So, this is the Sunday where traditionally the SMC is about Tuesday.
This year Tuesday is November 22. In 1963, November 22 was a Friday. It was probably the most powerful day of my then young eleven year life. So much so that it still resonates today. If you’re a boomer, you no doubt feel the same way. However, if you are looking for any historical references to it in today’s modern day media you’ll be hard pressed unless you stumble upon one of those “This Day in History” mentions. The date lives on like a perpetual flame even if the anniversary mention of it doesn’t.
John F. Kennedy was assassinated fifty-nine years ago the day after tomorrow. With all due respect to 9/11/01, 11/22/63 was a life changer for me. Shook me to the core. To a young kid everything was bigger than life back then. Our president being killed was something I could never imagined happening. All that mattered to me was the Jets game that Sunday against Kansas City. Until the shots were fired. Then the football game and just about everything else in American life went on hold.
“President Kennedy is dead,” Meadowbrook Elementary School principal Albert Tyler said over the public address system at about 2:16 pm, some forty-five minutes after he initially told us the president had been shot. I was in the sixth grade on Long Island. When Mr. Tyler, who in college no doubt majored in being mean with a minor in intimidating, went on the PA it was never good news. However, this was beyond comprehension.
School was not dismissed early that day as the week was about to end in a few minutes anyway. We rode home in the yellow Blue Bird school bus; the driver was crying and so was Mom when I walked in the door. The reality of what happened really hit me when our bowling league was canceled that afternoon. Bowling was never canceled. Ironically, I still remember the feeling; I remember Walter Cronkite on the television set with rabbit ears and Dad coming home from work devastated. We barely talked during dinner, instead focused on the television, something that was taboo at any other time. I remember the cold weekend and seeing suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald shot to death on live television Sunday afternoon. The national day of mourning and the funeral were on Monday. We were crushed. Looking back I can’t fathom how our country could overcome and move on. It’s all still so fresh in so many ways all these many moons later.
On Facebook this Tuesday, betting dollars to crypto, my pal from summer camp way back in 1965 Joe Allen is going to post about the anniversary. He’ll also mention the morose finally broke on February 9, 1964, with 73 million watching The Ed Sullivan Show when the host said the words, “Ladies and gentlemen…the Beatles!” All My Loving sent the country into a frenzy that maybe did put the assassination behind us.
I disagree with Joe just a little. My return to reality was a little earlier, on December 22, 1963, when the Jets played their rescheduled game from November 24 against KC. The Jets lost 48-0. I knew then things were back to normal.
Lately, as I get more nostalgic, the Kennedy assassination still plays a significant role in my remembrances of being a kid. About eight months ago I ordered two books pertaining to that era. Eight months ago all I had to worry about was avoiding double bogey on hole number ten, writing an SMC three times a month and making sure Andi had a regular supply of peaches in the house. There was plenty of time for reading and other good stuff. Then the synagogue presidency came calling in July and now my focus has changed to making sure there are sugar-free cookies on the buffet; people not reserving seats in the chapel in advance; proper gender du jour markings on the rest rooms and toilets that flush. You know, the important things. Reading time was suddenly scarce.
Both books – Vincent Bugliosi’s Four Days in November, published in 2007 after 20 years of research and Irwin F. Gellman’s new Campaign of the Century about the 1960 presidential election, were treasures to me. So many things came to life that I once knew but didn’t remember; that maybe I still remembered but learned so much more about, and mainly things I never knew about the Kennedy era. So insightful in fact, I forgot all about the plaster chipping off the wall in the synagogue kids’ bathroom. I’m sure I will be reminded of that at Temple Sinai’s annual meeting.
Bugliosi, in 512 pages, took me through every painstaking detail of the long weekend November 22-25, 1963, and little known additional background. I never had a doubt that Oswald, a Russian sympathizer and Castro supporter, was the single shooter. He was married to a Russian woman he met some years earlier in Minsk. They lived outside Dallas in Irving, Texas. His mother was a looney-toon who sought to monetize her son’s infamy after the assassination. What we will never know is whether or not JFK’s death was a conspiracy or Oswald acted alone. He was a 24-year-old drifter who got a storeroom job at the Texas School Book Depository, a downtown Dallas building on JFK’s parade route. While his co-workers were having lunch or outside to see the president, Oswald looked for a key vantage point to shoot. The plan worked.
Oswald was gunned down two days later, November 24,1963, on Sunday afternoon live television by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner and a wannabe big shot. Ruby didn’t have much going for him but wanted to be a somebody with both the police and media, often schmoozing and bringing lunch to the station house and newsroom.
Ruby, 52, was a big JFK supporter and was devastated by Oswald’s crime. He also loved the city of Dallas and feared the murder would ruin his city. Actually that didn’t happen until 26 years later when Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys.
On the night of the assassination Ruby, nee Jack Rubenstein, went to his synagogue to pray for Kennedy’s widow Jackie and the kids. He reportedly left his handgun in the car. Clearly, he wasn’t the temple president and entered unarmed. Two days later when Oswald was being transferred to the county jail, Ruby walked by the police station, found an entrance that was unmanned and ambled in. Nobody paid attention to him. When he saw Oswald being escorted to a police vehicle he took out his gun and shot. “I hope I killed the son of a bitch,” he said when apprehended on the spot. It was not premeditated, just raw emotion from a man whose country was just attacked. With that shot, the mystery of who, what and why of Lee Harvey Oswald died too.
Gelman’s book, Campaign of the Century, details in 324 pages, how Kennedy won the White House three years earlier in 1960. I remember a couple of things from sixty-two years ago but not the election. There are two events that are still etched on a hard drive in my head. The first being the Pirates beating the Yankees in the World Series when Bill Mazeroski’s hit a Series winning home run on October 13, 1960. Then a couple of weeks later and a couple of days before the Kennedy- Nixon election, my dad taking me to see candidate Kennedy on a drive-by: Dad perching me on the hood of his Hudson Hornet as JFK passed on Hempstead Turnpike in an open roof vehicle. We waved from the parking lot outside a car wash. He waved back.
I knew of Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. as a Democratic political powerhouse and influencer out of Massachusetts. I did not know he made his money in stock market and commodities trading and later parlayed that into wealth investing in real estate and industry until Gellman’s book filled in the blanks. Reportedly, he was not shy about his anti-semitism. He wasn’t likely to become a temple president. Kennedy was appointed the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission by FDR in 1934 and later became ambassador to the U.K. His ambition was to make his son, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. the president of the United States. Kennedy Jr. was killed in 1944, shot down at 29-years-old in WWII. Next up was Sr.’s second oldest son, John F. Kennedy.
JFK was elected to Congress from Massachusetts in 1947 at age 30. He won two more terms in the House and then became a two-term Senator elected in 1953 and 1959. His opponent for President in 1960, Richard M. Nixon, had served two House terms, one in the Senate and the previous eight years as Vice President under Dwight D. Eisenhower. Both Nixon and Kennedy had never lost an election. One of those streaks was about to end.
They couldn’t have been more different. Kennedy was 43, had youthful good looks, a beautiful 31-year-old wife, a three-year-old daughter and a son born right after Election Day. The knock was he was a political novice with virtually no international experience. He was Irish Catholic; there had never been one in the White House. It was no secret that Dad was a Democratic Party influencer and JFK didn’t hesitate to play that card. Jokingly, he told the Washington D.C. Gridiron Club in 1958 he just got a telegram from his father and then read it to the audience: “Dear Jack. Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I am going to pay for a landslide!” Kennedy’s personality and his dad’s dough was enough to bypass political experience beating more tested rivals like Hubert Humphrey, Stuart Symington and his soon-to-be Vice President Lyndon Johnson in the primaries to get the 1960 nomination.
Nixon at 47 was more politically polished, serving the past eight years as VP for Eisenhower, a popular incumbent. He had many personality quirks, not the least of which was seen as being dour, insecure and vindictive. He, like Kennedy Sr., was also anti-semitic and played that card openly in his inner circle. He had to withstand a late ‘60 primary challenge from New York governor Nelson Rockefeller who then turned down Nixon’s offer to be his VP. Instead, Nixon chose former Mass. senator and sitting ambassador to the U.N. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. for the nod. Kennedy had beaten Lodge in a Bay State Senate race seven years earlier. Nixon’s candidacy wasn’t buoyed by the first ever televised presidential debate from Chicago on September 26, 1960. He was recently released from a two week hospitalization with a knee infection and looked worn, pale and haggard. Kennedy was counseled on appearance and wardrobe. He wore a dark suit on the black and white broadcast. Nixon wore tan and looked further washed out. Even though Nixon might have won the substance of the debate, Kennedy came off as the golden boy in the nation’s living rooms. Over 100 million Americans either watched on TV or listed on radio. Television impressions aside, Nixon looked just fine on radio. Kennedy later admitted he most likely won the election that night. Though Nixon fared better during the next three debates, he couldn’t overcome the first. That was compounded by a reporter asking President Eisenhower what were the main attributes Nixon brought to the White House as his VP. Factiously, Ike replied, ”Give me a week, I might think of one.” The Dems were off and running with that line. Nixon’s “They Can’t Lick Our Dick” campaign buttons nosedived.
As much of a grasp as November 22, 1963, still has on me, I found the background to the election and assassination grab me tighter and not let go. Kennedy won the job but ultimately lost his life. The margin was razor thin, one half of one percentage point. Kennedy got 34,221,000 chads to Nixon’s 34,109,000. Electorally the college was a bit wider with JFK winning 303-219. As of this writing, all precincts have reported.
However, even in 1960, there were rampant reports of fraud. These were probably legit. The mob got behind JFK, seeing him as more politically naive and controllable than Nixon and more susceptible to their influence. Illinois’ voting was a mess with not only vote tampering but allegedly the ability to vote more than once. Nixon lost Illinois by 890 votes. There were similar cries in Texas, Missouri, Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
Immediately following Election Day, November 8, 1960, Nixon was encouraged to challenge the results. His party, his advisors and even his wife Pat all pleaded with him to cry foul. Say what you want about Tricky Dick and his dark and suspect presidency that ultimately began eight years later, but he was steadfast. So steadfast in fact that on January 6 (sound familiar?),1961, he presided over his own defeat as President of the Senate. His explanation of why he did not challenge was something this country would have welcomed sixty-plus years later. “My heart told me to do it, but my head said no,” he told the Washington Post in 1983. “If in the United States an election was found to be fraudulent, it would mean that every pipsqueak in every one of these other developing countries that lost an election could simply bring a fraud charge and there would be a coup. The United States couldn’t afford to have a vacuum in leadership for a period of time without knowing who the president was. Even though we were in it to win it, the cost in world opinion and the effect on democracy in the broadest sense of the word would be detrimental.”
Assassinations withstanding, it’s time for history to repeat itself.