Unexpected drama part and parcel to presidency

November 25, 2008

(Copyright 2008)


By Tony Walther

Most or all of my knowledge of President John F. Kennedy’s administration is like a video tape rolling in my head. I watched so much of it on TV as an adolescent. But that doesn’t mean that everything in there is accurate. I just got through madly searching Wikipedia and anything else I could find on the web concerning Kennedy’s immediate public reaction to the Bay of Pigs fiasco and didn’t have much luck.

Even though several sources indicated that he took “full responsibility” for the failure, I did not find what in my head I always assumed to be fact. I always have pictured him making one of those solitary oval office television addresses, such as the one on the Cuban Missile Crisis, acknowledging his mistake concerning the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. But nowhere could I immediately find that.

So, maybe I’ll get back to that point later after more research.

History tells us, though, that the fiasco was not only covertly supported by the U.S., but that it was what you might call an open secret at the time. It had been set in motion by the Eisenhower administration, who informed the incoming president Kennedy of the plan. Kennedy went along with it, but apparently decided that he would not get our armed forces involved in it should things go wrong. Unfortunately, that was not what the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency-backed Cuban expatriates who invaded were told and the end result is that they were left stranded on the beach with not so much as air cover (that they expected), eventually being killed or captured by Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s forces. The U.S. was at odds with Castro, who had become a follower of the Soviets.

It was an embarrassment for the new administration, but it moved on. Later the Cuban Missile Crisis came along and Kennedy redeemed himself by standing up to the Soviets.

Some conspiracy theorists think that the CIA was so mad at Kennedy over the Bay of Pigs and for the purported notion that Kennedy was ready to pull out of Vietnam (the U.S. still being in an advisory role in that fight against the communist insurgency) that they were behind his assassination. Kennedy of course was assassinated on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, 45 years ago.

Faulty memory or not, I can tell you this, the assassination was one of the most bizarre things I have ever witnessed (via TV and newspapers). The president was shot while riding in an open limousine on the streets of Dallas, and then the apparent shooter was assassinated by a gunman as he was being taken on what we might call today a “perp walk”, one of those contrived occurrences where a criminal suspect is marched in front of the cameras, usually in shackles. In this case they were moving Lee Harvey Oswald from one jail to another though a crowd of newsmen and others (how much sense did that make?).

Over the weekend I saw a clip from an interview with the cop that was escorting Oswald. He said that just before they started on the walk he remarked to Oswald: “If anyone shoots, I hope they’re accurate,” meaning he hoped they hit Oswald, not him (and how weird is that? that he would think to say such a thing). Shooting point blank, Jack Ruby couldn’t hardly miss. And he had no trouble getting into position, both because of the mob scene and the fact he was a well-known fixture around the police headquarters, being kind of a groupie. The hand gun Ruby used had been purchased for him by a policeman friend, although reportedly not for killing Oswald but for Ruby’s protection as a nightclub owner who carried large amounts of cash to the bank.

(And come to think of it, I think the live-on-TV shooting of assassination suspect Oswald by Ruby was the first time I ever remember of a news clip being played constantly over and over again for a day or more. In fact, I understand the now archaic technology used to replay that video (or film?) led to the modern instant replay used so much in sports. The next news clip that got possibly even more play was the space ship Challenger blowup on Jan. 28, 1986. Nowadays all kinds of clips are on YouTube and elsewhere for constant replay.)

I think a lot of people wondered if we really had gotten out of control as a nation when after just enduring the assassination of our president we witnessed live on TV the murder of the suspected assassin.

And while the evidence is clear that Oswald shot from the upper story window of the Texas School Book Depository, just who were those mysterious characters on the grassy knoll? I am sure I recall hearing something about them in the original news reports. I have a book written by a woman who claims to have been Castro’s girlfriend at one time and also a CIA agent. She claims she went on a mission to Dallas just before the assassination (of which she apparently did not know what the real reason was for), but went back home to the east coast after she got sick. But she claims or implies that her CIA cohorts were in on the Kennedy assassination. Now obviously I think it is just as likely she has a good imagination and had a need for a story to put into book form to hopefully make some money.

But the point of this is that the whole episode was bizarre – oh and my memory still seems to be hazy about Kennedy’s mea culpa on the Bay of Pigs. I’ll have to do more research. Can anyone offer suggestions on that?

P.s. If Kennedy had supported the Bay of Pigs invaders we might have been able to wipe out Castro. I’m not sure why that would have been a good thing, though. I think Kennedy was afraid the Soviets might use our action as a pretext to cause troubles elsewhere. But my observation is that every time we stood up to the Soviets they backed down (is my memory faulty again?).

P.s.  P.s. Kennedy came into office and was almost immediately faced with the Bay of Pigs. George W. Bush was faced with 9/11. I have a feeling Barack Obama’s first big crisis, besides the already-known one, the economy, will come early and will be something off everyone’s radar screen.

Forty five years ago today an ugly time…

November 22, 2008

(Copyright 2008)


By Tony Walther

Forty five years ago today I was 14 years old. I was stacking firewood outside my house before school, and my mother called me inside and said President Kennedy had been shot.

We soon learned that it was fatal. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.

I was attuned to current events and even politics at some level of understanding from an early age, mostly because my mother always had the Today Show going in the morning and because she kept up on such things. And it helped that my father was a newspaperman who had worked on everything from country newspapers to big city papers to the Associated Press news wire service San Francisco bureau.

But on that fateful November day in 1963 I was a freshman in high school, an adolescent just beginning to develop into an adult frame of mind.

I don’t think that I was exceptionally mature for my age, but at least I was a little more advanced than one of my friends at high school. As I was walking down a corridor at school that day, he was coming down the other way and looked at me and with his fingers put a mock gun to his head, in reference to the assassination. Whether I laughed or smiled in reaction to his gesture, I don’t recall.

I doubt that he was anti-Kennedy or even had any opinion. At least he knew something had happened. I don’t recall there being much discussion among the students about the event of the day, although there must have been some. I recall reading news accounts that students at a Dallas school had actually cheered. The world can be an ugly place.

Meanwhile, the news that the president had been shot came at a bad time or a good time at the newspaper where my father worked, depending upon one’s frame of mind.

It was an afternoon paper and they had just hit the final deadline when someone came in and said that they had heard on the radio that the president had been shot. About the same time bells started ringing on the teletype machine and its constant loud clatter that one got used to in the newsroom took on a special significance. My dad that evening gave me a copy of the first dispatch that came over the wire. To the best I recall it read: “President Kennedy shot today in Dallas, perhaps fatally.” I kept it in a drawer throughout my high school years, but it got lost along the way since.

According to a cub reporter who worked at the newspaper at the time and who wrote a column about that day that was published a few years ago, the events at the newspaper came down like this: the editor at the time was a man who had the use of only one hand. He could type as fast as anyone with that one hand (I know. I saw him in action). Although he may have been a fairly competent country editor, he apparently wasn’t up to handling real breaking news. He froze. He didn’t know what to do. But there were two old hands in the newsroom, an old bachelor that hung out in the local bars when he was not covering his beat, and my dad. That old bachelor automatically took over and with the help of my dad they redid the front page and got the local reaction story and that afternoon had some real news, albeit sad, in the paper, beating the morning papers by some 12 hours.

As I recall there were no television commercials or regular programing for the next week, only somber music and news reports and the funeral for the fallen president.

President Kennedy did not have the time in office or the cooperation from congress, as I recall, to get done all the things he wanted to. And in no disrespect to him or his memory, I think his assassination makes him stand out in history more than he might have.

But he was our first charisma president, and yet he seemed not to be all show, but sincere. I can remember the reassurance he gave us in his nationwide address on the Cuban Missile Crisis when it looked as if we were on the brink of nuclear war (history shows we were even closer than most knew). I also recall him admitting on nationwide television that he had erred in the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He took full responsibility. Who would do that today?

As I look back on a time when we had someone to believe in at the top, I am hopeful that we once more will have that come the new year and that it works out better for all concerned this time around.