For millions of Americans, John F. Kennedy is simply a name in the history books. But for those old enough to remember 1960, Kennedy will always stand for much more — a challenge to reach the moon, the creation of the Peace Corps, his unflinching leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fantasy that was called “Camelot.”
When Kennedy, a Democrat, became the nation’s 35th president after one of the closest elections of the 20th century, he was, at 43, the youngest man ever elected to the office and the first to have been born in the 20th century. So, it is fitting that many credited an upstart communication medium — television — with helping boost his popularity. In a series of debates with Republican opponent Richard Nixon, radio audiences favored Nixon and TV audiences liked Kennedy.
On Inauguration Day, we again tuned in to watch Kennedy take the oath of office and listened as he challenged us to “ask not what your country can do for you,” which became rallying cry for many, especially the young.
His presidency would last only 34 months. As he prepared to mount a re-election bid, Kennedy knew that he needed to bolster support in Texas, where he wasn’t well loved and which the Kennedy-Johnson ticket had won by only a slim margin in the 1960 election. Thus, the decision was made that he would visit Texas.
Plans called for motorcades in five cities — San Antonio, Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas and Austin. The president was accompanied by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who didn’t often travel with her husband on such junkets.
In spite of fears by some that Texas was too dangerous and that the trip was tempting fate, the presidential party was greeted by enthusiastic crowds in San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth. The positive reception continued when Air Force One landed at Dallas Love Field after the short hop from Fort Worth.
With a blue sky and pleasant temperatures, the decision was made to remove the bubble-top shell from the limousine that would carry President and Mrs. Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife to a luncheon at the Trade Mart.
It was a fateful decision. A short time later, as the motorcade entered Dealey Plaza, the sound of shots — thought by many at first to be firecrackers or an auto backfire — rang out and Connally and President Kennedy were both hit.
It would be some time before the facts were known, but many realized that something was terribly wrong as the echoes of the shots faded and they watched Mrs. Kennedy scramble toward the rear of the limousine, a Secret Service agent vaulting up to her aid.
That scene was captured forever by the camera of Abraham Zapruder, one of thousands in downtown Dallas that day to see the president. We are also familiar with the events that followed — the rush to Parkland Hospital and the ultimate announcement that the president was dead and Connally wounded.
Thanks to television, other indelible scenes followed — the swearing-in of a new president, the recently widowed wife of the slain chief executive standing beside him in blood-stained clothing; our first glimpse of Lee Harvey Oswald, a cut on his forehead and an eye blackened; the return of the slain president’s body to Washington; the shooting of Oswald two days later in the basement of police headquarters; the president’s funeral.
We watched and wondered why it happened and why it had to happen here.
It was 50 years ago today, but for some, the memories are still painful. As we view commemorative reports, we are reminded of how young and attractive the president and Mrs. Kennedy were, how much they were loved by so many, and we are struck again by how horribly unfair it all was.
America lost more than a president that day.
Camelot ended on Nov. 22, 1963, and — many believe — so did our innocence.
Be sure to look inside today’s issue for our special 16-page edition reprinting Denton Record-Chronicle pages from Nov. 22-28, 1963, in remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination.