Looking back

Looking north along Broadway, from Houston Street. 1:40 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, November 22,  2011. A beautiful, sunny day in New York with temperatures hovering in the low 60s, and rain forecast in our not so distant holiday future.

President John F. Kennedy was murdered on this day forty-eight years ago while riding in the Presidential limousine through Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

He was forty-six years and six months old. It was a Friday afternoon in America when people first heard the news on their radios and televisions. It was midday in New York. I was sitting in the barber’s chair of Paul Molé’s shop in Lexington Avenue and 74th Street. Molé had the radio on on the counter next to us when the announcer interrupted the program with the statement that the President had just been shot in Dallas. Within a half hour it was announced that he had died at the Parkland Hospital.
 
All of us who were alive at that time (and old enough to process such shocking information) can remember exactly where we were when we heard the news. For the rest of the weekend, the world slowed to a stop while all America was glued to the television (mainly still black and white in those days). There we also witnessed “live” the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected assassin by Jack Ruby who was first reported to have done it to avenge the president’s widow and children.

The President’s widow Jacqueline, who was just 34 years old, was in the limousine next to her husband when it happened. Two days later, on Sunday and Monday, she then, in her grace, led the nation, her family, and the world in its grief, through a state funeral which earned her a respect which rightfully followed her all the days of her life.
I was once told a story about a moment in her life, a number of years later, by which time she had become Mrs. Onassis and was working as an editor in book publishing. She and an associate went out to Beverly Hills to meet with Barbra Streisand to discuss the possibility of the singer writing her autobiography.

During the meeting Jackie asked Streisand about her very successful Central Park concert in the summer of 1967, and why she hadn’t done more of them.

Streisand began her explanation by recounting the heavy security that had been stationed on the rooftops of the buildings surrounding the park before the concert because there had been rumors of a planned PLO hit on her during the performance. Evidently this information had been kept from her until just before she went out before the crowd of 40,000 people, and it (probably) terrified her -- although she made a triumphal performance.

The widow and her two children, Caroline and John Jr.
Jackie at work in 1977. Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time Life Pictures, via Getty Images.
During the conversation recounting this with Jackie and her associate, she realized she was talking about an ordeal that Jackie had actually personally experienced, and she stopped herself and said something like “Oh, I’m sorry ...” Jackie said nothing but smiled acknowledgement.

Later, after the meeting – Streisand decided not to write a memoir at the time – Jackie’s associate ask her how she felt about that pregnant moment of recognition between Streisand and herself. Jackie told her associate (and friend) that she often experienced people coming up to her in public and saying “Oh Mrs. Kennedy, I remember where I was when it happened, and I’m so sorry ...”

What people didn’t seem to realize, Jackie told her friend, was that she too remembered where she was when it happened on that day in Dallas ...

How then, the friend asked, did she handle it so that it didn’t get the best of her? She replied she’d trained herself so that when such encounters occurred, a “steel door” came down before her eyes and she blocked it all out, and moved on. And so it was.

Almost a half century later, there are almost two generations of Americans who never experienced the accession of John F. Kennedy and his generation (the one Tom Brokaw has dubbed the “Greatest Generation”) to the Presidency and political power in America. Whatever one's politics, the youth and vigor (a favorite Kennedy word) he brought to the Presidency gave our nation a moment of excitement that inspired millions of Americans.

Many things came of that “youthful” leadership including all of the great liberation movements of the mid-20th century, as well as entire political, cultural and economic shifts that we are still processing.

John and Jacqueline Kennedy now belong to history and biography, and we will get to know them (without really ever knowing them) by the infinite details that are and will be published about them as individuals, as a couple and a public figures. This is because their brief presence at the center changed the way Americans saw themselves in a very subtle but decisive way.  The woman who led the nation and her family in its grief on this mournful day 48 years ago became a powerful leader herself, using that power of her husband’s memory to shine a bright light on the best of us.
 

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