Those of us who were alive on that day all remember where we were and how we felt when we got the news that day. Oh, G od. We may not remember exactly all of the details, who was with us, and exactly what we were doing or what we said, or even remember entirely the person who we were.
It was, after all, 50 years ago on November 22, 1963, in Dallas that President John F. Kennedy was shot by a lone assassin named Lee Harvey Oswald, while riding in a motorcade with his wife and John Connolly, the Governor of Texas, and his wife. That was half a century ago, the better part of a life ago, if you remember then and when. Time stopped for Americans that day, and, headed one way into history, diverged on another road. We lost a 46-year-old president who was admired probably beyond reason by millions, because, like another leader whose soaring rhetoric on the National Mall that summer roared all the way to the White House, he had the ability to inspire us to dream. He too, died at an assassin’s hand.
Beyond all that and anything else, the great loss that this country—beyond the whole Kennedy saga, the historical facts of the matter—the greatest loss we suffered as Americans was the source of inspiration, that voice and source of energy, action and vision. What we were left with was an ongoing drama, a legend, the remnants of a family that would continue to engage us and fascinate us even now and especially now.
A 50th anniversary of an event, even one as shocking and tragic as the assassination of a president, amounts to a resurrection, the old story told anew, and remembered by those who can remember it and we tell these stories, these days, through personal memory, through photographs, through musty old newspaper headlines, books and words, videos and flickering images from that day and the mournful afterward days, as well as through mediums and methods that did not exist when John F. Kennedy lived and died.
We prepare to remember that day—which resonates in especially poignant fashion in Georgetown—here, as we always do with speeches, talks, symposiums, the marketing of the cottage industry that is Kennedy books, Kennedy stories, Kennedy histories, Kennedy memorabilia. Fifty years is a long time, but our fascination with the life and death of JFK at this time is not a matter grief or of not getting over it. I suspect the need to remember is spurred not by grief and sorrow, but by history—our own, and that of the day it happened.
We mourn the passing of the president, to be sure, and the flickering of that flame in Arlington Cemetery, which we cannot today visit because of this miasma of the government shutdown, but we also with resignation recognized all that has happened since, the change train that’s rushed through and altered us all as persons and citizens.
John F. Kennedy is, of course, remembered vividly here in Georgeotown by surviving Georgetowners,, he lived and breathed, rented and courted and fathered and familied among us, sometimes looking impossibly young and dashing, like a vision of a long (and then lost) future. He lived in an apartment at 1528 31st Street as a bachelor congressman from Massachusetts, then lived for a time with his sister Eunice a few blocks down the street. After winning his senate seat in 1952, he moved into an apartment at 3260 N St., NW, for two years. He was living at 3271 P St., NW, when he proposed to Jackie, whom he had met at a friend’s house in Georgetown. The couple’s first house was at 3321 Dent Place, NW, where they lived in 1954. They moved to 2808 P St., NW, in 1957 and then to 3307 N St., NW, the couple’s last residence in Georgetown. He was still a Georgetowner when he ran for president, and his son John Jr. was born at Georgetown University Hospital.
Looked at through the prism of his residential moves in Georgetown, it’s fair to say that Kennedy lived his manly youth here, in the kind of perpetual tree-shaded sunlight so characteristic of Georgetown. He lived among his peers, his family, within sight and sound of the spires—buildings and academic intellect—of Georgetown University, of Holy Trinty Church, as part of a high-powered community full of men and women of achievement, wealth and style. The Georgetowner was here too, chronicling much of the comings and goings under founder and owner Ami Stewart.
Georgetown was different then, we are generations removed from the Kennedys in Georgetown, and most of those high-profile leaders are long gone, along with many members—the brothers, daughters and sons, grandparent, Robert and Ted, John John and Rose and Joe—of the Kennedy family.
We wrote often about the Kennedys, and in the aftermath of the assassination we tried to capture the changing, and elusive legend, watched it change over time. It became something of a tradition and part of our November journalistic life.
But now, because half a century is 50 years and a large part of a life, it is time to reflect in more detail. We have a wealth of tools to look back with—books and histories too numerous to count from those rushed and labored over in the immediate aftermath— Arthur Schlesinger’s “A Thousand Days,” and William Manchester’s still readable account of “The Death of a President” spring immediately to mind—and books of photographs and exhibitions, and films—“Parkland” a new film that recounts the assassination day is out now, but there’s always the rabbit hole of Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” a conspiracy movie to end all conspiracy movies—and memories and life and times. We had our friend Pierre Salinger, JFK’s much put-upon press secretary writing for us in the late 1990s until 2002.
For now, though here in Washington, D.C., where JFK’s funeral and memorialization and institutionalization of Camelot are vivid memories, we can remember at the Newseum, which will be holding a JFK Remembrance Day Nov. 22. The Newseum is showing numerous films, and holding numerous activities, including two ongoing exhibitions. There’s “Three Shots Were Fired,” a rich and detailed exhibition full of artifacts—including among many the Bell & Howell 8 mm movie camera, used by Abraham Zapruder which captured the killing.
“Creating Camelot” is an exhibition of “The Kennedy Photography of Jacques Lowe,” with photographs of images of the Kennedys and their children, Caroline and John. Lowe was the family’s personal photographer.
You can find a more wide-ranging view in “Capturing Camelot,” a book of photographs by the late Look Magazine photographer Stanley Tretick, with moving text by Georgetowner and best-selling author Kitty Kelley and photographs by Tetrick of the Kennedys that appear as startling and fresh as the sounds you might have heard at a Kennedy family breakfast or touch football game.
No doubt there will be an onslaught of memories, of pictures and musings about that day. I remember myself then, sort of, a young private first class in the United States Army in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, sitting in a group of chairs around a black-and-white television set that day, and later on a Sunday, watching Lee Harvey Oswald murdered by Jack Ruby. We had never seen or felt or experienced anything remotely like that and we wept, and then were stunned into silence and later, the salute, the widow, the old Frenchman, President Charles de Gaulle, the thunder and drums and the coffin and the horse.
He still inspires us today, I think, and seems in pictures, still very alive. But it was 50 years ago. The history—the kind that tortures us madly today in our daily lives amid a government shutdown and the kind that happened then—lives on and perhaps it will echo stronger in times notable for the absence of reasonable, pragmatic and inspiring men.