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
So it has been 40 years—almost as long as he lived. John F. Kennedy was 46 when he was shot while sitting next to his wife, Jacqueline, in the back seat of a Lincoln Continental convertible on Elm Street in Dallas at noon. The president was visiting Texas to bolster his standing in the South. He was declared dead an hour later at ParklandMemorialHospital. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, aboard Air Force One at Dallas’ Love Field, was sworn in as the chief executive before flying to Washington. JFKwas the 35th president and the fourth to be assassinated. His 1,000 days in office constituted the seventh briefest term.
Shock, anger, sorrow—words hardly convey the cataclysm of November 22, 1963, and its aftermath. Lee Harvey Oswald, a 24-year-old admirer of Soviet Communism, fired a rifle from a window of the Texas School Book Depository building where he worked as a laborer. He was arrested later that day for assassinating the president, wounding Texas governor John Connally, who rode in the same car, and slaying a policeman. Two days later, Oswald was shot to death in a police station basement by nightclub owner Jack Ruby in front of news photographers and television cameramen, adding to the chaos and accentuating TV’s new eminence as a provider of shared experience. Then came the days of mourning for JFK. They are documented in an album of unforgotten images—the tens of thousands of people waiting to view the flag-draped coffin in the Capitol Rotunda, the riderless horse in the funeral cortege, the veiled widow and her saluting 3-year-old son, the eternal flame.
The blow was so devastating partly because, as New York Times reporter Tom Wicker put it at the time, JFK was the “herald of a new generation of American purpose.” Theodore Sorensen, the president’s special counsel, lamented the “incalculable loss of the future.” Yet the future arrived anyway, and Kennedy helped set in motion some of its more notable turns, such as civil rights legislation, the moon landing and the Vietnam War. His is a complex legacy that historians continue to weigh—his deft handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis balanced against the debacle of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and so on—particularly in the light of new information about his concealed health problems and extramarital affairs.
The assassination has resounded through the decades, causing Americans to wonder how the nation might be different had Kennedy lived. Where were you when it happened? If the question is threadbare, that’s only because people have long needed to ask it, not only to ameliorate the grief and dismay but also, more important, to navigate history. We recently asked a number of prominent Americans what they remember of JFK’s death and what they make of his legacy. Here, their responses.
78, BLUES ARTIST
The word was out there was a young senator who might become president. He was a handsome gentleman, and the ladies liked him. Usually when you’ve got the ladies on your side, it helps. I think he had most of the ladies on his side. But then he had a lot of the men too. The band and I were on the bus. We were just pulling up to the Persian Hotel in Chicago, Illinois. We were playing poker. We had the TV on—a local station.
We thought we’d lost everything. I hadn’t felt that way ever, the way he made me feel. Being a citizen, you love your country, and you love the president and you stand behind him, but when John F. Kennedy came in, you wanted to help. That’s what he made you feel like. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” My God, that stirred me up. The things he did in office made me love him forever. He made it possible for black kids to go to schools that had been closing the doors on them. It wasn’t always thinking in terms of politics. It wasn’t always the smartest thing to do, but it was the right thing to do.
He did more for black people than President Truman did. Knowing that, just thinking about it now, I almost cry again. He gave us confidence that the country loved us too. We felt like real citizens. He gave us a feeling to fight for our rights. I thought it would probably be like that for the rest of my life.
80, CHAIRMAN AND CEO OF VIACOM, THE ENTERTAINMENT CONGLOMERATE
I did know the president fairly well. At the time, I was president of the major trade organization in our industry, Theater Owners of America. It represented all the exhibitors in the United States. In the South, black people were being turned away at theaters. I have a telegram from him:May 28, 1963. I am meeting with a group of business leaders to discuss some aspects of the difficulties experienced by minority groups in many of our cities in securing employment and equal access to facilities and services generally available to the public. These subjects merit serious and immediate attention, and I would be pleased to have you attend the meeting to be held in the East Room of the White House. Please advise whether you will be able to attend. John F. Kennedy. He was always filled with energy. He was a fighter for things that weren’t as they should be.
I was walking down the street in Cincinnati. I was there to look at a location for a theater. Somebody stopped me. I was overwhelmed. I was crying. I remember it like it was this morning. All the credit that he has been given, all of the praise, I think is due him. . . . I’ve never felt that his private life was the way to judge him. We should judge a president by the way he performs as president.
64, MIAMI HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR
When he was shot, I was teaching government to seniors at MiamiEdisonHigh School. Some of these kids were 18, and I was 23. We’re tied together for eternity. I was standing in front of my fifth-period class and the announcement came over the intercom. Everyone was stunned and shocked.
There was such a sense of optimism in 1963. It spilled over. You were proud to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. The assassination was a terrible blow to our self-esteem, to our naiveté.
70, DUKE UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR, POET, PLAYWRIGHT, SCREENWRITER AND NOVELIST
I was walking on the DukeUniversity campus to teach my freshman English class, and I saw Josephine Humphreys, who’s become a wonderful novelist and was then a freshman. She was holding a small transistor radio up to her ear. I said, “Jo, what are you doing?” She said, “The president’s been shot.” We went up to the classroom, and the other 15 or so students were up there. We just sat there. The radio began playing the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony. Then Roger Mudd’s voice came on and said President Kennedy had died. We sat there stunned. I didn’t even possess a television. I raced over to another student of mine off-campus who had a rickety black-and-white TV. We sat there until 2 or 3 a.m. watching news. I was utterly horrified.
We know now the Oval Office is not a cathedral in terms of sanctity. The impression that everyone loved him is not true. He is now deified. Back then, he was likable. He had many skills and a good sense of humor. He acquired an awesome sense of self-possession during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was the single scariest event in my life.
60, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN UNDER RONALD REAGAN AND GEORGE H. W. BUSH
I was in college, KansasStateUniversity, a sophomore, and I was living at a fraternity house. I kind of remember someone shouting. When the assassination occurred, all of the brothers in the house gathered in the private apartment of our housemother and just sat around stunned, watching the events unfold. We stretched out on the floor. No one said anything. There was a great feeling of shattered emotions. We didn’t know what to make of it.
My reflection now is colored by the fact that I spent ten years in the White House with two presidents. I think of it in terms of Mack Kilduff, Kennedy’s deputy spokesperson, who had to tell the world Kennedy had just been killed. In the 1990s, when he was the editor of a small paper in Kentucky, he came out to a George Bush rally. I remember shaking his hand and realizing, My God, this is the fellow who had such an enormous impact on the nation when he announced Kennedy’s death. He seemed so human up against a memory that was larger than life.
66, FOLK SINGER AND MEMBER OF PETER PAUL & MARY
We did a concert on November 21 in Houston, and we were driving to Dallas on the 22nd to do a concert. We were in a rental car, and we heard it on the radio. We checked into a room to call the promoter and cancel the concert. We called the airlines and said, “What’s the first flight out of Dallas?” And she said, “To where?” And we said, “Anywhere.” Because we were firmly convinced Dallas was going to burn down. We ended up flying to L.A. and spending the week watching television there in a hotel.
His presidency was so short. It’s all supposition—what kind of president would he have been? Has his myth far outstripped the reality? Of course.
54, SCREENWRITER AND FILM DIRECTOR
I was in ninth grade, at Saint Augustin High School in San Diego. I was going to a Catholic school, so you can imagine how important Kennedy was to all of us. He showed a tremendous amount of grit during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but his main thing was the psychological factor. He made us believe in the future, in a better world, in the Peace Corps. He created a feeling of a future filled with hope at a time when we were coming out of a dark period of paranoia, of nuclear holocaust, of fear, the cold war.
I was sitting in the gym, and the coach came in. He had a little transistor radio in his ear, and he said the president had been shot. It was like this beautiful world of hope and youth had just come crashing down. We didn’t know that he was dead yet. The school stopped, and everybody was hanging on every word. When the news came that he had been killed, I wept.
What he did have was this vibe, this aura, the energy that anything was possible. I’ve carried with me that optimism. I constantly revisit it. Had he lived, I think the nation would have followed a completely different path.
64, FORMER WHITE HOUSE HISTORIAN
I was a senior at SouthwesternUniversity in Georgetown, Texas, about 30 miles north of Austin. I was taking a French exam. The proctor came in, and he looked so strange. I got home at 8:30 p.m., and I hadn’t seen a soul, and there was my newspaper, the Durham Times, an evening paper, and it said Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. It was so outrageous and horrible that this bright man was taken out like some bird in the field. I was at a friend’s house watching them transfer Lee Harvey Oswald and watched Jack Ruby shoot him, and it was as if the whole world was coming apart.
Kennedy was a wonderful political figure. He knew the system, and he interested the public and drew them to the presidency. Of course, they staged a lot of it, and Kennedy and his wife “featured” themselves. The Kennedy administration brought civil rights in as a means of saving themselves. They had not been committed to it for a long time. There was the semi-famous moment when he met with Martin Luther King Jr. at the White House. When King left, Kennedy said, “I didn’t know what to say to him.”
I can look beyond the assassination and see an administration with enormous ideas and enormous reach and a lack of study and planning to carry them out. I don’t think it was a time of great presidents. He was a good president. His death made him bigger than he was in life.
I never voted for the guy. I was only 13 when he got elected. I was a junior in high school when Kennedy got whacked. I was in the Waverly Theater on Green Mount Avenue in Baltimore watching Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon. I had a half-day of school. It was a Friday. I heard it on the way coming out of the movie. The ticket-taker said the president got shot. Then followed four days of nothing but a dead president. They didn’t even show the Colts play. He was the president of the United States, so I didn’t want him murdered. I wanted him to lose the next election. I mean, what did he accomplish? He has been canonized by the media, which I think is a bit unseemly. He was a handsome guy. He had great style. He meant well. It was Lyndon Johnson who got the civil rights movement rolling.He was a patriot and he put his life at risk in World War II, and that’s something to be admired, but I don’t see anything historically significant that he did other than the space program. For the space program, I’d buy him a beer.
ALAN K. SIMPSON
72, FORMER REPUBLICAN SENATOR FROM WYOMING
I’m a republican, so I wasn’t ready for too much Camelot. My dad, Milward L. Simpson, was elected to the Senate in 1962. I met the president and Jackie at the National Gallery of Art. I was with Mom and Pop. It was like meeting the king, the rock star, the superstar. And then Jacqueline came over. It didn’t matter what party you were in. They were impressive representatives of your country.
I was walking out on a beautiful day heading to Rotary Club here in Cody, Wyoming, and my friend Mel turned to me and said, “The president’s been shot.” I walked home. I returned to the bank where my office was, and Walter Cronkite was on TV. Then I walked home. My wife and our young kids were there. We learned he died, and we all cried. I said to my wife, “I’m overwhelmed. I’m going up the river to fish.” I needed to be alone, walk along the stream banks. I called my dad, and he said, “We’re all stunned. We’re watching the teletype in the Senate Cloak Room.”
What is appalling to this old cowboy is how a guy can be dead and they can reconstruct who he was. To see journalists come in and nose around. The guy is gone, and he can’t say things are out of context. What a country. There’ll never be a hero now. That’s a disgrace. The journalism profession ought to be nailed for that.
80, CREATOR AND LONGTIME EXECUTIVE PRODUCER OF CBS’S 60 MINUTES
I produced and directed the first televised political debate. It was between Kennedy and Nixon. That was the worst night that ever occurred in American politics. It’s the night politicians looked at television and said, “That’s the only way to run for office.” And television looked at politicians and saw a bottomless pit of advertising. From that night on, you can’t get to be an officeholder in America without buying television time, and that means you can’t run for office without promising favors to people who can put up the money for that television time.
I think about that more than the story of the makeup. Kennedy looked like Cary Grant on television. Nixon made the decision not to use the professional makeup artist. He looked like death warmed over. He was not feeling well, and when he got out of the car at the studio, he banged his leg and he was in pain. He didn’t realize how important this night was. He thought it was another campaign stop. Nixon spent the day talking to union workers. Kennedy spent the day resting and preparing.
I was in the CBS newsroom when [the shooting] broke on the wires, and I remember the president of CBSNews was away at lunch and they couldn’t find him, so I ordered everybody on the air. I called Frank Stanton, president of CBS. I remember the secretary said, “He’s in a very important meeting, and he asked not to be disturbed.” I said, “Tell him by the time the meeting’s over the president of the United States might be dead.” He got on the phone within minutes and said, “Stay on the air!” Walter Cronkite went on the air and stayed there for 36 hours. Americans that morning did not go to church. They went to their television sets. Walter Cronkite single-handedly calmed this country down after the assassination. We relieved him at his desk, and he went to his office and sat there with his head in his hands. He got a phone call from a woman who said, “You’ve got some nerve to cry over Jack Kennedy after the things you’ve said about him.” And Walt said to her, “Lady, you’re a goddamn fool,” and hung up.
76, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS UNDER PRESIDENT REAGAN
I was traveling with my husband in southern Spain the summer after Kennedy’s death, in the part of the country where they raise bulls. And there was a very pretty chambermaid who was scrubbing the floors on her knees after the children spilled something. The chambermaid asked where we were from, and I said, Washington. And she said, “Where Kennedy lived.” It was really quite touching. It was a very remote place, and she was a simple, poor and hardworking person for whom John Kennedy was a very important figure.
He wasn’t able to accomplish very much. He got killed too soon. I have no doubt that his legacy would have developed and become larger. Nobody confuses him with Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt. Those were presidents who were justly deified through history.
I have a longstanding and serious professional interest in the relationship between personality and performance in political leaders. The quality of the man is enormously important to his leadership. Does he have to be a virtuous man to be an effective leader? I think there’s a relationship, but it’s not simple. It matters that John Kennedy was a womanizer, but it doesn’t define his presidency.
81, FORMER SOUTH DAKOTA SENATOR, 1972 DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE
I first came to know him during a congressional battle to pass a labor reform bill in the late 1950s. He was a senator, and I was a congressman. His first executive order as president was to expand food assistance to the poor in the United States. He had seen the children of unemployed miners in West Virginia suffering from rickets and hunger and malnutrition. His second executive order was to create the Food for Peace office to deal with hunger and malnutrition, and he named me as director. It was the most immediately rewarding job I ever had.
I think he quickened pride and enthusiasm for the American political process and the operations of the government. He introduced a note of usefulness and energy.
The day he was shot, I was in the Senate. As I remember it, Ted Kennedy was presiding over the Senate, and I was sitting there listening, and Mike Mansfield, the majority leader, motioned for me to take over for Teddy. Mike Mansfield asked for unanimous consent to make an announcement that had nothing to do with the debate in process. He said the president had been shot—not killed, because he didn’t know that at the time. I trudged back to my office, and when I got back my secretary was just sobbing. He had been shot like an animal in the street. I knew when I saw my secretary he had died.
70, POETRY CRITIC AND PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH, HARVARDUNIVERSITY
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.
69, COMMANDER OF APOLLO 17 AND THE LAST MAN TO WALK ON THE MOON
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.
54, UNITED FARMWORKERS PRESIDENT
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.