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November 23, 2007 03:46 AM UTC

November 22

  • by: JO

If you are of a certain age among us, you remember where you were on this date 44 years ago. Not Thanksgiving, but November 22, 1963. I recall the exact moment when the voice came over the school PA to announce that President Kennedy had been shot. And wandering the halls afterwards, after we heard the second announcement: the President was dead.

The official wisdom of the hour was to carry on with classes. School wasn’t cancelled. An assembly was not assembled.

November 22, 1963, was the passing of a torch lit by JFK that illuminated a belief in the possibilities of the future and the conviction that it was our task to make that future happen.
It was JFK’s inauguration speech that launched “the Sixties,” which many of us understood then and understand now as decade of conviction that injustice could be shoved aside to make room for justice, that no child need go to bed hungry, that at long last, “all men are created equal” would describe our time and place.

Of course, then as now there was a great divide between those of us who believed these things and those who didn’t. It was a divide that became a gaping chasm, a war, and it remains so. Both sides have their favorite adjectives to describe themselves and the other side: idealists vs. realists, radicals vs. conservatives, dreamers vs. dreamers, and on and on. You know which side you’re on by your reaction to the previous paragraph.

Now we have Obama, principally, calling for a truce in those battles, or at least a cease-fire long enough for the succeeding generation, i.e. his, to take over and get down to brass tacks and solve specific problems by consensus. (See Andrew Sullivan, “Goodbye To Al That” in the current Atlantic Monthly.)

Which brings me to November 22. Over the next few years many of us will find ourselves to be the oldest generation sitting at the Thanksgiving table, if we aren’t already. But the war we fought is never over, will never be over. We know that progress is possible, and we have witnessed a good deal of it, acquired at a tremendous cost (Jack, Martin and Bobby, to name three). And we have suffered setbacks.

Next November more than ever is about whether we will reverse those setbacks or acquiesce in them because we are tired, or because we don’t really care, or because our personal compass points towards temps perdu as the direction in which we want to march.

An end to ideology? Politics is about ideology. Obama may well be the one most likely to lead us closer to daylight and away from the dark night in which we now find ourselves. But make no mistake what this contest is about.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy. RIP while we fight on.


8 thoughts on “November 22

  1. I was a very young boy when the announcement came over the speakers that the President had been shot. We were let out of school early. It was a vivid moment that will never leave me.

    Make no mistake, I share your perspective….the battle is on. And good will prevail.

    1. She said that if a conservative thought the respectful thing to do was to have us turn in our blue books, that’s what she would do. I then walked over to the student center and watched the news a on TV with other shocked students.

      A lot of us needed a long time to get over the assassination.

      But JFK was no guiding light, and he wasn’t equipped nor prepared to be a good president. For one thing, he was the guy who picked LBJ to be his VP, and we know what a disaster Johnson was. And many of Johnson’s Best and Brightest were Kennedy boys.

      There’s a lot of romanticism about the Kennedys, primarily because of his wife, kids and the Kennedy family, not because he was our would have been a good president.

      And anyone who things today’s candidates can restore the “Kennedy magic” should be reminded of the hypocrisy, self-serving, nepotism and corruption that came with it and financed it.

  2. …he didn’t light a torch so much as had one handed to him.  To you and I, it seemed new because we weren’t old enought to know about JFK’s political ancestors.  He inherited the Seneca Falls convention, the populism of TR, Eleanor and Franklin, and Truman. A glance at LBJ’s biography shows him much more radical than JFK on the trail to the White House.

    Knowing what we do now, I’m not so enamored of JFK. Cuba was his achilles heel.  He brought us a millimeter away from nuclear war, and his embargo (enacted once he had his personal stash of cigars) has proven to be an annoying failure.

    But, indeed, Jack and Bobbie knew how to energize, to tell us that we can dream of a better world.  Do you remember the 50 mile hike craze RFK started? All because we were challenged and knew that we could pull off anything we set out to do.

    But what happened?  So many of our generation smoked a bit of dope, grew long hair, and then, went and got MBA’s and bought new ties.

    It appears that a lot of youth today is pushing back on the 30 years of conservative disaster that they have inherited.  But who is their spiritual leader?  Probably Obama would come the closest, although I don’t want him in the WH just yeat.

    Cuz Lord knows, we need a J/RFK now.

  3. A Cool Head (…)

    by digby

    I realized a few years ago that I was getting old when I noticed that November 22nd wasn’t a big deal anymore. Through most of my life, the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death was a major story and one of the things everybody knew was “where they were when they heard Kennedy was shot.”

    I was in elementary school, and was informed by my teacher, who was crying inconsolably when she told us. My right wing Dad was uncharacteristically subdued (for a day or so, anyway) and we got our first TV in order to see the funeral.

    For people of my age, Kennedy was a martyred hero, and as I grew up it was conventional wisdom that his death was the catalyst that unleashed the violence and social unrest of the 1960s. (It was much more complicated than that, of course.) But it was the first of a series of assassinations, which, it’s hard to believe now, seemed normal to me. When I was kid, political leaders got shot … all the time. (And not by hippies, I might add.)

    Kennedy’s legacy has been revised more often in the fewest years than probably any president in history. Looking back, he falls short in many more ways than we all believed when I was young. He was a cold warrior to the bone and his actions sometimes failed to match his rhetoric. He was in office in very trying times with a very thin mandate.

    But after the past few years of crazed chickenhawk neocons lifting his rhetoric of freedom and democracy to promote unprovoked wars of aggression, I came to especially appreciate his cool reaction to his biggest challenge — the Cuban missile crisis. Imagine if Bush had been in office when that happened. Well, we don’t have to, really. We know what they did after 9/11 and it certainly wasn’t this:

    To help him decide what to do about the Cuban situation, and how much risk to run of a nuclear exchange, Kennedy assembled a small group that came to be called the Executive Committee of the National Security Council – or ExComm for short. Early in his presidency, Kennedy had had to make a decision about a CIA plan to land Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, in Cuba, with the hope that these exiles would overthrow Cuba’s Communist government, headed by Fidel Castro. Kennedy had asked for advice about this from only a handful of people – those he knew he was officially obliged to consult. The operation proved to be a fiasco, and afterwards Kennedy had resolved in future to consult more widely.

    Included in the ExComm were the regular participants in National Security Council meetings, plus Kennedy’s brother, the attorney general Robert Kennedy, and the President’s chief speechwriter, the White House counsel Theodore Sorensen. Both of these men could help Kennedy to think about the domestic political aspects of the crisis. The President also invited several other key advisors to join the group: C Douglas Dillon, who had held high posts under Eisenhower and who gave Kennedy a link to the Republican leadership; Dean Acheson and Robert Lovett, who had served under President Harry Truman and could help Kennedy see the current crisis in longer historical perspective; and a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, Llewellyn (Tommy) Thompson, probably the person in the President’s circle who was best acquainted with Khrushchev.


    In the first day’s debates, everyone favoured bombing Cuba. The only differences concerned the scale of attack. Kennedy, Bundy, and some others spoke of a ‘surgical strike’ solely against the missile sites. ‘It corresponds to “the punishment fits the crime” in political terms’, said Bundy. Others joined the chiefs of staff in insisting that an attack should also take out air defence sites and bombers, so as to limit losses of US aircraft and prevent an immediate air reprisal against US bases in Florida.

    By the third day, 18 October, another option had come to the fore. The under secretary of state, George Ball, had commented that a US surprise attack on Cuba would be ‘… like Pearl Harbor. It’s the kind of conduct that one might expect of the Soviet Union. It is not conduct that one expects of the United States.’ Robert Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk concurred, Rusk observing that the decision-makers could carry ‘the mark of Cain’ on their brows for the rest of their lives. To meet this concern and to obtain time for gaining support from other nations, there developed the idea of the President’s publicly announcing the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, ordering a blockade to prevent the introduction of further missiles, and demanding that the Soviets withdraw the missiles already there. (Both for legal reasons and for resonance with Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘Quarantine Address’ of 1937, the term ‘quarantine’ was substituted for ‘blockade’.)

    To those of Kennedy’s advisers who still favoured quick use of military force (the ‘hawks’ in later classification), this quarantine constituted an ultimatum. If Khrushchev did not capitulate within a day or two, a US air attack on Cuba would follow, followed before long by an invasion. For those in the ExComm who would later be classed as ‘doves,’ the quarantine bought time for possibly developing some diplomatic solution.


    On 26-27 October, the crisis came to a head. Khrushchev cabled Kennedy that he was prepared to remove missiles from Cuba in return for a US promise not to invade Cuba – a promise that had already been given more than once. But, just as Kennedy and his ExComm began to discuss a response, Khrushchev broadcast from Moscow a second message saying the missiles would be removed if, in addition, the United States withdrew nuclear missiles and other ‘offensive means’ from Turkey.

    The second Khrushchev message provoked furious debate. With Ball in the lead, Kennedy’s advisers said almost unanimously that Khrushchev’s new condition was unacceptable. America’s NATO allies would think the United States was sacrificing their security for the sake of its own. Kennedy alone seemed unconvinced. When Ball said, ‘If we talked to the Turks… this would be an extremely unsettling business’, Kennedy replied with asperity, ‘Well, this is unsettling now, George, because … most people would regard this as not an unreasonable proposal … I think you’re going to have it very difficult to explain why we are going to take hostile military action in Cuba … when he’s saying, “If you’ll get yours out of Turkey, we’ll get ours out of Cuba.”‘.

    ‘What Kennedy wanted was to mollify Khrushchev without seeming to make a concession, and above all to avoid any prolonged negotiations.’

    In the end, Kennedy found a way to finesse the situation. He sent Robert Kennedy to see the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, to tell him that the missiles in Turkey were obsolete, and that the US planned to pull them out within about six months. All this was true. He said further, however, that, if the Soviet Union used this knowledge to claim that the US had struck the deal proposed in Khrushchev’s radio message, Kennedy would deny the claim and would not remove the missiles from Turkey. What Kennedy wanted was to mollify Khrushchev without seeming to make a concession, and above all to avoid any prolonged negotiations. He had to insist that Soviet missiles come out of Cuba unconditionally, or he would compromise the display of firmness that he judged necessary to protect against a Berlin crisis.

    In fact, the exchange between Robert Kennedy and Dobrynin had no effect. Khrushchev had already decided to retreat to a simple request for a no invasion pledge. And the crisis ended on that basis. US reconnaissance aircraft kept watch while the Soviets dismantled their missiles and loaded the parts on ships for return to the Soviet Union.

    This threat was far, far greater than the threat of Islamic terrorism where their weapon of mass destruction were hijacked airliners and box cutters. We were *this close* to nuclear war. The president himself was in charge and intelligent enough to seek advice from a range of people and analyze the situation with a clear dispassionate eye in the middle of a crisis. As that excerpt from the BBC shows, the initial reaction was to bomb first and ask questions later. It’s probably human. But leaders of a great country, with massive military power, have an obligation to look beyond their understandable human reaction. Kennedy, cold warrior though he was, had a nimble, creative and serious mind and he was able to see beyond the emotional response to the bigger picture.

    This stuff matters. It matters a great deal. In fact, as we look to choose our next president we may want to inform ourselves as to whether the candidates have those Kennedyesque qualities at least with the same degree of interest we take in whether they wear earth tones or cackle when they laugh.

    Bonus Kennedy factoid for Democrats to ponder:


    By James K. Galbraith
    In response to The Adventures of Arthur (November 8, 2007)

    To the Editors:

    In his review of Arthur Schlesinger’s Journals, 1952-2000 [NYR, November 8], Joseph Lelyveld writes that while “Kennedy had now and then spoken in private about withdrawing [from Vietnam] after the 1964 election; when he died it was a faint hope, not yet a plan.” This is incorrect.


    For Mr. Lelyveld to state that there was no plan, but only a “faint hope” of withdrawal, is clearly at odds with the plain wording of the source documents. There was a plan to withdraw US forces from Vietnam, beginning with the first thousand by December 1963, and almost all of the rest by the end of 1965. Moreover, President Kennedy had approved that plan. It was the actual policy of the United States on the day Kennedy died.

  4. I was not born yet when this tragedy occurred. My parents had only just met a couple of months before and would not be married for another year.

    My mother was working in DC. Her parents had decided to spend Thanksgiving there with her so they could meet her new boyfriend (my father). He was in the Marines and stationed nearby and was not able to get leave for a trip to Ohio.

    It was while they were on the plane to Washington that the assassination was announced. So much of my family was in DC during the Lying-in-State and funeral.

    There was a popular coffee-table book published called “4 Days” which was a photo-essay of the time from the assassination thru the funeral. In that book there is a picture of the crowds outside of the Capitol waiting to file past the coffin. To one side of that picture you can clearly see my family not yet in line. My grandmother is obvious, she didn’t change her hair-do from that time until she died. My teenaged uncle was changing the film in his camera when the picture was taken. The rest were just standing around.

    It seems each generation gets one of those moments when everyone can remember just where they were. For my grandparents wit was Dec 7, 1941; for my parents it Nov 22, 1963 and for my generation is was Sept 11, 2001.

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