As we’ve been inundated for the past weeks, today marks the 50th anniversary of one of the darkest days in America’s history. In some aspects, I don’t think we’ve ever recovered.
On his 1,000th day in office, President John F. Kennedy was brutally assassinated in an open limousine motorcade in Dallas with his wife, Jackie, by his side. Eerily, Nellie Connally, wife of Texas Gov. John Connally, had just commented, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.”
In these cynical times it may be difficult for today’s youth to imagine, but JFK inspired much of my generation. With all that has been written about the dark side of Camelot, I still admire him. I suppose a boy’s hero stays with him forever.
JFK was handsome, charming and had a great wit. And the First Family was like no other before. Jackie was beautiful and elegant and the Kennedys had two adorable children. You could even say that I ditched school because of JFK. You see, Kennedy held frequent press conferences where he’d display charm and humor. (He was considered the first “TV era” president.) I somehow managed to see most of them, even if it meant cutting classes.
As JFK playfully bantered with the press, I found myself unwittingly imitating his Boston accent. Eventually I could impersonate all three Kennedy brothers. Four decades later, in 2004, Santa Monica City Council candidate Bobby Shriver (JFK’s nephew) left me a voicemail. In returning his call, fortunately I did not to do my Kennedy impression.
As his sister Pat lived in Santa Monica with her husband, actor Peter Lawford, Kennedy often visited here. To see his remarkable charisma go to YouTube and type “President Kennedy takes a swim.” It’s an absolutely riveting one-minute video.
On that Aug. 19, 1962 day, L.A. Times photographer Bill Beebe was covering Kennedy’s visit to Santa Monica. When JFK spontaneously took off his shirt and dove into the water, Beebe, in a suit and tie, followed.
Beebe went into the water to above his knees just to get the photo. And then he almost lost the shots by inadvertently opening the camera while he was still wet. Though the classic image didn’t win a Pulitzer, it did win “Photo of the Year” in many competitions.
As it happens, my late mother met JFK and his brothers at the Democratic Convention in 1960. It was staged in Los Angeles at the Sports Arena and my mother, who was an officer in the California Democratic Council, was in charge of the seating.
At the convention she met just about every important dignitary, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson and LBJ. (Just turned 16, I attended and was fairly awestruck.)
After JFK won the nomination there was a party to celebrate at the Lawford’s beachfront house. (Once owned by Louis B. Mayer.) And my mother was among the hundreds who were invited. Such a Kennedy fan, I stayed up late until she got home.
When she arrived home, I eagerly grilled my exhausted mother for details from the party. However briefly, did she get to talk to JFK? Knowing my admiration for him, she reluctantly confessed that JFK had disappeared from the party and the Secret Service, climbing a fence, to rendezvous with — Marilyn Monroe!
Like a poor man’s Biff in “Death of a Salesman,” I was mortified. Actually, I refused to believe it. “Mother, he’s only married to Jackie!” (Who me, naïve?)
Under my breath (and obviously my father wasn’t within earshot) I compared my mother to gossip columnist “Hedda Hopper.” Ouch. Decades later, when JFK’s affair with Monroe was fairly well documented, I apologized, though fortunately my mother hadn’t heard me in the first place.
Fifty years have passed, but the debate still rages about who murdered JFK. At the risk of receiving e-mails labeling me a “conspiracy nut” or a “Commie” (which happens), how, after defecting to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, did Oswald waltz back into the U.S. and not be constantly tailed like he was in Russia?
But the files are sealed until 2025. President Johnson justified it as “sparing the Kennedy family.” But Jackie died nearly 20 years ago. As for “national security,” the Cold War ended in 1991.
The mayor of Dallas has called for cities nationwide to ring church bells at 12:30 p.m. CST to commemorate the moment of JFK’s assassination. A better idea, and perhaps to finally heal from the nightmare of that day, would be to unseal the files. While I can think of lots of bad ones, I can’t think of any good reason for the files to remain sealed. Can you?
Then again, I’m admittedly biased. It might have something to with forever revering one’s boyhood hero. So I’ll close in the spirit of the 1770s Irish folk song, “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye.” John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) R.I.P.
To see JFK’s swim go to: www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEHEw-dop00. Jack can be reached at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.