FIFTY YEARS AGO: On November 22, 1963, I felt a dark cloud descend on the streets of Santa Barbara. Not just mourning for a dead president, but the stunning realization that America would never, could never, be the same.
A light had been snuffed out.
John F. Kennedy wasn’t just the president. He was a young, vigorous hope of the future. We had become a nation inspired by the shining idealism of his inaugural speech.
We would stand by any friend, defeat any foe, and reach out to the world’s poor. The New Frontier would be a beacon of democracy. We would send enthusiastic volunteers to villages around the globe through the Peace Corps to teach children to read and their elders better ways to feed their families. We would reach out to neglected Latin America through the Alliance for Progress.
A modern presidential era had dawned. Gone were the crusty Midwestern Harry Truman and golf-playing war general Dwight Eisenhower. Here was a Harvard man, with a beautiful wife and two lovely children, an author, war hero, someone who well knew the international world, could walk with kings and talk turkey to dictators. Kennedy enjoyed all the Camelot malarkey but knew it was far-fetched.
All did not go well during those 1,000 days of Kennedy’s presidency. He got suckered into the CIA’s Eisenhower-era Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion. But his cool head prevented a possible nuclear war with Russia during the Cuban missile crisis. No one then knew how close we came.
A conservative Congress thwarted his programs. The civil rights issue boiled up. Tough-talking Nikita Khrushchev battled him. He suffered from Addison’s disease and was in constant back pain and taking painkillers, little known to the public. But we didn’t have time to dwell on that as stunning word of Kennedy’s assassination came rattling over the Santa Barbara News-Press Teletypes from Dallas. We had to get to work, fast.
I saw brave men crying and pupils from Dolores Grammar School marching to Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church to pray.
My family reacted to the tragedy as did most; we were glued to the TV, witnesses to history via cathode-ray tube. We ran out to replace our old black-and-white set with a color model. In the four days from the day Kennedy was shot to the day of his funeral, 41.5 million TV sets in America were tuned in. My son Barclay, then 4, looked at the first picture that flashed on the new TV set and recalls that it showed the face “of the saddest man I’ve ever seen.” It was an anonymous American overwhelmed with despair, his world collapsing.
One shock followed another: Walter Cronkite announcing Kennedy’s death, then that miserable little squirt, Lee Harvey Oswald, arrested, then killed by another character in the unending drama, strip-joint owner Jack Ruby.
And then the heartbreaking funeral, with Jackie bravely walking the parade route, and the drums, the unending drums. It was a horrible time.
When the documentary John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums came out a year later, Barclay played the LP over and over, nearly driving me crazy with the incessant drumbeats.
Yet life struggled on. President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty and cranked up the war in Vietnam. We gradually came to see Kennedy’s presidency in a more critical light. Kennedy was a political rock star, bigger than life, and a high-risk womanizer.
It’s a mistake to judge presidents too soon. It takes decades of reevaluation, books by historians, diaries by former cabinet members, and documentaries.
Now that time has shed its harsh glare, will Kennedy go down in history as one of our greatest presidents? So far, no. Polls of historians and political scientists have consistently ranked George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt at the top.
Just below them come Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, then down a bit, Truman and Eisenhower.
Yet the relentless tide of history moves in and out. In his day, Truman was ridiculed. Eisenhower was seen as a do-nothing. Now they’ve moved up.
But Kennedy, his presidency cut short, remains farther down in the pack. What might Kennedy have accomplished if fate had not taken a tragic twist?
History is full of ifs. Wrote Richard M. Mosk, a member of the Warren Commission that investigated Kennedy’s assassination: “If Oswald’s estranged wife had not, on the night before Kennedy was shot, rejected her husband’s offer to reconcile and look for an apartment the next day, there would have been no assassination.”