The President's Been Shot

Forty years ago, the assassination of JFK stunned Americans, who vividly recall the day even as they grapple with his complex legacy

President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally ride through the streets of Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, the day of Kennedy’s assassination. (© CORBIS)

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The day Kennedy was shot I was teaching at Swarthmore, but I was driving to TempleUniversity for a lecture by Harold Bloom when I heard it on the radio. I was on the streets of Philadelphia. What I do recall, which was extraordinary, was between the time I entered Temple University and by the time I left, flags had manifested themselves on every building around Temple. Everything was festooned with flags. It’s only 40 years since he died, and it usually takes longer than that for an actual picture of a historical person to emerge, but I do think having a Catholic president elected did change the “electable ethnicities.” I don’t vote. Never. I remember the charm of those pictures of him with his children. It was nice to have a young family in view, so to speak. They were such a handsome family.


I was a young naval aviator in San Diego, and I had just returned from flying jet aircraft off aircraft carriers in the western Pacific. I had been selected to join the Gemini and Apollo programs at the end of October in 1963. Within a month, he was assassinated. We wondered what would become of the space program. He had challenged us to reach out farther than we had reached before, and suddenly he was gone. Would anyone pick up that gauntlet? His challenge to send Americans to the moon—I always wondered whether he was a dreamer, a visionary or politically astute. He was probably all three. He had the political moxie to find something that all Americans could rally around. I think that’s his biggest legacy—the Apollo program.


We were in the playground. I was 13. I was in a Catholic school, and the sisters came to us. It was in San Antonio, Texas. We said prayers and went home, and the whole family was glued to the TV. When you walk into Latino homes today, you’ll see three things on the wall: Cesar Chavez or something from the United Farmworkers Union. You’ll see the Virgin of Guadalupe. And you’ll see pictures of John F. Kennedy or Robert F. Kennedy. They’re still held in high regard. They had interest in poor people and their issues, even though they came from wealth and had no real reasons to pay attention to us.


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