Cliffnotes for the Chattering Class: The JFK Assassination

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​In 1965, there was already a glut of Kennedy books being published by the many assembled observers of JFK's death. The only qualification necessary to write a book on the presidential assassination on November 22, 1963, was a healthy ego; decades later, merely having a pulse when Lee Harvey Oswald's bullet struck warrants a healthy advance. Historian James MacGregor Burns reviewed two of the big ones, both by people who were truly qualified to comment on Camelot—Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy's court historian, and Ted Sorenson, the slain president's speechwriter. His 1965 review of Schlesinger's A Thousand Days starts,

More than any other people, perhaps, Americans like to leave issues to the "verdict of history." When some problem seems too opaque or some leader too inscrutable, we comfort ourselves with the thought that some day the historians will decide the merits of the case or take the final measure of the man. The trouble is that historians never come in with a final verdict: usually they are a hung jury. History is written by the survivors—but new generations bring new survivors.

New York Times, November 1963

Burns sees that verdicts are already being adjudicated two years after the fact, and now, 50 years after our youngest president elected to office was assassinated, we're still mulling his final place in history. The jury is still hung. The Kennedy canon has grown so large, its selections so minutely different that they could take up one of Borges's labyrinths, that the shelves of history's justice system must heave with the weight of its pages. As we've inched closer to today, the memories and analyses have reached a fever pitch. Even the most resolute Kennedy buff or conspiracy anthologist would have a hard time keeping up with all the new content. So we've tried to assemble some of the weirdest details and best reads about the thirty-fifth president's memory and legacy into a sort of Kennedy assassination footnote compendium, so you can talk with great authority about your own verdict on history at happy hour today without breaking a sweat reading every single infographic and magazine story and op-ed from the last 50 years. 

  • If you have some time to spare, The New York Times archives from the days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination offer a glimpse into the country’s grief and the tensions simmering without being tainted by the hindsight of the many memoried exhumers of this year. Weeping and horror are dominant themes—shoppers sob in the aisles of a Washington, D.C. supermarket, a Greek barber in the Bronx cries in his chair, and an elderly elevator operator in Russia cries, “He was so young! Those wretches! In his own country!” Regulars at a Harlem bar muse that civil rights will likely end up on the back burner with a Texan in the White House. A day later, civil-rights groups also expressed their worry: “The bullet that killed Kennedy paralyzed the civil-rights movement.” The newspaper notes the odd coincidence of sitting presidents dying every twenty years. Gay Talese wrote of the shock New York felt after Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, collecting the opinions of barber shop workers, candy dealers, lawyers, Philadelphia truck drivers, and St. Patrick’s churchgoers. The city itself was described as a “vast church,” as the whole nation observed a moment of silence for Kennedy’s funeral. Children continued to play. It’s an easy thing to get lost in for awhile, and probably the best way to absorb what that moment felt like 50 years ago.
New Yorker, 1963

  • The big story in The Washington Post the morning of November 22, 1963 “detailed the exculpations of a Congressman who had made a 1,000 percent profit from a stock company which had enjoyed his good offices with the Internal Revenue Service. The very Senate which dissipated in shock at the news from Texas had just before been waspishly disputing the privileges and emoluments of elective office.”
  • Ruth Carter Johnson, a Dallas socialite and registered Republican, was on the receiving end of John F. Kennedy’s last phone call. The city’s art collectors had banded together to loan their acquisitions to the First Family’s hotel room—a motley assortment of Monets and Van Goghs and Picasso and Eakins—and the president thought it prudent to thank her.
  • At 3:47 p.m. on November 22, Jacqueline Kennedy had her first glass of Scotch ever, poured by Ken O’Donnell, a top Kennedy aide. "Now is as good a time as any to start.”
  • JFK Jr., who turned three the day of his father’s funeral, received a letter from LBJ the night of the assassination, to read when he was older.
  • General MacArthur sent his condolences to Jackie Kennedy via telegram. “I realize the utter futility of words at such a time, but the world of civilization shares the poignancy of this monumental tragedy. As a former comrade in arms, his death kills something within me.” Martin Luther King Jr., the widow of Medgar Evans, and Duke Ellington also sent telegrams.
  • The Boston Symphony Orchestra was playing a concert on November 22 when the assassination happened. WGBH’s radio broadcast captures the moment when the president’s death was announced to the crowd, gasps and screams crescendoing until the director announces they will play Beethoven’s Funeral March. 
  • In a January 1964 memorial service held in Boston, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed Mozart’s Requiem, because, in the director’s words, “as was the work of President Kennedy, it was left unfinished by premature death.

  • When Fidel Castro found out about the assassination, he told a New Republic reporter, "Now, they will have to find the assassin quickly, but very quickly, otherwise, you watch and see, I know them, they will try to put the blame on us for this thing.”
  • The over 300,000 people who congregated in Washington on Saturday were allowed to file past the president’s casket, with about 35 people allowed to mourn at his side per minute. The ceremony was scheduled to end at 9 p.m., but by then the line still stretched all the way to D.C. Stadium (later RFK Stadium) two miles away, so they extended the viewing period through the night. One million people stood along the path from the Capitol, to St. Matthew's Cathedral, where the funeral was held, to Arlington National Ceremony where the president was laid to rest the following day.
  • Jimmy Breslin profiled one of the gravediggers at Arlington Cemetery who readied Kennedy's final resting place: "One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the 35th president of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave."
  • Since no one showed up to Lee Harvey Oswald’s funeral—not even the minister—reporters had to serve as pallbearers. Jerry Flemmons of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram told the AP reporter on the scene, “Cochran, if we’re gonna write a story about the burial of Lee Harvey Oswald, we’re gonna have to bury the son of a bitch ourselves.”
  • The NFL decided to play its entire Sunday schedule on November 24. The athletes weren't feeling it, and played badly. “There was an empty feeling,” says one player, now old, "and I didn’t feel like we should go out and play football under the circumstances.”
  • Hugh Aynesworth, a space and aviation reporter for the Dallas Morning News, became one of the journalists on the JFK assassination beat, an odd career change prompted simply by the fact that he witnessed the shooting firsthand. Both of them. He had a lot of scoops, the first of which was uncovering how Lee Harvey Oswald escaped the crime scene.
  • Nancy Myers, who danced at one of the night clubs owned by Jack Ruby—killer of Lee Harvey Oswald—under the name “Tammi True,” remembers telling the Warren Commission when they came to call, "I am not saying one bad thing about that man."
  • There were 350 books written about the assassination by 1973. Maguerite Oswald, mother of Lee Harvey, owned nearly all of them, and had ambitions of adding her own to the canon. She only got as far as the prologue before dying in 1981. That chapter is currently housed in a library in Dallas.
  • Far more books on JFK’s death and his presidency have been published since in what James Wolcott terms the “perpetual cottage industry of Kennedyiana.” This year, unsurprisingly, has been especially replete with at least 20 new editions to the Kennedy canon. Here’s a list of the most prominent conspiracy theories—with a timeline!—if you, like most sane non-conspiracy theorists, don’t have the time to pore over all these books…
  • … None of which are especially good, either, according to Robert Caro.  “There is such fascination in the country about the anniversary, but there is no great book about Kennedy.”
  • If you’re looking for a contemporary #longreads examining John F. Kennedy as a living thing instead of a legacy, most would probably recommend starting with Norman Mailer’s “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.”
  • Nelly Connally was the last living witness in the presidential limousine before her death in 2006. Three weeks after the assassination, she went to the salon, and later wrote about it in her memoir.

My hair dresser in Austin put me in the chair, looked me over like a Parkland surgeon, then gave a low whistle."Mrs. Connally," he said. "Did you know there is a streak of white hair, two inches wide, down the back of your head?" I sat bolt upright and reached for the mirror. "No, I didn't! It wasn't there three weeks ago!" Shortly thereafter I made an appointment with our family doctor. During the routine physical, I asked him what might have caused the white streak. "Shock," he said matter-of-factly. "From what you say, you never screamed or even cried until after the event. You kept everything inside. That's what happens to good little soldiers."

  • Dr. Robert Nelson McClelland operated on JFK at Parkland. And massaged Lee Harvey Oswald’s heart a few days later.  He still has the blood-stained shirt he wore on November 22.
  • The president wasn’t the only man who died that day. When Lee Harvey Oswald was making his escape, a Dallas police officer, J.D. Tippit, tried to stop him, and was promptly halted himself.
  • James Tague, standing at the crowd in Dealey Plaza, was hit by bullet fragments that grazed his cheek. He of course wrote a book.
  • In 1963, there were only 35 or 38 Secret Service agents on duty protecting the president. Today, there would be hundreds of people. Here’s a good explainer on how the Secret Service has changed since 1963, as well as the threats (the people who protect the president now are mostly worried about bombs). Clint Hill, the Secret Service officer on the back of Kennedy’s limousine, still blames himself for the assassination. He of course has written a book about it.
  • In November 1960, vice-presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson visited Dallas for a campaign event, where he was met with ominous vitriol doled out by a frightening mob of ... mink coat-clad old ladies who called him "Turncoat Texan" and "Judas Johnson."
  • Texas Monthly published a piece last November on Dallas’s taciturn and complicated relationship with the bloody moment that once defined it—until memory of November 22, 1963 receded into history—in the warm-up to the 50th anniversary. If the city is forced to reckon with its past, it’s at least going to make sure the conspiracy theorists aren’t invited.
  • They probably invited Kevin Costner though, who the city seemed to have an unhealthy obsession with in 1991 when Oliver Stone was filming JFK. The Dallas Morning News had a weekly “Kevin Watch,” which kept tabs on the future star of Waterworld and at the time fictional JFK conspiracy theorist.
  • In 1983, Lawrence Wright took issue with characterizing his city as “the city of hate,” the city that liked the president’s murderer. “Dallas didn’t kill Kennedy, but in an awful undeniable fashion it did kill Oswald.”
  • Eight years before, Gary Cartwright came to a similar conclusion in the pages of the same magazine. “That Dallas was a city of shame, but it wasn’t a city of hate. It was ignorant, but it wasn’t mean. Its vision was genuine and sincere, but it had the heart of a rodent. In the subterranean tunnels of those proud spires of capitalism and free enterprise crawled armies of conmen and hustlers, cheap-shot artists and money changers, profiteers and ideologues, grubbers, grabbers, fireflies, eccentrics, and cuckoos. Dallas was just like every place else, except it couldn’t admit it. It was not Lee Harvey Oswald and the murder of John F. Kennedy that proved what Dallas was really like, but Jack Ruby and the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald.”
  • The New Orleans home that Lee Harvey Oswald spent the beginning of his life in flooded during Hurricane Katrina, and was torn down soon after.
  • According to Paul Gregory, a professor at the University of Houston and a friend of Lee Harvey Oswald before his launch into infamy, a copy of Time Magazine declaring John F. Kennedy the Man of the Year was prominently displayed in the Oswald kitchen the entire time he knew Oswald and his wife. When Gregory brought up the cover, “Marina ventured that the president appeared to be a nice man and that the first lady, at least from the pictures she had seen, appeared quite glamorous. She also said that she seemed to be a good mother. Lee, in his curt way, agreed.”
  • Also, somewhat unrelated, but Nora Ephron wanted you to know before her death, that no, she didn’t sleep with Kennedy while she was an intern. In case you were wondering.
  • After Kennedy’s death, 65 percent of the public claimed to have voted for him in 1960, according to a Gallup survey. According to voting tallies, however, only 49.7 percent of those people did.
  • In another Gallup poll from this year, 61 percent of Americans admit that they don't believe Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. This is down from the peak of Kennedy armchair conspiracy fomenting in 1976, when 81 percent of Americans believed there was more than one shooter.
  • If you couldn't guess from the data, there are still a lot of recreational conspiracy theorists. 
  • The Onion poked fun at them in their book of fake headlines from history: ""Kennedy Slain by CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemasons: President shot 129 times from 43 different angles."
  • The 26 seconds of film that amateur filmmaker Alexander Zapruder shot of the bullets hitting Kennedy serve as exhibit A in nearly every conspiracy theory surrounding the events of November 22 and 23. Errol Morris unpacked the video with his own longer video, and debunks the suspicions it spawned.
  • The CIA has at least 1,100 assassination-related documents it has no plans of releasing until at least 2017, for reasons of national security. “None of those documents has ever been seen by the U.S. Congress or the National Archives, let alone by journalists, historians, bloggers, Oliver Stone, Tom Hanks, or the general public.” Anti-conspiracy theorists cite this type of behavior as the fire that fuels overactive imaginations.
  • Adam Gopnik says of the theorists and their neverending quest, “When Kennedy died, and the mystery of his murder began, we took for granted that the patrician in tails with the perfect family and the sordid Oswald belonged to different worlds, just as Ruby’s Carousel Club and the White House seemed light-years apart. When Kennedy was shot, the dignified hierarchy seemed plausible. Afterward, it no longer did. What turned inside out, after his death, was that reality: the inner surface and the outer show, like a magician’s bag, were revealed to be interchangeable. That’s why the death of J.F.K., even as it fades into history, remains so close, close as can be, and closer than that.”

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