The Death of a President: John F. Kennedy's Assassination 50 Years Ago This Month Stunned-And Forever Changed-America

By Ross, Brooke | New York Times Upfront, November 18, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Death of a President: John F. Kennedy's Assassination 50 Years Ago This Month Stunned-And Forever Changed-America


Ross, Brooke, New York Times Upfront


On Nov. 22, 1963, 14-year-old Jenyce Gush stood on the crowded curb of Lemmon Avenue in her hometown of Dallas, Texas.

The high school freshman and thousands of others were there to get a glimpse of the handsome young president, John E Kennedy, who was campaigning in Dallas ahead of the 1964 presidential election. Sitting in the back of an open-top limousine with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, the president came into view at about noon. Jenyce felt a rush as she smiled and waved at the passing motorcade.

That excitement turned to shock and sadness 90 minutes later when Jenyce heard the news on a drugstore TV: President Kennedy had been shot in the head and throat at 12:30 p.m.--just a half hour after Jenyce saw him--as his motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas. A crowd had gathered in the drugstore, glued to the TV and hanging on every word of the news reports. At about 1:35 p.m., the normally composed CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite choked up as he told America that President Kennedy was dead.

"We all just stood there frozen, and the pharmacist had tears running down his face," Jenyce, now 64, says. "We didn't understand how this could have happened to such a young president who had so much hope for the future."

Fifty years later, Kennedy's death-and his life and legacy--still looms large in the American imagination. Charming, ambitious, the youngest man ever elected president (at age 43), and the first Catholic, Kennedy was a transformative figure in politics who represented hope and possibility during changing times. His untimely death marked an end to an age of American innocence and still leaves many wondering how the nation might have been different had Kennedy lived.

Kennedy was born in 1917 into one of America's wealthiest, most influential families. His maternal grandfather had been mayor of Boston; his father, who made a fortune in the stock market and in Hollywood, served as ambassador to Great Britain. John's older brother, Joe, was a Naval aviator during World War II (1939-45)--and the son their father was grooming to run for president. But after Joe died in a Naval test flight in 1944, the mantle fell on the second-oldest son, John. His own courageous Naval service in the Pacific, where he rescued members of his crew after their boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, helped him climb the political ranks, from Massachusetts congressman to senator.

During the 1960 presidential election, the young senator, a Democrat, faced a difficult race against Republican Richard Nixon, a two-term vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower. But Kennedy's polished speaking abilities and photogenic appearance gave him a distinct advantage in the first-ever televised presidential debates, helping him clinch the presidency by a narrow margin.

Camelot

With his elegant wife, Jackie, and their two small children, Caroline and John Jr., Kennedy brought glamour and style to the White House. He used the media in ways that no president had before--inviting journalists to chronicle him at work and his family behind the scenes in the White House and on vacation.

The Kennedy White House, along with the president's family and closest advisors, would later be compared to the legendary King Arthur's court at Camelot, a place of idyllic happiness and high ideals. His brother Bobby served as his attorney general; and the youngest Kennedy son, Edward (Ted), was elected to the president's former Senate seat in 1962 (and held it until his death in 2009).

That's not to say that JFK was perfect. His brief time in office was marked by some notable stumbles, including the Bay of Pigs invasion. In April 1961, Kennedy reluctantly okayed a secret plan to overthrow Cuba's new Communist dictator, Fidel Castro. It ended in failure, with nearly all the 1,500 Cuban exiles who participated in the invasion killed or captured.

But Kennedy redeemed himself in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. …

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