Kennedy was a lot about image — and a good image it was…

November 23, 2010

Making a big deal about the anniversary of the President John F. Kennedy assassination — it was 47 years ago on Nov. 22, 1963 — is by now after all these years maybe like making a big deal about the anniversary of the assassinations of President Abraham Lincoln or President James Garfield or William McKinley — it has become old history, so many alive today not even being born yet when Kennedy was shot.

I was a freshman in high school, and I don’t really see it as ancient history, but I am part of the baby boom generation and those who have followed, I am sure, just see it as something in the history books and really cannot relate.

Yes, how quickly we forget or how quickly a new generation with no history of your history comes along.

(Warning I’ve used this allusion before I think) I recall selling newspapers on the front steps of the post office in the little town where I lived when I was a fifth grader. A little old lady bought a paper from me and asked: “son do you know what is special about Dec. 7?”

I didn’t.

That was back in 1959. I was ten years old. Just 18 years previous, but several before I was on this earth, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, a surprise attack on American territory (Hawaii not yet being a state — it became one, interestingly enough, in 1959), plunging the U.S. into World War II, which resulted in a victory that in turn resulted in the U.S. becoming the foremost power on earth.

The old lady told me it was Pearl Harbor Day. I did know about Pearl Harbor, but I had no idea what day it had been on. (Okay, obvious question from you wise guys — was there something in the paper I was selling about it? Don’t know, I was only ten and was selling papers, not reading them so much — although I did a little, even then.)

I suppose for more recent generations 9/11 will or is that singular event where you know where you were and what you were doing when it happened and you know it changed everything, just like the kennedy assassination.

If you’re expecting it, there is probably no major point to this blog post, just thinking about the John F. Kennedy (JFK) assassination.

I actually got a fairly up close live (and that seems an almost insensitive reference ,“live”) look at JFK not long before he became president. During his campaign he made an old-fashioned (even then almost) whistle-stop tour, and stopped in Marysville, Ca. At that time my family lived across the river in the town of Yuba City. We went and saw him speak from the back of a train car (that is he was on the back of the train). I was only a few feet away. He had a lot of red freckles — you did not pick that up on our black and white TV.

Having JFK in the White House was fun. He and his wife were a nice looking and charming couple and they had a little girl and a little boy — kids in the White House for the for the first time in a long time. He of course had that charisma thing. Jackie, his wife, was so sophisticated and cultured. She spoke fluent French and Spanish. When she toured Latin America she could really speak their language and the crowds loved it — her up on a balcony giving speeches like they do down there.

JFK’s Boston-Irish accent was hilarious. Instead of saying Cuba (a nation much in the news at the time), he said “cuber”.

The whole Kennedy clan fascinated the nation. They would play touch football, JFK and his brothers and others. A comedian and impersonator by the name of Vaughn Meader made a career out of impersonating JFK and did records on it. One segment went something like this: JFK saying, “well when we are here we have to play (touch football) by my rules”.  Asked why, he answered, making a stabbing gesture with his finger like JFK used to do in speeches and press conferences, “because it’s my ball”.

To many the Kennedys were our first American royalty. The whole thing of them being in the White House was labeled Camelot.

To be sure, not everyone loved the Kennedys — you can’t please all the people. And the royalty treatment grated on some. Not only did they not like his progressive to liberal politics — the idea of being thought of in royal terms seemed so un-American.

And as popular as he was, JFK failed to get much of his legislative program through congress, such as his proposals on civil rights (mostly aimed at helping disenfranchised “negroes” as they were called at the time — you know, black Americans or African-Americans).

He was largely responsible for heavily involving the U.S. in Vietnam.

But I admire the fact that he inaugurated the Peace Corps. If his administration and its successors had emphasized the Peace Corps more over armed intervention, we all might well have been in a better position today — who knows?

A seemingly fine specimen of physical fitness himself (hidden were some of his debilitating ailments), he urged people to take 40-mile hikes or at least for school children and everyone else to be physically active.

I recall my dad and me going on one of those hikes — dad had always loved to hike anyway. We did not go the whole 40 miles. But we did take a fun hike along the Feather River that separates the twin cities of Marysville and Yuba City, California (off the subject, but a curious fact: Marysville is the county seat of Yuba County, and Yuba City is the county seat of Sutter County). This was not a walk along a specific trail. We just trekked through the riparian jungle, across a railroad trestle (don’t do that) and then through some orchards (to include, possibly, one of the orchards where not very many years later a man by the name of Juan Corona buried many wino, turned farm laborers, in lieu of paying them), and finally out onto a county road. Someone, mom possibly, must have come to pick us up. We did not walk back to town.

Much has been made of the fact that JFK was killed while riding in an open car — they (presidents) still sometimes did that then; they don’t do that now for the obvious reasons.

JFK was killed, his assassin was later gunned down, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated a few years later and right after that JFK’s younger brother Bobby was assassinated while running for president.

The age of innocence, if there ever really was one, was basically over — as in the day the music died — and the age of ugliness had begun.

Most presidents today seem to leave the White House in some form of general disfavor or dishonor or even disgrace.

Nixon resigning in disgrace. Carter in pity. Clinton with the undignified, unpresidential sexual deviant visual, and Bush II with the deer-in-the-headlights lame brain look and the legacy of waging war for false reasons or for no reason, other than to maybe avenge a plot against his daddy by Saddam Hussein, and a support for torture, something heretofore the U.S. stood proudly against as a civilized nation.

JFK may have been spared ignominy, ironically, by being assassinated. I mean if he had served his full term and even a second, well, things go wrong, people change their minds.

And here’s something: In my lifetime so far we have had two presidents who were lady charmers supreme — JFK and Bill Clinton (Obama charmed everyone, for awhile).

JFK reportedly had his dalliances (unfortunately he also had his Dallas, where he was shot). But he was still in that bygone era where there was a kind of gentleman’s agreement in the press — some things were off limits, especially if the subject in question was discreet enough to keep them off limits, out of sight.

JFK’s press conferences were usually, it seemed, really just a showcase for his charm. Once when asked by newswoman Sarah McClendon (or was it Helen Thomas?) what he was going to do for the women (rights), with a grin, he answered, “I don’t think we can ever do enough for the ladies”, to which the mostly good-old boy audience laughed appreciatively, understanding the multiple meaning there.

But combine the fast-paced tell all and then some media world of today and a horny guy who apparently lacked any judgment or caution when it came to sexual escapades not with his wife and while conducting foreign policy or phone conversations with lawmakers, that guy being Bill Clinton — well there goes that reputation thing (I was going to say “legacy” but it sounded too much like some lame double entendre).

Clinton does seem accepted as the elder statesman now among many, but I don’t know what history will say about him.

But really I can’t describe the JFK political mystic. You kind of had to be there.

I do know that I have heard more than one nowadays conservative Republican say he was motivated as a young man by JFK (but then again, Ronald Reagan, darling of the right, was once a Franklin Roosevelt-style liberal Democrat). And yet if JFK were on the scene today he would be vilified by the modern conservatives — actually he was then by right-wing reactionaries especially. And it was in that atmosphere he was taken down in what was then an unfriendly part of the nation for him. I think that’s why he was in Dallas that day, to try to gain political support in the upcoming election in an area weak for him.

But I recall seeing JFK address the nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis. You felt someone strong, sober, and courageous was in charge. It was a comfort.

JFK did not back down from the Soviets, but he was not full of false bravado. He was an actual World War II war hero, even if his famous PT 109 incident may or may not have been enhanced for his political image.

To those who have followed, and to any who might have tried to emulate his style in any way, to borrow a line, I can only say, I knew Jack Kennedy and you are no Jack Kennedy.

P. s.

I cannot name off the top of my head the great accomplishments of JFK. It may be that his presidency was largely an image. But that image, a man of peace (Vietnam an aberration perhaps and a complicated story anyway), but a man willing to stand up to the Soviets and all tyranny — letting others in the world who longed for freedom know someone was on their side — was a great one for our nation.

One more thing: Kennedy went overseas and the crowds loved him. I don’t recall him apologizing for America.

Of course that may be because he and his greatest generation had recently saved the world from catastrophe — you’re welcome.

ADD 1:

I totally left out one major accomplishment of JFK, that is initiating the modern space program. That was back when we as a nation thought we could do something and even thought government could and should play a major role.


Blogger’s note: I wanted to get this posted earlier when I looked at the calendar and realized what day it was, but my real job has its demands too.

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.