Assassination of a President

November 22nd, 2010

By Tom Carter

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 47 years ago on November 22, 1963.  He was shot to death in a place called Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas.  Everyone who is old enough remembers that terrible day.

I was a very young soldier.  Our commander called us together and told us that the President had been shot and that he was dead.  There was a stunned silence.  We didn’t know what to think because it was literally an unthinkable tragedy.  As young as we were, we knew that American presidents in the modern era aren’t shot down in the streets.  It just doesn’t happen.

I was astonished to learn that President Kennedy had been murdered in a place I knew intimately well.  I lived in Dallas in 1961, about a year and a half before the assassination.  Dealey Plaza had been a favorite hangout for me and my small circle of friends.  We went there often in the daytime and at night with our girlfriends or just us guys, hanging around the reflecting pools on either side of Main Street, walking around the pergola on the Elm Street side, or sitting on the grass in front of the pergola or on what came to be known as “the grassy knoll.”

Just walking, sitting around, talking — what young guys do who don’t have enough money to do much of anything else.  And Dealey Plaza was the perfect place to do it.  How could we have known that an unspeakable tragedy would unfold just yards from where we whiled away the hours?

I was on the Mall on Saturday and Sunday, November 23 and 24, 1963 in the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy.  On Sunday we managed to get to the roof of the Russell Senate Office Building, as it’s now known.  Standing beside a CBS news camera, we watched the procession come up Constitution Avenue, along the north side of the Capitol, and then turn right to the East Front of the building.  The sights and sounds were unforgettable.  Muffled drums and the funeral dirge, the clatter of the hooves of the white horses pulling the caisson (the same one that bore Lincoln’s body), the caisson wheels rattling on the pavement, soldiers marching, and a sailor with the presidential flag following the caisson.  Last in the cortege was a riderless black horse, led by a soldier.  The cavalry boots in the stirrups were turned backward, symbolizing a fallen commander.  Every time I see film from that day, it comes back to me as though it were yesterday.

I even had a connection to the riderless horse, Black Jack.  He lived with the other ceremonial horses at Fort Myer, in Virginia just across the river from Washington.  I saw him there frequently and even patted him on the nose a number of times.  Black Jack had something of a reputation.  As you can see from his prancing and the difficulty the soldier had controlling him in film of the Kennedy funeral, he was high-spirited and a bit unpredictable.  In fact, a young lady I knew very well got too close to him at the stable one day, and he bit her on the neck.  Didn’t break the skin, but she wore a scarf around her neck for a while to hide the bruises.

The assassination of President Kennedy spawned an endless variety of conspiracy theories, imaginary plots, and character attacks on individual people.  I don’t know what happened, beyond the official findings of the Warren Commission.  And it really doesn’t matter, when you think about it.  Someone killed the President, either the named assassin or others working with him or without his knowledge.

Later years have also seen more and more details emerge about Kennedy’s life that are less than complimentary.  But that doesn’t matter, either.  He was the President, and like all other presidents of whatever party or political persuasion, he was our leader and the symbol of our nation.  And our presidents aren’t supposed to be shot down in the streets.

I think the assassination of President Kennedy was the first in a series of events that very nearly led to the disintegration of the county.  That sad event, plus the long trauma of the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the terrible events of the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, parts of major cities in flames, the killing of students at Kent State, the struggles of the civil rights movement throughout that period — I don’t know how we held together.

Today is a day to remember President Kennedy, but it’s also a day to think about our country.  We are still strong and unified, despite our disagreements, and we’re still a beacon of light to the world.  We’ve come through fire many times and always emerged intact, and we will this time despite everything.  Perhaps this is a day to stop staring at our navels and raise our eyes to the horizon, reflecting on who and what we are in the largest sense.

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4 Responses to “Assassination of a President”

  1. Jan |

    I was also in Washington during JFK’s funeral, as you know Tom, since we were classmates at USMAPS. A bit over a month before I’d been in Vietnam, hanging out at a bar in Saigon half-listening to rumors of an impending coup against our ally the leader of South Vietnam. That coup happened on Nov. 1. I’ve treated rumors of war and political mayhem real seriously since then. What I thought at the time was that the secretive, special ops war we were fighting in Vietnam had followed me home and nailed the president of the US. Now these tactics are standard operating procedure in our latest wars. And they are still stirring up unexpected consequences.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Jan, I remember it well, of course…especially the extended night crawls in D.C. and elsewhere.

    I don’t really know who did the deed, and I’m not sure anyone really does. If you take the Warren Commission findings at face value, it seems pretty clear. But if you add to that the additional information that has trickled out over the years, well, who knows. If it was a planned payback of some kind, I think I’d look toward the mob. They were very ticked that Bobby, and Jack by implication, came after them so hard when they thought they had a bit of protection with the Kennedys. Anyway, I don’t think it matters much. The fact of the assassination is what’s important. Such a tragedy.

  3. Clarissa |

    “and we’re still a beacon of light to the world”

    -Tom, what do you mean by that? Which countries specifically are you referring to?

  4. Tom Carter |

    Clarissa, I mean that America remains the exemplar of freedom and opportunity for most of the rest of the world. That’s true of every country I’ve lived in, traveled in, or studied, without exception. There are obvious differences in perception between the advanced countries of Western Europe and, say, countries in Africa. However, respect for the U.S. is evident everywhere, along with a wish for immigration to the U.S. among many people.

    If people limit their information to leftist media sources in the U.S. and elsewhere, or function daily among leftists in academia, it’s easy to believe that the U.S. is really rotten to the core. Most Americans understand that it isn’t, as do most other people in the world. In fact, some of the most severe critics of America are physically in the U.S., taking advantage of its freedom and opportunities while simultaneously attacking it.

    This shouldn’t be taken to indicate that I’m a rabid patriot who thinks everything America is or has ever done is perfect. That’s far from true. There are other countries that I also respect for their achievements and for who they are, including (but not limited to) Germany (in the modern sense), Canada, Britain, and Australia. However, people in those countries, aside from their leftists, also admire America and Americans.

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