Bobby and Jackie
The Kennedy family soap opera became a permanent staple of news and culture after the assassination, a tale of triumph and tragedy interwoven. Sen. Ted Kennedy was nearly killed in a summer plane crash in 1964. My family had just arrived for a vacation in Myrtle Beach, SC, when the news hit; again, we gathered around a TV at the Holiday Inn awaiting news of his fate. "Not again!" everyone said, as the possible Kennedy "curse" came into national lore. But Ted pulled through, and Bobby was nominated (and elected) to the U.S. Senate from New York - unstoppable even though he was a carpetbagger who ran against an Empire State veteran, moderate-liberal Sen. Kenneth Keating (R).
RFK also stole the show at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ, in August, when he introduced a film about JFK at what would have been his brother's coronation for a second term. The delegates would not let him speak after his introduction. They screamed and cheered and cried for more than 20 minutes, the convention hall (and people watching at home) swept up in a torrent of emotion that recalled the aftermath of Nov. 22. Bobby felt that intensity himself. Once his task was done, he went outside and, in the semi-privacy of a stairwell, wept uncontrollably. LBJ had feared just such a pro-Kennedy emotional wave, and had structured the convention so that his vice presidential choice, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, had already been announced and nominated. The last thing Johnson wanted was a "draft Bobby for VP" movement on the convention floor. The hatred the two felt for one another had not waned - though earlier in the spring RFK had hoped LBJ would choose him for the ticket, reviving the Kennedy-Johnson alliance of convenience from 1960.
In effect, the alliance was still operational, whatever the principals thought of one another. LBJ's long coattails helped RFK win his Senate seat, a fact that Johnson pointed out to his associates. It wasn't an idle boast, with Johnson winning 68.6% of New York's ballots while Kennedy had a far narrower majority of 53.5%. At the same time, even though Johnson was loath to fully accept it, it was national sadness and guilt about John Kennedy's death that propelled LBJ to his massive national landslide victory of 61.1%, a higher percentage even than the 60.8% achieved by FDR at the height of his power in 1936.
These pro-Kennedy sentiments made the Republican challenge to Johnson a guaranteed failure, even if a more moderate candidate than Barry Goldwater had been selected. The New York Times could not have had it more wrong when on Nov. 23, 1963, just below the screaming headlines about Dallas, a front-page essay asserted: "President Kennedy's assassination [has] increased immeasurably for the leaders of the Republican party [their] prospects of electing a President next November." The idea that Americans would elect a third president inside a year was always absurd, but the article's thesis - widely shared at first by that era's press cognoscenti - reminds us of the eternal dangers of instant analysis.
As the 1960s progressed, we saw Jackie Kennedy on the cover of every magazine. The speculation about her love life was constant, and though her marriage to the unattractive Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis in October 1968 came as an unwelcome stunner to most Americans - Onassis appeared to be an ugly frog by comparison to Jackie's earlier Prince of Camelot - she retained a kind of secular sainthood. Everyone understood why she wanted to flee the United States. Concern about her children's safety had become uppermost in her mind after the assassination of brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968.
JFK's killing would have been vividly remembered in any event, but the second Kennedy murder was so resonant of the first that old horrors were rekindled and reinforced. The country had just been through the disaster of Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder in Memphis on April 4, and was on edge because of the rioting that followed in most major cities. But 1968 was not the year when the United States would be spared any suffering. The assassination terror was replayed during the peak of the presidential primary season. Lyndon Johnson's presidency had been destroyed by his terrible mishandling of the Vietnam War, and after long hesitation and much criticism from anti-war forces, RFK had finally decided to run for president. His timing was poor, coming shortly before LBJ bowed out and long after Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D) had become the anti-war hero by challenging Johnson for re-nomination - and nearly defeating the sitting president in New Hampshire. As a high school student, I had become disenchanted with LBJ (after running around town with "LBJ for the USA" paraphernalia in 1964). While I admired McCarthy and his well scrubbed "Clean for Gene" student advocates, I could not break my emotional tie with the Kennedys. Virginia was not a primary battleground, but I looked forward to working for another Kennedy in the fall.
After the shock of RFK's Oregon loss - the first primary defeat for any Kennedy - we anticipated a different result in the California showdown on June 4, 1968. I stayed up long enough to see that RFK was winning, 46 percent to 42 percent for McCarthy, and happily went to sleep after preparing for my final exam in Latin scheduled for the next day. My next conscious moment was at around 6 a.m., as my father shook me awake. I can still hear his words precisely, "Larry, Bobby Kennedy's been shot, he's been shot!" This flashback nightmare unfolded for millions in precisely the same way. Oh God, no, this can't be happening again! We took heart in that, unlike JFK, this Kennedy lived through the shooting and subsequent brain surgery. Could he recover? How we took our school tests that day, I do not know. In between the tests, we pulled out those rosaries again. I recall my Latin teacher, another Immaculate Heart of Mary nun, saying, "God won't let this Kennedy die. There will be a miracle."
There would be no miracle this time either. That evening, RFK's brain functions ceased and he passed away in the early hours of June 6. As a nation, we returned to our family television for comfort. The funeral train, the grieving crowds, the Requiem Mass, the devastated clan and all those Kennedy children - the fatherless kids, 10 of them with an eleventh on the way - that is what is still etched in our memory. For some reason, I also recall President Johnson's plaintive assertion at a press availability that, "200 million Americans did not strike down Robert Kennedy any more than they struck down President John F. Kennedy in 1963 or Dr. Martin Luther King in April of this year." Johnson was trying to deflect talk that America was a sick society. His argument was reasonable but no one much bought it at the time. To most of us, events seemed to be spinning out of control, and we were collectively depressed in an era before Prozac could help.
The general election only added to the country's sense of unease. The unpleasant choices for president were a recycled Richard Nixon, LBJ's chosen successor, Hubert Humphrey, or the vile racist George Wallace. Kennedy nostalgia was rampant. That the man defeated by JFK in 1960 became his successor in 1968 - though with a mere 43% of the popular vote - added insult to injury for those still devoted to John F. Kennedy.
A tarnished Camelot
Post-RFK, hopes for a Kennedy revival focused on Teddy, still in his 30s but already a seven-year veteran of the Senate. His moving eulogy at brother Robert's funeral caused many to point to the TV, as my father did, and say, "He's going to be president." But few understood the pressures on the last male Kennedy of his generation - his own demons, fears of assassination, the need to look after all the children of his dead brothers. There was a long history of private recklessness in his family, but it first burst into full public view in July 1969 at Chappaquiddick, MA, when Kennedy's car drove off a bridge late at night. A former RFK staffer, Mary Jo Kopechne, was drowned, and Kennedy inexplicably and illegally failed to report the accident for many hours. There is no remaining doubt that he received special treatment, and though home-state love for his family saved Kennedy's Senate career, his future presidential hopes were doomed. Ted didn't run for the White House in 1972 and 1976, and when he announced for the 1980 race, the Kennedys incorrectly believed that Chappaquiddick was a dead letter, not a scarlet letter. In fact, the "character issue" at the heart of Chappaquiddick barred Kennedy even from the Democratic nomination. Had he been the party's 1980 nominee, Kennedy almost certainly would have met a fate similar to Jimmy Carter at the hands of Ronald Reagan.
Ted Kennedy's collapsed presidential bid dashed hopes for a White House family restoration, at least for his generation. Revelations about John F. Kennedy, beginning in the 1970s, also undermined the Kennedy mystique. While insider journalists and top D.C. politicians had long known of JFK's many extramarital affairs, they had been treated as virtually a state secret after the assassination. But the truth began to spill out indirectly when Sen. Frank Church (D-ID) undertook an investigation of CIA misdeeds in the wake of Watergate. Many horrors came to light, and not just about what the CIA had been doing in the American people's name. It was revealed that Kennedy had been keeping company with a beautiful brunette, Judith Campbell (later Exner), before and during his presidency. That alone shocked many; the Kennedy "perfect family" image had been carefully stage-managed since the 1960 campaign, and because of Kennedy's assassination, no one wanted to ruin the fairy tale.
What put this particular liaison into the sphere of legitimate news was a startling fact: Campbell had simultaneously been a mistress of Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana. Messages from the government had been carried back and forth to Giancana by Campbell, mainly about how to dispose of Fidel Castro in Cuba. The disclosure that a woman was being sexually shared by the president and a Mafia don was front-page news, and nothing better demonstrated the personal irresponsibility of President Kennedy. A breathtaking series of eye-opening exposés about JFK's extramarital affairs followed over the years, from nude White House pool parties to famous actresses being escorted in to "see" the President. Mrs. Kennedy was painfully aware of her husband's wanderings, even pointing out JFK's White House secretarial mistress to a French magazine correspondent (in perfect French, no less). Senior members of the press corps knew, and Kennedy had bragged about his sex life to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was intimately familiar with Campbell's relationship with JFK and Giancana, as well as other JFK dalliances - and used it to his great personal advantage. Foreign intelligence services had to be aware of some of this, so it was a security risk. Presidents cannot put themselves in the position of being subject to blackmail.
Everyone knew about JFK's philandering, apparently, except for average Americans who had loved Kennedy and bought the phony image. Even after all the revelations of the Watergate era - not just about Nixon but other presidents - I was not prepared for this. I distinctly remember being crestfallen. Idealized in death, Kennedy was - like all his predecessors and successors - very, very human. His prematurely conferred sainthood was revoked.
Interestingly, though, the new, more realistic portrait of JFK had little effect on the public's evaluation of his presidency, nor did it lessen at all the interest in his 1963 assassination. Watergate strengthened the belief that the Warren Commission had sold the country a bill of goods. Since the government had hidden so much else, it was a decent bet that it had lied about the facts of Kennedy's murder. Millions believed firmly that the CIA had been behind the assassination, and millions more thought it was Mob-related or had been masterminded by Fidel Castro. (Privately, Lyndon Johnson subscribed to the Castro theory.)
A three-year investigation by the House of Representatives in 1976-1979 produced the startling conclusion that a second gunman had indeed been somewhere in Dealey Plaza, based on a sound recording made by a motorcycle policeman's stuck-open microphone. (Other experts have since disputed that finding, and new research conducted for my book, The Kennedy Half Century, demonstrates that the recording contains no gunshots, thus ruling out its use as evidence of a conspiracy.) Nonetheless, the U.S. government has had two official conclusions, never reconciled - that Kennedy was killed by Oswald acting alone, and that the President died as a result of a conspiracy. Hundreds of books and articles have been published on the debate, all contradicting one another, and dozens of major TV specials and Oliver Stone's movie JFK have been aired. The public's appetite for information on the topic has barely waned after a half century.
So much has happened and changed since Nov. 22, 1963. There has been no additional Kennedy nominated or elected to the White House. Truth is, the next generation of Kennedys has not proven to have staying power at the polls, and they have filled only lower offices for brief periods of time. Jackie Kennedy died of a cancerous blood disorder at the young age of 64 in 1994, John F. Kennedy Jr. - the crown prince with the most potential - followed his mother five years later in a self-piloted plane crash, and Ted Kennedy passed away from brain cancer in 2009 at the age of 77.
Presidents have come and gone, unpopular wars and scandals have scarred the landscape, and a frequently sour economy and other intractable problems have reduced Americans' faith in the future. Presidents are no longer placed on a pedestal, and they are subject to withering criticism, 24 hours a day, in a multi-media world. After all the revelations about JFK and his times, few view him quite the same way they once did.
Yes, much of the Kennedy story has been transformed and amended since Nov. 22, 1963. But John F. Kennedy has not changed in one vital sense. He will be forever young, always the picture of vigor and glamour, frozen in time at age 46.
We will always see Jack and Jackie in the majestic black presidential limousine, smiling, waving, bathed in adulation and glorious sunshine. It was a time when the United States was on the rise, when all things seemed possible, when idealism was a practical goal. We yearn for that time, even though we understand that our naïveté colored the portrait, that the image we saw was not fully reality.
November 22, 1963, was a crucial line of demarcation, much like Pearl Harbor or the day Lincoln was shot. A certain kind of history ended, and another began. Our outlook, as individuals and as a country, was much different before and after the event. Generational innocence died.
A baptism of blood in Dealey Plaza gave John F. Kennedy an almost religious dispensation, wiping away the sins of his personal life and the inadequacies of his presidency. He had everything taken from him at the peak of his power, and the nation lost a great deal in that tragedy. The outrageous unfairness of the moment seared and bonded us together. The JFK generation was determined to preserve his legacy, and also our own.
John Kennedy rode off into history that November day, and a half-century later, while we cannot begin to forget the horror of his unjust end, we still feel the need to honor the man who lived at 12:29 pm, not just mourn the one who died at 12:30.
This article was first published at Sabato's Crystal Ball.