Presidential Seal from the podium from which Kennedy would have spoken. There was something so stark and poignant about the sight of that.
*Nowadays the whole civilized world (or just about) knows the name Lee Harvey Oswald. . . so it is so odd to think of a time when this was a completely unknown name. In fact, in one of these specials you hear at one point a recorded voice mentioning something about the arrest of a certain Lee Henry Oswald. Now, of course, that name is burned into our social consciousness.
* As someone in the media, I am especially appreciative of the exemplary work done by a plethora of journalists in the swirling chaos of the day. . . and what is especially moving is that moment when Walter Cronkite announces to his audience that President Kennedy had died 38 minutes earlier- news which leaves him shaken and heartbroken yet needing to go on, and which he just barely manages to do. And someplace in my vast video collection, I have a copy of a interesting special called JFK’s Assassination: As It Happened which re-telecast the first few hours of NBC’s live coverage that day. This was of course well before the day of the internet, when so much information can be discovered and shared within moments. These television journalists had to fill up all those hours of coverage with almost none of that sort of information available to them and it’s incredible what good work was done under such trying circumstances. And special mention must be made of CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite. For as many times as I have watched the footage announcing that JFK had died, I still find myself powerfully moved by the moment – and wonder what it felt like for Cronkite at that moment to be seen by his viewing audience teetering on the brink of completely losing his composure. I so admire the courage with which he fought off those tears and managed to do his work.
*In one of the specials which showed LBJ giving his first official remarks to the public, on the air field back in Washington D.C., the point is made that Johnson was speaking as president not only to reassure the American people and our allies that a new leader was in place and ready to lead. . . but just as importantly, LBJ was sending a very strong message to our enemies abroad that even in the wake of such chaos, America was not without a leader.
One more thing: As I watch these programs and sense the pain our country experienced, it angers me to no end that there are people around who so vehemently dislike Obama that they are happy to fantasize what it would be like for him to be cut down by an assassin’s bullet. Like him or hate him, he is the president of the United States- duly and rightfully elected to the office he holds- and I almost feel like there should be a law against even joking about killing the president in the same way that there are now laws on the books which forbid people from cracking jokes in airports about highjacking. Some things are simply not fair game for laughter, and I would say that the matter of the assassination of our president is on that list. To those twisted souls who would make such a joke, I say Shame On You. . . you don’t deserve to live in this country or to enjoy the fruits of its bounty.
pictured above: CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite is in the midst of announcing that President Kennedy has died.