JFK, plus 40

Cal Thomas

11/17/2003 12:00:00 AM - Cal Thomas

On election night, 1960, I watched the returns trickle in to Huntley and Brinkley on a black-and-white TV set at an American University fraternity house in Washington. I was an almost 18-year-old college freshman, and Dwight Eisenhower was the only president I had been aware of.

The results would not be determined until the next day, but when they were (and even with the tampered ballot boxes in Cook County, Illinois - the "hanging chad" scandal of that day), John Fitzgerald Kennedy was declared the winner over Vice President Richard Nixon. My politics had not been fully formed yet, and like many others of my age, I was attracted to Kennedy, who resembled an older brother, in contrast to the bald and grandfatherly Eisenhower.

I met Kennedy briefly in 1962. While working as a copyboy for NBC News in Washington, White House correspondent Sander Vanocur took me to the Oval Office where I watched Adlai Stevenson sworn in as America's ambassador to the United Nations. Kennedy looked exactly as he did on TV: young, lots of hair, a great smile and full of life.

Fast forward one year. At about 1:30 I was driving to work for my 2-11 p.m. shift at NBC. The radio interrupted Chubby Checker singing "The Twist" to report that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. At a stoplight, I rolled down my windows and shouted to drivers on both sides, "The president has been shot; Kennedy has been shot in Dallas." These were not the last stunned expressions I saw that day.

By the time I arrived at NBC, BULLETIN and URGENT dotted the UPI and AP Teletype machines, which were my responsibility to clear of copy and take to the correspondents. Many couldn't wait. They stood next to me to read the latest. Everyone else was on the telephone, trying to get more details and line up guests. This was before microwave dishes, so interview subjects had to either come to the studio or a film crew (before portable videotape cameras were in use) would go to them.

The first wire service report that Kennedy had died came from Reuters, which used a designation reserved at that time for only the most momentous events: "FLASH: Kennedy dead," it said. I tore it off, announced it to the newsroom and stuffed it in my pocket as a piece of history. Correspondent Robert Abernethy (who now hosts a program on PBS) walked in and wanted to know what had happened. He had not been listening to the radio. "President Kennedy is dead," I announced. He turned ashen and asked the assignment desk what he could do.

For the next three days, we were absorbed - as was the rest of the country - in a story unlike any other in our lifetime. Not since the death of Franklin Roosevelt had Americans been so focused on a single event.

The significance of John Kennedy's life, presidency and murder has been discussed and debated by scholars and others for four decades. What would America and the world have been like had he lived? Would he have pulled "advisors" out of Vietnam, or would he have gotten us deeper into "the big muddy," as his successor, Lyndon Johnson, did? Would his brother, Bobby, and Martin Luther King Jr. been spared murder were it not for the ugliness unleashed by JFK's assassination? Such questions are the stuff of speculation and are unanswerable.

Is it trite to say that Kennedy's death was the end of our innocence? For some, all things seemed possible with Kennedy in the White House. When he died, most things seemed impossible. There was a sense we had been robbed of hope, and hope denied produces cynicism and despair, two viruses that continue to plague our culture.

Would we have degenerated into the kind of culture war we are engaged in today had Kennedy lived? Would "the '60s" have happened as they did? Again, it's impossible to say. Speaking as one who became a conservative and realizes that the "myth" of Camelot was exactly that, I still miss him. Even more, I miss much that was good in American life that seems to have perished with him.