This photo of the original JFK burial site is very similar to a photograph I took which was published in several newspapers in 1963. Efforts to retrieve the original were unsuccessful. I was a journalist based in NY from1958 to 1966, and covered the campaigns of Jack and Bobby Kennedy. I was in the newsroom when Kennedy was assassinated, and reported first hand on his funeral.
Crowded in with other reporters in the Capitol rotunda for the official ceremony of farewell on the following Sunday, we watched Jackie and Caroline approach the coffin, and collectively held our emotions in check when Jackie leaned forward to kiss her husband’s coffin. Jackie said goodbye, closing the door to what all of us considered Camelot but, those in attendance of a certain age realized she was saying farewell to our generation’s leader, the man who inspired so many of us to believe the promise he embodied, a belief that government could stop war, heal the sick, eradicate poverty and heal the racial wounds inherited from the previous century.
In 1953, I wrote a college paper on Jack Kennedy’s upset of Henry Cabot Lodge the previous November, a blue print of things to come. In 1958, I took my daughter with me to cover Jack Kennedy’s campaign speech at Marist College in Poughkeepsie; as he approached the steps to the platform, Kennedy took my daughter and, holding her up for all to see, declared what the 1960 campaign was really about was the future we would bequeath to our children. Very moving in a time when the world was entering the space age and worrying about thermonuclear holocaust. I wrote to him afterwards, enclosing some of my commentaries on the campaign, then in the primary stage. I had applied to Harvard graduate school; Kennedy who was on the board of visitors at Harvard commented favorably on my political assessments and said he would write a letter in my behalf. (Alas, I went to Georgetown instead).
Kennedy made campaign stops which junior reporters like me could only watch from the back ranks. (I did get closer at a Nixon rally; Tricky Dick was confused about which room was for a press conference, and which was to hob nob with Republican fat cats. Entering the wrong room, he began lambasting the press in rather ugly terms; TV was in its political infancy and the social media didn’t exist, so print reporters were integral to campaign success and Nixon’s people knew that the young generation of political reporters were pro Kennedy. Nixon did not apologize when he realized his error.
What most of us remember about the inaugural (other than the biting cold) were the inspirational themes, the focus on what people could do for their country, the willingness to fight any foe in the defense of freedom. If he had lived, the stare-down with the Soviets behind him and a nuclear test ban treaty in the works, I like to think that a second inaugural address would have focused more fully on civil rights; he did lay the capstone for the civil rights and voting rights acts which LBJ pushed through Congress in his memory. Kennedy was never more prescient than when he committed the USA to put a man on the moon, which in 1961 seemed technologically beyond our grasp.
For reporters like me, 1963 saw the burgeoning of the civil rights movement. Congress today reminds me of the Congress in 1963, when a recalcitrant unrepentant Southerner named Smith chaired the House rules committee and blocked all civil rights and voting rights bills. November 22 changed not just lives but the political landscape of America.
First, three bills sounded on the wire service tickers, then five bells which sounded the alarm that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot in a motorcade in Dallas, then that he was dead. For many Americans, the assassination was only confirmed when announced by Walter Cronkite.
By Saturday, I had reaffirmed my White House press credentials, and upon arrival Sunday at the West Wing, confirmed that I would have a pass admitting me to the rotunda.
Beyond the profound farewell by Jacqueline Kennedy, the signal moment for all the press corps in the rotunda, who did not have cell phones in that day, was the rapid fire news that Oswald had been killed. Some of the nation’s leading journalists did not have access to reporting outlets; every one had the same initial reaction: now, we will never know for an absolute certainty that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin, or, why this loner, so unaccomplished in life, would snuff a life of unparalleled promise.
Most journalists were camped together across the street from St Matthews; knowing the significance of the world’s leaders assembled to honor the young American president, their thoughts overshadowed by a little boy in blue saluting his father’s casket. The solemnity was overwhelming.
I resolved then to let time elapse, time to coalesce my observations of Kennedy over thirteen years. I went back to Arlington in the spring, before today’s memorial was created, and sat on the grass outside the white picket fence in the photograph above, took a similar photograph, and then poured my emotions into a portable typewriter, then sending film and copy by messenger to New York.
Kennedy did not live to see the fruits from the seeds he sowed, the civil and voting rights acts which Bobby heavily favored, or see an end to war in Viet Nam which Bobby so vociferously opposed. Given the harsh lessons taught by the Bay of Pigs, I do not believe JFK would have accelerated or expanded that war. JFK was not a perfect man or perfect husband but his faults were overwhelmingly outweighed by the steps he initiated to help American achieve those goals. In the words quoted so often by both Kennedys, Jack saw things others did not, and asked why not. That vision lay at the heart of his desire to send Americans into space. I stood on the Berlin Wall and staring at land where my great-grandfather had lived, wondered if the two halves of Germany could ever be one again. But, JFK had a vision of national unity when he declared “Ich bin ein Berliner,” alerting the Soviet Union of America’s support.
The article, which drew a complimentary note from Jackie, concluded, “We are a better people because he passed our way.”
I have twice visited the Texas School Book Depository, knelt at the same window from which Oswald fired three shots, drew a bead on a car headed down the Stemmons Freeway, and reaffirmed my belief Oswald acted alone. For a marksman, the shooting was a relatively simple task. Despite the passage of years, I never pass through Dallas, even the airport, without thinking about the death of Jack Kennedy, and all the improbables which contributed to the assassination. RFH
Sidebar: The iconic photo in the rotunda was taken by Scoot Lanwar of Life, using a fisheye lens; no one was allowed to climb up there, and we thought surely the Secret Service would make him come down. But he was well ensconced long before LBJ arrived, and it is just possible the agents did not know he was there.
Sidebar: the Boeing 707 which was Air Force One for Kennedy is at the Boeing museum in Seattle. Touring it a few years ago brought back many memories.