It has become cultural cliché that everyone – old enough to be aware that day – remembers where they were when they heard JFK had been shot … or when the planes hit the World Trade Center … or 70 years ago when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Yet by whatever definition we now describe such memories does not change the fact that they indeed will last a lifetime. And as in the events described above, they will also transcend generational experience.
Friday, November 22, 1963 was a pleasant day for the week before Thanksgiving. I was a first-grade student at the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic elementary school located on Chelten Avenue in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
It was close to lunch when the quiet of the classroom was broken by the unexpected squawk of the intercom system. At first just a confusing message to this 7-year-old, “Please say a prayer, the President has been shot!” Initially all of us were puzzled, but the one image that was seared into my memory was the look of horror on Sister Anne’s normally placid face.
Minutes later came the words I remember so clearly, as though it was only yesterday, “The President is dead.”
What I remember most from then, particularly those days after the assassination was the reaction of my parents. As Irish Catholics, the Kennedy election and inauguration held a special sense of pride for them. In our house one wall contained two pictures, one of John F. Kennedy, the other Pope John XXIII … side by side. The days after November 22 were filled with an almost non-stop vigil in front of the television, where we first witnessed some of the images that accompany our never-fading memories of those emotional days.
Recently I came across Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot (Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard) in an unexpected place - my 23-year-old son’s bedroom. It was a bit surprising given the way many historical events get lost within our natural focus on more current events. But Brian has always been a bit of a book-worm, and was never very parochial about his reading choices.
Apparently, the Kennedy assassination had indeed transcended Brian’s generational experience and interests.
This is certainly not the first book on the Kennedy tragedy I have picked up. My first in-depth look into that day in Dallas was Josiah Thompson‘s conspiracy piece Six Seconds in Dallas, a book that sowed all sorts of doubts in my young mind on the official version of the assassination as set forth in the Warren Commission Report.
O’Reilly and Dugard do a credible job of identifying those organizations and criminal elements long considered as potential conspiracists in the Kennedy assassination. Yet they do an even better job of describing Lee Harvey Oswald as a dejected reject of both the Soviets and Cubans, a man who always believed he was deemed for “greatness” despite doing little to achieve even a passing notoriety.
Even his relationship his wife, Marina, an increasingly disenchanted spouse, shows a man who had a very difficult time living up to even pedestrian expectations. Oswald was the loser lone gunman that has become the all too familiar figure in many objectified killings, be they the assassination of key public figures or the serial killing of more common citizens.
One of the well-developed themes of Killing Kennedy is the ability to look back through the perspective of time and pull an entire picture together. The book looks back at the figures and events that led up to that bloody day in Dallas. But it is even more interesting to relive those legends that surrounded the troubling facade of the Kennedy Camelot.
- Most Americans from that era are familiar with JFK’s propensity for extra-marital relationships. Chapter 5 of Killing Kennedy deals openly with Kennedy’s well-known affair with Marilyn Monroe. But how many people dazzled by the Kennedy mystique ever considered the lengths to which his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (and later Onassis) went to enable – if not condone - said dalliances?
Jackie was known to leave The White House almost every Thursday for weekends away at the family’s Glen Ora estate in Virginia. She was no fool when it came to JFK’s escapades, yet she left him each weekend alone with Dave Powers, who kept a constant stream of young women accessible to the President.
Kennedy actually claimed that he needed sex almost every day to prevent debilitating headaches (the male twist on the headache-sex relationship?). As for Jackie, she eventually took the unusual step for the 1960s and sought frank, explicit sex advice from Dr. Frank Finnerty, a cardiologist and family friend, in an attempt to improve the First Couple’s intimacy and keep The President from wandering.
- Another interesting facet of Killing Kennedy is its frank discussion of the Bay of Pigs disaster, that ill-advised, poorly executed attempt to invade Cuba and overthrow the young revolutionary, Fidel Castro. One factor in the military disaster was Kennedy’s own part in forcing the Bay of Pigs plans to its infamous conclusion. Kennedy was particularly hard on the Eisenhower Administration’s for what he described as its soft stance on Communism – and Cuba in particular – in the 1960 election campaign against Vice President Richard Nixon.
After such a showing Kennedy was in no position to forego a plan that had its origins in the Dwight Eisenhower administration despite his obvious misgivings in the lead-up to the invasion. Once it became apparent that the invasion would fail, Kennedy further complicated his mistake by being indecisive and timid; and then abandoning the effort completely, leaving many of the Cuban expatriates spearheading the invasion to die or to suffer years of imprisonment in Castro’s new Cuba.
- Amazingly enough it appears that the Soviet-Cuban Missile crisis resulted in Kennedy’s far wiser embargo strategy against Communist Cuba; and it also may have saved the Kennedy marriage. Many within the Kennedy inner circle, even the men on the Secret Service detail, saw a marked change in JFK’s womanizing after the Soviets almost forced a nuclear showdown over placing offensive, nuclear-capable missiles on the island just 90 miles from Florida. As a result of that nuclear near-miss, the President appeared to become a much more family oriented and accessible husband and father.
- It is not difficult to appreciate JFK’s actions to end racial discrimination in the South. Although his
civil rights efforts really found their impetus in Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, the actions - and reactions – taken in the early stages of the 1960s would continue as a central theme of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
As I read Killing Kennedy much attention was being given to the 50-year anniversary of the Birmingham campaign to protest racial discrimination . It’s sobering to consider that just 50 years ago African-Americans – some as young as elementary school students - were motivated to expose themselves to physical violence at the hands of white law enforcement authorities to press their case for equal treatment under the law in the racially hostile South. The author’s description of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade is provocative.
Other facts I found interesting and enlightening in Killing Kennedy:
- Jack Kennedy was hardly the decisive Navy PT boat Commander immediately after PT-109 was cleaved in half by a Japanese warship in the South Pacific. Initially Kennedy is hesitant to make command decisions, instead polling his crew as to the best course of action. But he certainly made up for his timidness as the episode progressed.
- Kennedy was in constant pain over most of his adult life as the result of injuries from the PT-109 incident. To relieve his back pain, Kennedy liked to swim naked in the since removed White House pool. This activity also led to some embarrassing episodes with young female staff members.
- During the Bay of Pigs Kennedy was beset with diarrhea and urinary tract infection that severely tested his ability to concentrate.
- Jackie Kennedy was a closet chain-smoker, who continued the practice even during pregnancy!
- The Kennedy’s despised LBJ; and him them. This is not difficult to understand, given the way the Kennedy brothers brought Johnson onto the 1960 ticket in order to land the Electoral College votes of Texas then eviscerated his political power as Vice President.
- Just weeks before his death, Kennedy already has the U.S. heavily involved in the survival of the South Vietnamese government.
- JFK greatly embarrassed Frank Sinatra when he cancelled long-made plans to stay at Sinatra’s Palm Springs home following a speech at UC-Berkeley in 1962. This after Sinatra had already gone to the trouble of making significant changes to his property, even adding a helipad. Instead Kennedy stayed at Bing Crosby‘s estate, purportedly bedding Marilyn Monroe for the first time there, because of Sinatra’s alleged relationship with La Cosa Nostra. Sinatra, irate when Peter Lawford - a Kennedy by marriage - was forced to break the news, eventually became a Republican.
Regardless of whether you come from my generation, an earlier one, or a generation much younger and far removed from the shock of an assassinated President, you will enjoy the historical perspective provided by Killing Kennedy!