Thursday, November 22, 2007

Nov. 22, 1963. Where were you when Kennedy was shot?

 I was walking down Woodward Avenue toward Congress, The capitol's main drag, thirty blocks from downtown Austin, Texas, on a shirtsleeve late Fall day. It was close to 1:00 p.m. I was cutting class--something I had never done before--because I was on my way to see the President. The Austin American had reported the route of the President for the day: Dallas in the a.m.,a major speech at the Trade Center, then a flight from Love Field to Bergstrom Air Force (SAC) Base on the outskirts of Austin. The motorcade into the then-sleepy State U./State Capitol town.
 I had about twenty minutes to walk twenty blocks and hunker down at the intersection of 6th Street and Lavaca. I'd watch Jack Kennedy and his Camelot entourage go by, then head back to campus.
 While many were hearing Walter Cronkite's emotional report of the assassination on TV, I was out on the street, walking past a maroon Ford sedan. It was an unmarked law enforcement vehicle--oversize blackwall tires, a big whip antenna, and a hatless Texas Ranger standing outside the passenger door, actually leaning--no, more like collapsing--against the side of the vehicle. The police radio was on and the static and frantic words came out to this passer-by.
 Kennedy was shot in the head, rushed to a Dallas hospital….
 What to make of the short life and Presidency of John F. Kennedy? Four months earlier he had given an astonishing--and to many, profoundly disturbing--speech at the commencement of American University in DC. He was clearly staking out a roadmap to de-escalation of the arms race, a proposal to initiate negotiation of a nuclear test ban with the Soviet Union.
 The missile gap that had been a fundamentally dishonest centerpiece of his hawkish presidential campaign a thousand days before looked different after the Cuban missile crisis of October, '62. His eloquence evident in the speech--(Sorenson was the wordsmith, he was the orator) and the importance of his bold assertions were masterful. He was beginning his campaign for re-election in '64 in Washington, DC, perhaps the only place in America such a speech could be given and followed by applause.
 That sunny central Texas day, just a few months later, a counterpoint to the American University  address was the speech that Kennedy had in his pocket at the moment he was assassinated. It had been prepared for delivery at a luncheon that day to the Dallas Citizen's Council at the Trade Mart.
 Had Oswald not sighted his target and fired three times, Kennedy's motorcade would have pulled up to the Mart and JFK would have delivered a speech that rattled the nuclear saber--boasting of his expansions of both strategic and tactical nuclear weaponry.  It was a speech that intensified the rhetoric of the domino theory, and insisted that we needed to increase our arming and training of client states on the borders of the Soviet Union and Red China. He was, on the last day of his life, fine-tuning the hawkish theme of his campaign for re-election in '64--in Texas, where such a speech had to be given.
 I was 20 years old, stunned, stopped in my tracks; I'm still stunned. From there--in that chaotic and frightening moment-- this benighted nation spiraled downward.
Downward through a decade of assassinations and escalations and cities-in-flames and profound alienation, then went on to decades of self-indulgent, self-congratulatory excess and hubris, to today's sorry state of the American nation, it's leadership and its prospects.
 The day the President was assassinated a lot more than just one eloquently two-faced politician died.

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Of the biblical allotment of three score and ten I have lived only three of them more than a bicycle ride from one of the Great Lakes. I grew up ten blocks from Lake Erie in the (once Irish/Italian ghetto, now newly-hip) "Near West Side" of Cleveland. I can still cycle to the Milwaukee lakefront in an hour and a half; but, a round-trip has always been more than I would (noror ever did) attempt. -0- I'm a "...somewhat combative pacifist and fairly cooperative anarchist," after the example of Grace Paley (1922-2007). -0- I'm always cheerful when I pay my taxes (having refused--when necessary--to pay that portion of them dedicated to war). -0- And I always, always vote.