For people of “a certain age,” these past few days have called up painful memories. Not only is this the 50th anniversary of President John Kennedy’s assassination, but the 22nd fell on Friday, as it did in 1963.
My purpose isn’t to talk about where I was when it happened (I was on a bus on my way home from college for the weekend). I’ve had several “where were you?” discussions with people in the last few days, not only on Friday, but for the whole weekend, because the tragedy didn’t end on Friday. On Sunday the nation watched in horror as Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald while he was walking between two Dallas policemen. Then on Monday we had the heart-wrenching spectacle of Kennedy’s funeral. Tell me you didn’t break down when John-John saluted as his father’s coffin passed by. Watch it on You-tube now and try to keep from crying.
How significant an impact did Kennedy’s assassination have on America? I’ve heard/read people complaining that we baby-boomers think everything is about us. Remember, they say, your parents’ generation lived through the Depression, WWII, FDR’s death, atomic bombs, the Berlin airlift and the Korean War. Get over yourselves.
I concede, without any argument, that my parents’ generation went through a lot. But—and this is the important point—none of it was on television. They heard about it on radio, they read about in the newspaper, and, if they went to a movie, they saw an abridged form of it in newsreels a week after it happened. Kennedy’s assassination, though, was on TV by the time his car arrived at Parkland Hospital.
In the early 1950s no more than fifteen percent of American homes had a TV set. Live broadcasts from remote areas were only dreamed of. By the end of the decade, though, almost eighty percent of American homes had a TV set. In 1957 the birth of Little Ricky on “I Love Lucy” drew higher ratings than the live broadcast of Eisenhower’s second inauguration the next day.
“Show, don’t tell”—that’s what writers are always admonished to do. Kennedy’s assassination marked the first time we were shown such an event, not told about it.
The very first word, we had, though, was through telling. CBS broke into “As the World Turns” ten minutes into the broadcast. A black screen with “CBS News Bulletin” on it appeared and Walter Cronkite began telling what had been reported up to that time. It’s sobering to go back and see how primitive television news was in 1963. Remember, a half-hour evening news broadcast on the major networks had become standard only in the late 1950s. The news media were still making the transition from radio and print to this new format. Cronkite’s report was no better than radio. When NBC went “live,” they had John Chancellor sitting at a desk, listening to someone on a telephone in Dallas and repeating what he was told, sentence by sentence, apparently unaware that the TV audience could hear what was being said on the phone.
Watching and listening to those early reports helps me understand how information, and misinformation, got spread so quickly. Cronkite refers to three shots and to people on a grassy knoll. When Oswald was shot, a local reporter described the shooter as wearing a black hat and a brown coat, but Jack Ruby’s coat is darker than his hat; that’s clear even in black and white. The reporter also referred to Oswald as “Lee Harold Oswald.”
Kennedy’s assassination was tragic in and of itself, but the fact that it occurred when it did meant that it had a far greater effect on the nation than just the murder of a president. We saw it unfold in front of us, and that raised the impact exponentially. For my parents’ generation, I think it was one more bad thing after a long list of bad things that had happened in their lives. For my generation, it shattered our illusion that all of that was behind us. Kennedy had gotten us past the Cuban missile crisis—thankfully, we didn’t know how narrowly disaster had been averted—and Camelot was still intact.
Suddenly it was all gone, our confidence shattered. Lyndon Johnson tried to assure “my fellow Americans” that everything was all right, but we knew it wasn’t. We had seen it fall apart right before our eyes. A president could be shot. The police couldn’t prevent his killer from being shot. They paraded him, specifically for the TV cameras, practically daring someone to do what Jack Ruby did, and Oswald became the first person murdered on live TV. What sort of mad world were we living in?
The next ten years are among the most difficult in America’s history. We got mired in a war that wasn’t really a war but killed thousands of us anyway. At home, student demonstrations and riots in Watts and Detroit and other places left big chunks of our cities in smoldering ruins. And we watched it all on TV. That’s what we do now, and it seems second nature to us, but fifty years ago Kennedy’s assassination was our first step into a world where we know everything—where we have to know everything—as it happens.