Fifty Years Ago
November 22, 2013
I step back just for today from the purpose of this Web site because it is for me so important a day.
Today I send my memory of this day 50 years ago. It has nothing to do with what I have been writing on this Website and I am certainly not the first to publish memories of the day, certainly not the only person whose life changed then.
But I was in Washington on November 22, 1963. I was in my office on the west side of Lafayette Square and working for President Kennedy.
I had returned to Washington just a few days earlier. My apartment was on 17th Street, NW but I was living in Eastern Kentucky most of the time, a very junior member of a group bringing together ideas from community activists and Civil Rights workers, social workers and criminologist, mayors and other politicians. We reported to Robert Kennedy on what in 1964 became under President Johnson the War on Poverty.
I was in Dick Boone’s office that afternoon at the front of 736 Jackson Place, a yellow townhouse in the row of run-down but still elegant mansions. It was shortly before 2 pm, I think, after lunch.
Doris banged through the door and said loudly, “The President’s been shot.”
That was not possible, simply not possible. I thought in a non-sequitur, “I didn’t hear anything.” Next I remembered the President wasn’t here; he was on a trip. Where? I didn’t remember.
We all looked at each other. No one had anything to say. I walked outside and looked at the White House just across Pennsylvania Avenue. Nothing seemed unusual.
Back in Boone’s office someone had turned on a radio and a few people were gathering there.
I can’t remember what happened as we stood in Boone’s office, rolling though the radio dial looking for fresh news. Hannah began to cry. Boone began picking up papers from his desk and I, misunderstanding his need to escape into ordinary tasks, felt angry about his disloyalty; he didn’t appear to comprehend the enormity.
I walked out through our front door and looked again across the west side of Lafayette Square to the White House gate. Having no idea what to do with myself, I walked down and across Pennsylvania Avenue to the northwest entrance of the White House.
The guard barely glanced at my pass. He looked vacant and curled. I walked up the curved driveway to the press entrance.
At the doorway of a room just to the right of the press lobby entrance, a room allotted to the wire services, I saw Richard Strout, one of the most passionately liberal reporters in Washington who wrote TRB from Washington, the inflammatory column that appeared each week on the first page of the New Republic. Strout, a mild and courtly man, had covered for the Christian Science Monitor every president since Woodrow Wilson. I knew him slightly.
“What happened?” I asked.
At first he didn’t say anything. He was sitting in a chair, bent over looking at the floor. “What do you expect?” he asked softly. I don’t think he was talking to me. “What do you expect in a country where anybody can buy a gun?”
I walked around the pressroom, an almost deliberately shabby space. Most of the White House regular reporters were in Dallas with the President and the room was quiet. A few reporters had gathered around a television set. I didn’t see anyone I knew.
I wandered back through the large room to a corridor of the West Wing and could see in a room to the left the President’s closest aide, Ted Sorenson and others looking at another television set, a big floor model. I didn’t go there.
Everyone wanted to know how badly the President had been wounded. We knew by then that he was injured. We waited not very long. We learned – as everyone did – from the television, from Walter Cronkite.
Someone shouted. I heard a woman’s wail. A little man was holding his bald head between his hands. A reporter bit his lip. A man started to cry. We had learned the only thing that counted – that the President was dead.
The afternoon and evening dissolved into random memories like those. Color disappeared that afternoon; my memories are black and white and in slow motion.
A couple of times I walked back to our office but I spent most of the afternoon in the pressroom where we all watched on the television fragments that now are history and familiar, scenes one can’t forget – a black waiter in the hotel at which the President was to have given a speech, his head in his hands sobbing. Two sobbing women holding each other on the streets of Dallas. The visible incomprehension of ordinary people. The drone of the television. Walter Cronkite choking back tears.
In other rooms Presidential staff stood in little knots, everyone untethered and frozen. There was very little conversation and even among the battle-scarred and cynical reporters, not one wisecrack.
Then later we saw on the television Air Force One landing at Andrews Air Force Base just across the Potomac River. We saw on the television Mrs. Kennedy still dressed as she had been in Dallas, the bloodstains visible to us even on the black and white set. We saw the Attorney General, the President’s brother, standing at her side. We watched as the casket was rolled down a ramp. Everything seemed foggy to me, not really happening.
Some one announced that the Presidential helicopter would be landing on the south lawn and I went out a back door of the White House along with perhaps a hundred other people walking slowly, no one pushing for a good space; and we, reporters and White House staff and others – I don’t know who – stood in the black night, the south lawn sloping downward, the fence beyond. I could see the shapes of people standing outside the fence there.
This is one of the most beautiful views in Washington. The White House lawn, the fence, the wide park beyond and the obelisk, the Washington Monument illuminated, towering in the background. But I was dazed that night; so was everyone else. We stood silently until someone told us to move to our right and the crowd did it. No one was speaking.
We saw little red lights in the sky far beyond the Monument, heard faintly the blades of two helicopters coming toward us from the southeast. Then we could see their lights coming past the Washington Monument, very close to it, it seemed. They came toward us fast and hovered for a moment behind us shaking the bushes, and to the left of us and with a great noise and the sound of air violently pushed and water being pulled from fountain behind, they settled slowly to the ground.
While the blades still whirled and whined, we saw the long bent figure of Lyndon Johnson emerge, hunched, face pointed at the ground. He was followed by the Defense Secretary, Robert MacNamara and MacGeorge Bundy, the National Security Advisor, Bill Moyers and others, and they all walked quickly across the lawn just past us into the President’s office.
Although a passionate follower, I certainly didn’t know the President. I regularly used to sneak out and attend his press conferences in the State Department auditorium, one of the 400 who attended – many of us just for the great fun. Few of you reading this will remember the delight everyone felt about the banter of those exchanges that the President so obviously enjoyed.
But my connection to Mr. Kennedy, although immensely powerful to me, was of course one-sided. I spoke to him on the telephone one day when he called our leader, David Hackett, to inquire about the Olympic hockey team. I had twice written little speeches for him about the programs I was working on and had been invited to be present when he reviewed my drafts for which he thanked me extravagantly. We gossiped about him all the time. We criticized him very quietly for insufficient support of southern blacks.
I have not found it possible in recent years to explain to people in generations that have followed mine how we felt about him and about the possibilities of America.
We were a wartime generation and were proud to have been so. We shared the pride of our parents whose generation had defeated Hitler and we all enjoyed the sunny days of national promise during the late forties.
We graduated from college at the end of the soporific Eisenhower years and were revitalized by the 1960 presidential campaign, ready to help President-elect Kennedy “get the country moving again.”
People can’t understand, I think, the excitement that followed Kennedy’s election. Younger people try to compare Obama’s campaign in 2008 to Kennedy’s in 1960. But whereas Obama has done nothing to vindicate the passion people felt in 2008, Kennedy built on the passion of 1960 and got steadily more captivating.
There was far more romance in politics in those days. We had won the War and were going on to the next step, perfecting our society. Virtually everyone I knew in college wanted to participate in that.
We believed in those days in the government’s capacity to help people improve their lives. We were uncynical about government. Hope and change were words we didn’t merely use; they were the engineers of our lives.
Some of my friends went into the Foreign Service and many went into the CIA. We went to international youth festivals and tried to explain democratic government to the national student unions of emerging countries. We were junior staff in government agencies and some of us got into electoral politics. We were engaged. We were in government. We knew nothing and cared nothing about business and finance.
The President was the center of my life. Like many young people, I had rushed to Washington after his election. I devoted myself obsessively to my work. I walked to work each morning before sunrise down 17th Street past the National Geographic building then in construction. I tried every day to be the first person at work and the last to leave.
I lived and breathed Kennedy and became utterly a hero worshiper. My sister teased me about being uncritical and a name-dropper.
At the end of that evening 50 years ago I returned to my apartment and sat at my desk feeding my Smith and Corona portable typewriter sheets of rough yellow draft paper on which I chronicled my feelings:
I can’t believe. I can’t absorb. I imagine it is a hoax, a prank. He’s hiding and will reappear tomorrow.
They made a mistake. He’ll return.
It’s a Secret Service ploy. There was a plot against the President. He was in Dallas and they were afraid he’d be attacked. He’ll be back tomorrow.
During the next days I went to the viewing at the White House and stood in a long line at the Capitol. I watched from my office, at the back of the third floor in our townhouse on Jackson Place as Charles de Gaulle and Haile Selassie and other leaders marched down 17th Street from St. Matthew’s Cathedral.
I knew, of course, that this day would change my life but I had no idea how much it would change my world, indeed how much it would change the world.