It feels like yesterday. My grief is still raw.
Though I never met John Kennedy personally, I felt close to him for many reasons. At the time, I lived in Washington, D.C. — in fact, my home at 211 “A” Street, N.E., was just a block from the U.S. Capitol. I was already deep into Democratic politics when Kennedy decided to run for president. His messages inspired me, and I passionately believed he was the person our country needed. I quit my job and volunteered to work on his campaign. They needed people in the office who could take shorthand, and soon I was given the task of not only typing but preparing letters for his signature. Most of the letters got routine responses, but sometimes I would have to ask for guidance – especially when the writers were seeking favors, judgeships, and the like. Long before he was elected, folks were already carving out a piece of the pie for themselves. My letter-writing efforts were rewarded with an invitation to the Inaugural Ball.
Later I was offered a job in his administration. Many starry-eyed young people like me were anxious to have a part in the New Frontier. Adventure was in the air. Though the appointment didn’t work out, by that time I had met a number of his aides and I had friends who knew him personally. I avidly followed every speech, every event of his presidency. I rationalized his failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs and I bit my nails and celebrated his leadership in the Cuban missile crisis. He was my personal hero, the center of life as I knew it.
On November 22, 1963, I was working in an office building on “K” Street. I had gotten up from my desk to walk down the hall when I heard a woman say “The President’s been shot!” At first I didn’t take her seriously. It seemed too crazy. But I sensed that something was wrong, so I put on my coat and went down to the street to see what was happening. A newsboy was hawking an early edition of the city’s afternoon paper, the Washington Daily News. I bought a copy.
I told myself: surely it was only a minor wound. An article on the inside of the front page was titled:
It started out:
“HOUSTON, Nov. 22 — The story of President and Mrs. Kennedy’s ‘non-political’ trip to Texas is chock full of bad timing and highly political backfires.” This piece of reporting was wisely omitted from the paper’s next edition, but I saved it because of the cruel irony.
The news of his death came about an hour or so later. I was shocked numb. I couldn’t believe it. We were sent home from work early. It was Friday, and, like the rest of the nation, I spent that evening and all day Saturday staring at the television set, tears streaming down my face, my heart unable to accept what I was hearing and seeing. The live minute-by-minute coverage bore on and on, gradually turning the nightmare into reality. On Saturday I went to buy groceries at the A&P, and I remember the stillness. No one said a word. People were wrapped up tight in their grief as if it was deeply personal, even though all of us shared the same sorrow. Everything felt strange. My body was functioning, but I wasn’t inside it. I could hardly feel what I was touching or the ground underneath me.
The funeral was on Sunday. I bundled up against the cold and stood waiting on the sidewalk for the procession to arrive at the Capitol, where the President’s casket would lie in state in the Rotunda. At the exact moment when the riderless horse passed in front of us, followed by his casket on a horse-drawn caisson, a man next to me holding a radio announced to the crowd that Lee Harvey Oswald had been killed. He held up his radio so we could hear the news and a replay of the gunshots. What an emotional moment that was, with Kennedy’s casket in front of us and the sound of shots in Dallas in the background. Moments later, those shots were replaced by the deafening salute of cannon on the Capitol grounds.
I got in line and paid my respects to my hero, overwhelmed with sadness but at the same time awed by the majesty of the occasion. As the day wore on, people started to arrive from all over the country. The line to the Capitol passed right in front of my house. I watched through my window as thousands filled up the narrow street, slowly shuffling through the night as they patiently waited their turn. When I woke up the next morning the line was still there. The record shows that “hundreds of thousands lined up in near-freezing temperatures to view the casket. Over the span of 18 hours, 250,000 people, some waiting for as long as 10 hours in a line up to 10 persons wide that stretched 40 blocks, nearly 10 miles, personally paid their respects as Kennedy’s body lay in state.”*
While Camelot didn’t turn out to be quite as perfect as I believed at the time, John Kennedy inspired a generation and his legacy cannot be denied. The assassination of a president is a horrific act that wounds a nation forever. You can tell me that it was 50 years ago, but it still feels like yesterday.