My Personal JFK Reflections

Friday, November 29, 2013
Aaron Shilker's posthumously commissioned official White House portrait of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Up until the tragic events of 9/11, people of my age group (and younger) did not have their own "where were you?" moment like those born before 1957-1958 did when our nation's 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas' Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963.  While our nation had experienced similar terrible events in its past (Pearl Harbor, the similar political killings of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, natural disasters like the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake), what made the Kennedy murder much more profound was in the way we all learned about it.  News of the Japanese attack on our Hawaiian naval and aviation outposts (and FDR's subsequent declaration of war against Japan) was disseminated via the most modern technology of that time--radio; however, because of its remote location, it took nearly two weeks for some newspapers to get the initial images of the damage and several months later for people to see the devastation in newsreel coverage at their local movie theaters.

Snippets of CBS News' coverage of the unfolding events from Dallas 50 years ago.

The events of that November 1963 day were nearly instantaneously transmitted into the homes of over 175 million Americans (and millions more overseas via undersea cabling and the initial constellation of communication satellites) to experience both the sights and sounds of what had transpired and what would unfold over the next 72+ hours.  For folks who have grown used to today's up-to-the-minute social media and portable electronics timeliness paradigms, those 1940s-era delays would have been unbearable.  Likewise, someone who has grown accustomed to the multimedia barrage of information, graphics and video that is the standard for today's news broadcasts would be utterly bored with the radio-like presentation that the "Big Three" networks relied upon to get the news out to their millions of viewers on that fateful afternoon.  In the clip provided above, the first live video feed appears to have been the arrival of Air Force One carrying the former president's body and his successor back to Andrews Air Force Base at around 6PM that evening.  For journalists and networks just getting used to the newly expanded 30-minute nightly broadcasts on CBS and NBC, the next three days would test their mettle and bring television news of age to America (some credit these events as the moment when more people started to get their news from television than from the dominant newspaper industry).  Much like the paradigm shifts seen after the invention of the Gutenberg moveable type press in 1456, the telegraph in 1838, radio in 1895 and television in 1927, a new medium was formally adopted by our society's observers to improve upon previous methods of gathering and disseminating news and information.

Alfred Eisenstaedt's 1961 photograph of President Kennedy is probably the first one I remember of him while attending elementary school back in the mid 1960s.

As I stated above, I have no personal recollection of that day (although I'm guessing that I was parked in a playpen near the television while my parents watched the wall-to-wall news coverage and took care of my then 6-month old younger brother).  The first time I can recall seeing a picture of JFK was when I was a student at a small parochial elementary school outside Scranton, Pennsylvania and a framed copy of one of Alfred Eisenstaedt's 1961 photographs hung in a glass frame above the stairwell entrance from the outside play yard.  I vaguely remember seeing television coverage of events surrounding the 10th anniversary but, unfortunately, it was probably drowned out by the then-current political imbroglio revolving around the Watergate break-in (and President Nixon's resignation nine months later).  I was overseas for the 20th anniversary and I believe my wife and I visited Arlington National Cemetery in September 1988--two months prior to the 25th anniversary.  The last time I had visited the gravesite was in August 2012 when my son and I swung through Washington, DC on the last leg of a "father-son" vacation.

The National Museum of the United States Air Force houses several former presidential transport aircraft, to include the one that brought JFK's body back to Washington, DC

This modified long-range Boeing 707 Stratoliner was used by Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon as their primary means of air transportation during their presidencies.

Known in Air Force circles as a VC-137C,  it was given the name "SAM 26000" for everyday use (and is called Air Force One only when the president is onboard).
The presidential seal was added with the new paint scheme for presidential aircraft suggested by Jacqueline Kennedy when SAM 26000 was delivered to the Air Force in 1962.  This same livery was subsequently adopted for the two new 747-variants that came into service in 1990.

 The spot where Lyndon Johnson took his first oath of office is highlighted inside the aircraft (Cecil W. Stoughton's photograph is displayed for reference).

An improptu modification to the aircraft interior--a saw cut made to accommodate JFK's casket to be carried inside the passenger area instead of in the cargo hold--was repaired in subsequent refurbishments to SAM26000.

A look up SAM26000's main aisle from the galley section towards the front of the aircraft.  The area where LBJ took his oath of office is approximately halfway up the right-hand side.

While not a spiritual person, I do believe that I am sometimes placed into situations or places for reasons entirely out of my control.  One of those weird coincidences occurred this past month when I was selected at the last minute for a job-related training course that would be held in the Washington, DC area the very same week as the 50th anniversary observances.  Already aware of a local connection to the assassination, I headed over to the National Museum of the United States Air Force's Presidential Gallery that houses several former aircraft used to transport our nation's leaders since the early 1940s.  One of those planes, a modified Boeing 707 Stratoliner, was a major prop in the events of that November 1963 day.  Officially known as Boeing VC-137C SAM 26000 ("SAM" stands for "Special Air Mission"), it served as the setting for the administration of the presidential oath of office to Lyndon Johnson while parked at Dallas' Love Field and the transportation of the fallen JFK back to Washington, DC for his funeral and burial the following Monday.  While other historical activities were undertaken by SAM26000 (Nixon's historic trip to the People's Republic of China in 1972, the trip by former presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter to Cairo to attend the funeral of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in October 1981), the ones surrounding the assassination are what attracts attention--and visitors--to the southwestern Ohio museum every November.  Since I have a government-issued ID, I was able to drive myself over to the hangar and see the plane minus the tourists that are bussed over on regular schedules from the museum.  For almost five minutes, I was the only person inside that plane and that's when the gravity and awe of standing in such an historic spot (a placard denotes the approximate location where Johnson took the oath of office--future reconfigurations changed some of the interior spaces) washed over me and prepared me for my upcoming activities in the nation's capital.

The outside marque of the Newseum advertised the special JFK exhibits on display at the facility.

 The outer wall of the "Creating Camelot" exhibition, featuring the photography of Jacques Lowe, on the lower floor of the Newseum.

Several political items using Lowe's photography were prominently displayed.

A Lowe photograph of a Burlington, Vermont campaign event the day before the November 1960 general election.

A sampling of many of the magazine covers devoted to the Kennedy family during his time in office on the top floor of the Newseum.

Pennants mark the walkway going towards the main JFK exhibition on the top floor of the Newseum.

The beginning of the "Three Shots Were Fired" exhibit on the top floor of the Newseum (photography of exhibition materials after that point was prohibited).

A copy of the November 23, 1963 edition of The Dallas Morning News on display in the News Corporation News History Gallery at the Newseum.

An emotional Walter Cronkite notifying the nation that JFK was dead played on the Newseum's 40 foot by 22 foot  "Electronic Window on the World" high-definition LED screen.

Some of the JFK-related items being offered for sale in the Newseum's gift shops.

A close-up of some of the Kennedy-related souvenirs available for purchase. 

A "Creating Camelot" photo booth was positioned next to the Newseum's Food Court area.

While I was notified about the training trip at nearly the last possible moment, I was already aware of several exhibitions that I just had to see at the Newseum, a Washington, DC attraction that advertises itself as "providing a forum where the media and the public can gain a better understanding of each other."  I had been to this facility on two previous occasions and I was going to get here by hook or by crook (or, thankfully, through the resources provided to me by my government customer) so I combined my personal desires with the course's requirements and arrived in the northern Virginia area the weekend before it started.  After paying for admission, I made my way down to the lower floor to see the first of the JFK-related exhibits.  "Creating Camelot" featured the photography of Jacques Lowe, who was hired by Joseph Kennedy in 1958 to become his son's official campaign photographer and to "sell Jack like soap flakes" to the general public.  A photo of Jacqueline Kennedy graced the entrance sign to the area where his photos and other memorabilia--to include political paraphernalia--were on display.  One photo of JFK taken from a press riser on the day before the 1960 general election in Burlington, Vermont struck a chord with me because it harkened back to my own photographic documentation efforts during the 2012 primary and general elections here in Ohio.  After taking in all of Lowe's offered works, I headed over to the elevators to take me to the top floor of the facility to see the "Three Shots Were Fired" exhibit, which displayed the camera that Abraham Zapruder used to film the exact moment of Kennedy's death, various items discarded by or found on Lee Harvey Oswald when he was taken into police custody, and other associated artifacts from that fateful event (due to conditions under which the items were loaned, no photography was allowed inside that area).  Once completed, I continued through several other portions of the Newseum, to include the News Corporation-sponsored News History Gallery where the front page of the November 23, 1963 edition of The Dallas Morning News was available for viewing.  On the facility's 40 foot by 22 foot high definition LED display, I was able to see CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite's emotional announcement of Kennedy's death to his television viewing audience.  To capitalize on the JFK-centric visitors, the two gift shops had sections dedicated to the Kennedy exhibits and a wide variety of items to remember one's visit (unfortunately, they paled in comparison to the amount of materials available to promote the upcoming release of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues that had its own exhibit on the second floor).  If you wanted a kitschy picture memento, you could go down to an area adjacent to the Food Court where a photo booth was set up to produce four-shot image strips for an undetermined cost.

Crowds gathered at the President John Fitzgerald Kennedy Gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday, November 23.

A portion of JFK's inauguration speech adorns the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery.

A view of Arlington House from the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery.  A wreath from Kennedy's sole surviving sibling, Jean Kennedy Smith, can be seen behind the Eternal Flame behind the former president's headstone.

Solemn crowds visiting the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday, November 23.

Smaller floral arrangements and a hand-drawn card were some of the items left behind at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Gravesite on Saturday, November 23.

With that visit complete, I was able to concentrate on the main reason for my trip and logged a very long week of instruction and field trips to curriculum-related locations.  That included Friday, the actual 50th anniversary date and, unfortunately, we didn't finish up until nearly sundown so I had to wait until the following day to head over to Arlington National Cemetery to pay my respects to the fallen leader and his family members at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Gravesite.  A steady stream of visitors made their way past the headstones and the Eternal Flame directly behind the former president's grave.  Several wreaths were laid near the rear of the cordoned-off area (to include the one presented by the Obama and Clinton families on Thursday) and one from Jean Kennedy Smith, JFK's lone surviving sibling, was still seated on a stand.  Many smaller floral tributes were left behind by those who came by to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, and at least one personal card was seen mixed in with the flowers.

My attempt at capturing a scene that I saw in Saturday's Washington Post (left photo by Linda Davidson)

The weather was a lot nicer than it was the previous day (clouds with rain) so I felt that I might be able to capture some good images.  On my way down to the cemetery, I picked up a copy of Saturday's The Washington Post and I saw the ideal photo angle on its front page that I wanted to recreate for myself.  Linda Davidson, a staff photographer for that newspaper, had taken one on Friday that had several important elements within it (mourners, the red leaves and bare trees, the Washington Monument) and I was hoping to be able to borrow it for my own graphic.  The first hurdle was finding the exact spot where she would've been standing and, with a map of the cemetery in hand, I trekked up what seemed to be hundreds of stairs until I arrived at Arlington House, a location just above the target.  From there, it was just a matter of moving into a position that would mimic that of Davidson's.  With the large crowds of people at the JFK gravesite (and because I had not contacted the site authorities for press credentials/privileges), I didn't want to become an unwanted intruder into other people's photographs or overstep my visitor role so I chose not to venture as far to the center of the grassy rise as she did and I saw the result of that decision when I compared the two images later than evening.  Because of her closeness to the center line of the Eternal Flame with the Washington Monument, her portrait view is a lot tighter than mine and it still displays those desired elements mentioned above.  I did have one that was closer to her front page shot but I somehow changed the setting on my camera to full manual when I switched over to a telephoto lens and I made no adjustments other than focusing when I snapped those.  It's times like this that I really miss the flexibility of my old "moon" camera.

I found a commemorative copy of the November 23, 1963 edition of The Dallas Morning News at an Ohio travel stop.

I had purchased this original copy of the December 14, 1963 edition of The Saturday Evening Post a few years back.
A copy of the November 23, 1963 front page of The New York Times (from the book The New York Times: Front Pages 1851-2012).

A commemorative copy of the November 25, 1963 edition of LIFE Magazine was included in a new book The Day Kennedy Died: Fifty Years Later: LIFE Remembers the Man and the Moment.

I picked up this DVD at the Newseum that features Dick Stolley's recollection of his personal negotiations with Abraham Zapruder to secure the rights to his film that captured the JFK assassination for LIFE Magazine.

I will tell you that I'm a sucker for souvenirs and mementos and anything relating to the 50th anniversary was considered fair game.  In addition to over a dozen books and nearly all of the major news magazines' special JFK editions, I must confess that I picked up a few "supermarket rags" that featured outrageous stories about supposed murder plots by LBJ, second shooters, Oswald's body disappearing from its grave, and JFK's autopsy.  One of my fortuitous finds was a replica copy of the November 23, 1963 edition of The Dallas Morning News at a travel stop in central Ohio (it was marketed nationally in a partnership with USA Today/Gannett).  As a self-proclaimed "news junkie", I already had some materials from previous observances (a copy of the December 14, 1963 edition of The Saturday Evening Post--the last one to feature a Norman Rockwell cover--and a facsimile copy of the front page of the November 23, 1963 edition of The New York Times inside a book featuring historic editions from 1851 through 2012) and I added to those a commemorative replica of LIFE Magazine's November 25, 1963 edition that was tucked into a coffee-table rememberance book that retailed for $50 (a Barnes & Noble discount helped to knock a few bucks off my purchase price).  The "sleeper" buy had to be a DVD titled Zapruder and Stolley: Witness to an Assassination that I picked up at the Newseum on a whim.  This 35-minute video features Richard "Dick" Stolley, LIFE Magazine's Los Angeles bureau chief/editor back in November 1963, and his actions that lead to him securing the rights to Zapruder's 26-second film that captured the entire assassination for his publication.  Some of the pointers and advice he shares are as applicable to today's journalists as they were to him 50 years ago (dress professionally, using all available resources, be prompt and persistent but remain professional, establish a rapport with your subject).  His coup of securing those rights led to further success with that magazine and other publications and induction into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame in 1996.

PBS's Secrets of the Dead series featured the assassination in "JFK: One PM Central Standard Time".

While this is a rather lengthy post, it will definitely not be my final dabbling into assassination-related information for the foreseeable future.  Because of all of the travel and extended working hours, I could not predict my schedule to watch any of the television specials and documentaries that aired over the past two weeks or so.  Using internet-provided television listings, I programmed our back-up DVR for almost 16 hours worth of recordings the night before I left for Washington DC (I kept my fingers crossed when severe weather passed through this area two days after I left that could have wiped out all of my scheduling--luckily, the power stayed on and everything was recorded).  The "must see" show of my choices was PBS's Secrets of the Dead series and an episode called "JFK: One PM Central Standard Time".  The hour-long offering focused on venerated CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite and how he and his CBS News colleagues waded through uncharted journalistic territory to promptly--yet accurately--inform the American public of the tragic unfolding events in Dallas via a medium that had never experienced such a overwhelming workload until that fateful day.  From the first bulletin about shots being fired early Friday afternoon until a recap of the state funeral and the activities related to the death of the alleged assassin on Monday night, Cronkite and future household news names like Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, Harry Reasoner and others kept that network's viewers apprised of--and intimately involved in--this national tragedy and helped establish the broadcast standards that were last utilized to such a degree just a little over 12 years ago.

President and Mrs. Kennedy with their children Caroline and John Jr. in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts in August 1962 (photo by Cecil W. Stoughton).

This anniversary will probably be the last one that will attract the elevated levels of attention we saw by the media and by individuals who were personally touched by the horror of that late November day.  Much like the witnesses (or survivors) of other national tragedies, its relevance in today's society will wane until it becomes a footnote in a history book or a tour stop on a dreaded family vacation.  Many speculate about how we would be remembering JFK today if it were not for his untimely death 50 years ago.  We learned a lot about JFK private life in the years following his death and much of that information was in stark contrast to the public image we were sold by the media.  After those unflattering revelations were made known, the press "bubble" that used to surround the White House concerning the reporting of matters of a personal or unflattering nature was forever punctured for the sake of adhering to the precept of journalistic integrity--or, in frequent cases, to make political points.  Two of the most prolific examples of this policy change were the Watergate scandal that brought an early end to Richard Nixon's second term in office and the revealing of Bill Clinton's affair with a White House intern that resulted in his impeachment by the US House of Representatives.  The last two occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have endured unprecedented amounts of objective and partisan scrutiny during their respective administrations and their successors can expect even more examination in our present 24/7 news cycle, social media saturated environment.  Perhaps it was the way that Kennedy's life was taken that the press helped his widow disseminate the "Camelot" myth to the still-grieving public to help soften the blow of his murder and to proactively stem the anticipated criticisms when his fallacies finally came to light.  In spite of what is now known, it's hard for people of my age group or older not to envision him and his family when reading these lyrics from the 1961 play that similarly documented the fall of a beloved legendary leader:

Don't let it be forgot,
that once there was a spot,
for one brief shining moment,
that was known as Camelot

1 comment:

Unknown said...

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