Those of us of a certain generation remember vividly where we were when we first heard that the president, John F. Kennedy, had been shot. We did not understand what we had heard at first, but after we found a radio, we listened to Walter Cronkite telling us that our president was dead, slain by an assassin’s bullet during a motorcade in Dallas.
This year we observed the 40th anniversary of that terrible day, Nov. 22, 1963, and the weekend that followed. Journalists who as young reporters covered the events at Parkside General Hospital and in the Dallas Police Station, now white-haired veterans, commented on extraordinary images of Lee Harvey Oswald’s capture, his brief exchanges with reporters and the sudden appearance of Jack Ruby. We watched again as Lyndon Baines Johnson took the oath of office with Jacqueline Kennedy at his side, her suit still stained with the blood of her slain husband.
Television, which had played a pioneering role in John F. Kennedy’s ascension to the presidency, on that weekend united the nation and the world in a moment of mourning. Robert Pollock, Fordham University’s legendary professor of philosophy, told his graduate class that for the first time in history the peoples of the world were united in a “brotherhood of tears.”
We could not know it 40 years ago, but that weekend marked the loss of American innocence and the beginning of the downward spiral of the 1960’s. Other assassinations followed: Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy. The war in Vietnam, first seen as a response to the young president’s brave invitation to “bear any burden” in defense of freedom, became a tragic trap that divided the nation.
Student protests led to the bloody confrontation at Kent State University and acts of mindless violence on other campuses. A decade that had begun in hope ended in suspicion and fear, and a poisoned political climate led to the betrayal of Watergate.
In the years that followed, revelations about the president’s personal life and episodes involving younger members of the Kennedy clan inevitably tempered our view of Camelot, the image that 40 years ago was supposed to capture the spirit of the Kennedy presidency. We know now that the sun did not always shine on Camelot. Still, the sudden end of the young president’s life meant that we would have to live with unanswered questions about what might have been and the sadness of promise unfulfilled.
Forty years and eight presidents later, memory can deceive; but have any of his successors, Democrats or Republicans, approached John F. Kennedy’s mastery of the press conference as a favored form of presidential communication with the American people? Watching a Kennedy press conference was entertaining as well as instructive.
Over the past four decades, of course, a new industry has created the professional political consultants who rely on polls and focus groups to craft the candidate’s response and then exercise vigilant control to keep the candidate “on message.” If his advisers insist on protecting the president from the press, it is difficult for the president to engage the press, much less to entertain as well as instruct an attentive citizenry.
Are my recollections of the Kennedy press conferences simply an exercise in nostalgia, the indulgence of advanced age? A more troubling question: were his exchanges with the Washington press corps simply a triumph of style over substance, more wit than wisdom? Perhaps. But it’s hard for me to believe that our political culture is healthier today, when fund-raisers rather than press conferences are the most important events on a president’s schedule.
The decade of the 1960’s began in hope. In the summer of 1961, I was ordained to the priesthood, John F. Kennedy was in the White House, Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, and all things seemed possible. Forty years after that terrible Friday of Nov. 22, 1963, hope prevails, a bit wiser perhaps.