by Tom Brokaw
November 22, 1963—a day that began with John Fitzgerald Kennedy making a short flight from Fort Worth to Dallas for a motorcade designed to take the young president through the streets and into the hearts of Texas voters. It was a momentous event for Lone Star State politics, but for most Americans it was just another late autumn day.
The wife of a doomed policeman was fetching a sick child from school. A young shoe store manager had no idea what lay in wait for him later that day. A future president was tending to his peanut farm. One of his successors had just finished a high school class. A future vice president was standing on the steps of his college library. A big-city preacher was meeting with folks in a country church. A Georgetown student was looking forward to playing the piano for the president when he returned to Washington, DC, that evening. A future movie star was attending his second-grade art class.
An ordinary day—until suddenly first radio and then television broadcast a staccato message from Merriman Smith, the legendary UPI wire service correspondent covering the president’s trip:
THREE SHOTS WERE FIRED AT PRESIDENT
KENNEDY’S MOTORCADE IN DOWNTOWN DALLAS . . .
KENNEDY SERIOUSLY WOUNDED
PERHAPS FATALLY BY ASSASSINS BULLET.
The three years that Jacqueline Kennedy later called Camelot came to a terrible, shocking end that sent the country into a spiral of grief and bewilderment, a national mourning at once majestic and haunting in its reminder of our crushing loss.
I was in an Omaha newsroom, having finished my chores as morning news editor for an NBC affiliate. I was twenty-three, married just a year, and hoping one day to become a Washington reporter. Kennedy was my kind of president: young, stylish, witty, with a glamorous wife and celebrity friends who included both astronauts and movie stars. Like many of my generation, I saw him as a welcome change from the grandfatherly figures of Eisenhower and Truman. He sailed and played touch football, shunned fedoras and double-breasted suits.
When I read those first alarming bulletins, running to get them on the air, I was roiled by conflicting emotions: My God, who would do this? Shooting a president? In America? As I raced out to the nearby headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, a Cold War nerve center, to check its status, extra heavy security turned me away at the gate. I remember thinking, What now? This is going to be a different country. The innocence of my ’50s, Midwest upbringing shattered.
The Midwestern governors were meeting in Omaha, and I interviewed the best known of them, George Romney of Michigan, a man with his own presidential aspirations, but that day he was another grieving citizen. I later described to his son Mitt how his father comforted my cameraman. In Nebraska, a conservative state, there were other issues to deal with, notably: Would the University of Nebraska play its biggest rival, the University of Oklahoma, in Lincoln the following day? The game went on, as did others across the country, and as a reporter in the stadium, I remember that the cheering Nebraska fans offered a raucous contrast to the solemnity everywhere else.
We were suddenly a different people, and for those who lived through the news from Dallas and the mourning that followed, we were bound first by the common experience of sharing our grief and the rituals of transferring power as it all played out on network television. Half a century later, future presidents, astronauts, students, doctors who received the president’s shattered body, journalists, historians, and even Russian spies remember exactly where they were and what they thought when they heard the news. Don’t we all?
Marie Tippit, wife of the Dallas cop murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald after the president was shot, treasures a painfully poignant letter she received from Jackie Kennedy the following week. John Brewer’s life is still measured by that day when he saw Oswald duck into a movie theater and followed him inside. Buell Frazier’s life became a living hell when word got around that he drove Oswald to work that day, a favor that has shadowed him ever since. Andrew Young, the civil rights leader, breaks down even now remembering how poor country church parishioners wailed in their grief when they heard the news. Mort Sahl, the president’s friend and joke writer, will never believe it was just Oswald. Pentagon Counsel Joe Califano helped Bobby Kennedy select the president’s gravesite and then went to work for the new president, who, Joe says, believed Castro somehow played a part.
Historians and JFK admirers reveal what we didn’t know about the secret side of his personal life, about his legacy and, always, the what-ifs. What if he had lived? Would he have expanded the Vietnam War? Could he have gotten the Civil Rights Bill through Congress, or did it take his death and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to accomplish that historic achievement? Did the very manner of his death and its subsequent investigation change us?
The intersection of those key questions—Where were you? How did it impact your life and America’s psyche? What if?—offers a meeting place for Americans to ponder half a century after those shots were fired into a presidential limousine on a Dallas street. They form a fixed part of history and myth, a provocative examination of who we were then and what we became after.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, wealthy young aristocrat, war hero, and ladies’ man, remains ageless in our memories and in the official and informal photographs from his presidency. He was already preparing to run for a second term and beginning to muse on what he might do after eight years in the White House. We’ll never know, of course, but his life and then his sudden, violent death remain an indelible part of our history.
We invite you to join the conversation that provoked this project.
Where were you?
Excerpted with permission from Where Were You? America Remembers the JFK Assassination, compiled and edited by Gus Russo and Harry Moses, foreword by Tom Brokaw, published by Lyons Press © 2013.
First published November 15 2013, 6:59 AM