Within an hour after President John F. Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963, Washington became a ghost town.
It was still early on a Friday afternoon but, except in hidden security centers, no one in this power-centric, workaholic town had any idea what to do. The phones overloaded and stopped working periodically. Almost all government stopped working, too.
I was a 26-year-old rookie reporter from Seattle. Two of the country’s most powerful senators came from my state, including Senator Henry M. Jackson, who had been Robert F. Kennedy’s choice over Lyndon B. Johnson to be his brother’s running mate in 1960.
So it was natural that I would be drawn to the Old Senate Office Building — the Old S.O.B, we called it, for the acronym and the pun but mainly because it housed the expansive empires of the senior senators of the day. Usually bustling with power-brokers, lobbyists and favor-seekers, the hallways were empty except for a cluster of staffers in front of Jackson’s office.
By the time I got to the Capitol, the Senate and House of Representatives had adjourned and most senators and congressmen had closed their offices and gone home. Jackson, however, remained. His wife, Helen, was out of town, and he dreaded going alone to their Washington apartment. So his staff stayed with him in the Old S.O.B., talking in clutches outside in the marble hallway. For me, two moments resonate as clearly today as they did in 1963.
After a few minutes Jackson emerged from his office and asked me, “Do you want to take a walk?” Of course I wanted to walk with Jackson. A Cold Warrior like Kennedy, a good friend if not a Hyannisport buddy, who had joined in his roughhouse Georgetown softball games when both were still among Washington’s most eligible bachelors, Jackson was as close to Kennedy as anyone I would find that day in the psychologically blitzed capital.
It turned out to be a peculiar walk — one that showed he was as discombobulated as the rest of us. We went to the Senate payroll office, where Jackson corrected a $6 error in his paycheck. Despite my efforts, he didn’t want to talk about the assassination or what might have been. Jackson was as spun out of his orbit as the rest of us and I was simply his foil to level life out for a few minutes.
The second moment occurred back at his office where, like everyone, Brian Corcoran, Jackson’s press secretary, tried to assess the day’s impact. “The real tragedy is that Kennedy will barely be remembered 50 years from now,” Corcoran said. “His presidency was cut too short and he didn’t have time to accomplish anything.”
To be sure, at the time of Kennedy’s death, most of his landmark New Frontier legislation, including the Civil Rights Act, was bogged down in a Congress dominated by Southerners — who did not look kindly on Kennedy or his program. He will never go down as one of America’s great presidents.
Yet his hold on America’s imagination remains as durable as it was the day he died. On the 50th anniversary of the assassination, publishing houses have flooded us with another deluge of books, with titles ranging from The Kennedy Half Century to Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House to Who Really Killed Kennedy? The New York Times, in a recent article ironically headlined: “Kennedy, the Elusive President,” put the tally of Kennedy books since his death at 40,000. Television, bolstered by 24/7 cable channels that didn’t exist during his life, is adding to the torrent with a slew of retrospectives in the run-up to Friday’s anniversary.
What made the Kennedy legacy such a powerful and lasting American obsession? Theodore H. White, who wrote the classic Making of the President 1960, argued that Kennedy believed that heroes made history — and cast himself in that role.
To my generation, he was undeniably a hero, albeit a flawed one. The youngest man ever elected president (at 43), he was a phenom — modern, handsome and princely, given to heroic words and gestures. Glamorous, he was doubly so alongside his wife, Jacqueline, who turned the White House into an American version of the court at Versailles for parties honoring the literati. He was a celebrity president made for television before television itself quite knew what it was made for.
The twin pillars that keep the Kennedy saga alive — Camelot and conspiracy — were embedded in Washington’s marble within days after JFK’s death. Together, they transformed the story into a Shakespearian tragedy: a young nobleman cut down at the apex of his and his empire’s power, with his slaying forever muddled by a cast of powerful and shady characters that prevents the facts of the crime from ever truly being resolved.
Almost immediately after his death, in a remarkable and manipulative effort, Jackie Kennedy planted the-young-prince-in-Camelot imagery so deep that it has held up for a half-century, despite the onslaught of contradictions about JFK, the flawed man, that emerged in later years.
Camelot, a hit Broadway musical about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, played through most of his presidency. But it never was attached to Kennedy’s name before he died — a lesson in how legends are made.
Jackie, trying to head off assessments of her man by what she called “bitter people,” made certain it became the romantic theme of their time in the White House. Seven days after her husband was shot, she called Theodore White, journalist, historian and — most important — a friend, to Hyannisport for an exclusive four-hour interview. There she wove the myth of Camelot into the “reality” of the Kennedy years, even hovering over White to edit his story back on to the Camelot track, as he phoned it to his editors at Life magazine.
On December 6, 1963, Life published the essay with its emphasis on the Camelot years and the lyrics that Jackie said her husband played on his old Victrola almost every night before going to sleep:
“Don’t let it be forgot,
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”
It was a heroic, if somewhat childlike, view of a president who inspired a nation with his youth and vigor. (That too was a myth because he and his troupe hid his debilitating Addison’s disease and assorted other ailments.) At the time of the assassination, Kennedy’s approval rating was 70 percent, and it remains the highest in the history of presidential polling.
He was the first and still is the most compelling of the media presidents. He simply romanced the little black-and-white tube, arguably winning office by beating Richard M. Nixon in the first televised presidential debate and keeping his critics at bay with wit and charm in regular televised press conferences. Politicians, Democrat and Republican, have learned to use the medium since, but none more effectively. Americans took Kennedy into their homes — and liked him.
The Camelot image has suffered over the years since, as serious historians examined the downsides to his presidency — he essentially began our long Vietnam nightmare. Others looked at the anti-heroism of his compulsive, almost serial womanizing. Even White corrected the story he and Jackie had created in Hyannisport. By 1978, White said he had misread history somewhat.
“The magic Camelot of John F. Kennedy never existed,” White wrote in his book, In Search of History.
Yet there was something to the concoction — because “one brief shining moment” still stands as the metaphor for Kennedy’s brief presidency. Camelot represented optimism and possibility. Kennedy created the Peace Corps, he aspired to send a man to the moon. Government was not the enemy. Forever frozen in his prime, he harkens to a simpler time, before the events that complicated America’s place in the world after his death: the tumultuous ‘60s, the quagmire that Vietnam became, Watergate, terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq, and now the endless, deadlocked power struggle and destructiveness that has become de rigueur in Washington political life.
Kennedy gave Americans the idea that we could do better. That we could believe in something. Robert Dallek, the presidential historian and author of the new Kennedy biography, Camelot’s Court, summed it up succinctly in the New York Times: Americans admire presidents who give them hope.
The other timeless pillar of the legend — the conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s killing — may keep his presidency alive even longer than Camelot. Future generations are not more likely to find a satisfying answer, if one exists, than we have in these 50 years.
But that won’t stop them from trying. Americans are not good at handling randomness. They want answers that add up.
The conspiracy theories really took flight the moment Jack Ruby, a seedy, two-bit nightclub owner, killed the killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, two days after Kennedy died. A lone shooter with a $12.78 mail-order rifle taking down the leader of the free world didn’t add up. But two random events, the second one closing off the most logical line of inquiry, were just too much for the public.
After Oswald’s death, there was no shutting the conspiracists down — no matter how far out they wandered. Mark Lane, a left-wing lawyer, began criticizing the work of the official assassination investigation, the Warren Commission, as soon as it was formed. He broadly attacked the commission’s final report in a best-selling 1966 book, Rush to Judgment. The theories cascaded downward from there, to the wild warps of Oliver Stone’s 1991 Hollywood blockbuster, JFK.
Today, two-thirds of Americans — most of them either too young to remember or born since the dire doings of November 22, 1963 — continue to believe the killing was a multi-person plot. Some of the most powerful leaders of that time were conspiracy believers. RFK believed. So did Johnson. Many actually thought Johnson was part of the plot. It was all wild speculation, born out of the multiple passions of the day.
It is impossible to disprove most conspiracy theories. Events have provided the Kennedy conspiracist with an especially compelling playbill of characters that makes the story epic when laid against the background of a fallen idol. Could the bard himself conjure up historical suspects as compelling as Fidel Castro, whom Kennedy tried to have poisoned; the mafia, with whom he shared a boss’s girlfriend; the Russians, with whom he was beginning the arms race that would spend them into bankruptcy; Lyndon Johnson, who had everything to gain and gained it; Cuban exiles, who felt betrayed by the Bay of Pigs; J. Edgar Hoover, the CIA?
Two months before Dallas, I made an 11-state cross-country trip with Kennedy. On September 24, 1963, we traveled by helicopter from Duluth, Minnesota, to Ashland, Wisconsin, crossing Lake Superior in a violent late-summer thunderstorm. It was a frightening trip. One of the convoy’s eight choppers was forced down onto an island in the lake. Tom Wicker, a seasoned New York Times reporter, sat across from me. He turned as ashen-faced as I was in the bucking press helicopter. “He’s a terrible risk-taker,” Wicker muttered unhappily.
Kennedy’s speaking platform in little Ashland was an outdoor stand surrounded by the crowd. As he prepared to speak, a young woman, maybe 22 or 23, rushed up the stairs and grabbed the president in an adulating bear hug. Kennedy grinned but flinched and the Secret Service quickly pulled the woman away.
Wicker and I looked at each other and shook our heads. Later, we thought it was like looking into the future. It was so easy to kill this first of our rock star presidents.
Perhaps that incident in Ashland is the reason I have less trouble than most in accepting the Oswald, single-shooter theory. He was no more random than the young woman in Ashland.
We live our own common lives touched at pivotal times by far more random events than conspiratorial ones.
William Prochnau is an award-winning journalist and author of six books, including “Once Upon a Distant War: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett — Young War Correspondents and Their Early Vietnam Battles.” He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and is now working on a new novel.
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