Part of the JFK Assassination 60 Years On — The Seven Seconds That Broke the Back of the American Century
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a soothsayer warns the Roman emperor on his way to the Senate before his bloody assassination, “Beware, the Ides of March!”
The ides of November did not augur well. President John F. Kennedy had been warned by many to stay away from Dallas. Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas advised the President to remove Dallas from the Texas itinerary,
“Dallas is a very dangerous place. I wouldn’t go there. Don’t you go.”
In the days before that fateful weekend, Kennedy remarked to loyal aide Dave Powers: -
“God, I hate to go to Texas,” adding that he had “a terrible feeling about going.”
The morning of the assassination, he regaled Jackie Kennedy and Ken O’Donnell,
“Last night would have been a hell of a night to assassinate a president,”
“I mean it,” Kennedy said. “There was the rain, and the night, and we were all getting jostled. Suppose a man had a pistol in a briefcase.” Then Kennedy “gestured vividly, pointing his rigid index finger at the wall and jerking his thumb twice to show the action of the hammer. “Then he could have dropped the gun and the briefcase” — in pantomime he dropped them and whirled in a tense crouch — “and melted away in the crowd.”
The Dallas Morning News ran an accusatory front-page advertisement taking Kennedy to task over the perception that he was soft on communism. Ugly Wanted for Treason handbills were also being distributed. Kennedy warned only half-jokingly,
“We’re heading into nut country today. But Jackie, if somebody wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?”
Yet the Texas trip started off swimmingly. The large crowds in Houston and San Antonio were warm and enthusiastic on the Thursday. On that final Friday morning in Fort Worth outside the Hotel Texas, a sea of friendly faces eagerly awaited the President. At a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast banquet, Kennedy repeated the quip from the Paris trip about being merely the man accompanying Mrs Kennedy,
“Nobody wonders what Lyndon and I wear,” he continued in that inimitable Irish Catholic Bostonian accent to effusive laughter.
Next on the itinerary was Dallas. The morning drizzle had faded. As Air Force One alighted at Love Field airport, the sun was shining. The President’s advice to Jackie to wear something warm proved misguided. The bubble top was lowered. The Secret Service described this as ‘Kennedy weather’ because he enjoyed maximum exposure to the public — an ever-constant source of angst for the detail.
Kennedy descended from the plane and immediately started gladhanding the adoring throng. One man was perched ominously at the back with an emblazoned Confederate flag fluttering in the wind. Yet this was not unusual at the time and was a show of pride rather than indicating any animosity towards the President. Jackie was handed a bouquet of blood-red American beauties and she later reflected that this was a bad portent. Throughout the trip, she had been given yellow roses.
Nellie Connally — wife of Governor Connally — remembered the First couple as glamorous as they had ever been. The journey to the Trade Mart was eleven miles. Kennedy had even got out of the motorcade early on to greet some well-wishers. By the time they reached downtown, the crowds were several deep hanging out of windows and often spilling over into the road forcing the driver William Greer to veer to the other side in order to protect the President. Kennedy could be heard repeatedly saying under his breath, “Thank you, thank you, thank you” in appreciation.
One month earlier, UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been hit on the head with a placard and spat on in the midst of a heckling crowd. But now, the concerns about the reception in Dallas appeared unfounded. The motorcade traversed the entirety of Main Street and made the final turn. The radio commentary stated it would only be minutes before its arrival at the Trade Mart luncheon. Jackie, dressed in wool, was looking forward to the cool underpass ahead in order to get some relief from the sun. Nellie Connally, perhaps delighted that an anticipated incident had not materialised, turned to Kennedy and exclaimed in one of the most ironic statements in history,
“You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you, Mr President!”
These would be the final words the President heard before the shots rang out.
During the aftermath, Jackie gave a Life magazine interview to Theodore White. As with almost everything concerning the Kennedys, the White interview was meticulously stage-managed. In her youth, Jackie had described, in a prize-winning Vogue essay, how she wanted to be “a sort of overall art director of the 20th century”. She described the motorcade as “hot” and “wild” just like in Vienna and Mexico. Of course, it doesn’t finish like either. The shooters are waiting at the end of the route as if they too have an impeccable sense of their dramatic role in history.
Watching the cinéma vérité (if you can call it that) of the Zapruder film is to witness history unfolding. Yet one of the most important visual records of the century was nearly never made. Dressmaker Abraham Zapruder returned home to pick up his camera after leaving it behind. He would never shoot amateur films again describing the horror of seeing the President shot down like a dog.
The singular granularity of this technicolour home movie begins with an out of focus shakiness. It is a gloriously sunny day. The jubilant Dallas crowds line the route. Then we see the lead police motorcycles. Finally, the motorcade comes into view as it makes the final turn from Houston on to Elm Street.
We get the first glimpse of Kennedy, waving back at the crowds, oblivious to the fact that these are his last moments on earth. The motorcade passes out of view behind the Stemmons Freeway sign. Now, the silent horror-show unspools.
As the limousine emerges, Kennedy’s arms are raised up to his throat. He reportedly exclaimed, “I’ve been shot” according to a secret service agent although this is disputed and may have been physically impossible. Texan Governor John Connally, seated directly in front, shouts, “My God, they’re gonna kill us all”. The camera zooms in with dramatic precision as the gruesome kill shot blasts Kennedy’s head. It is not really clear what has happened until a blur of red explodes. It takes the viewer a microsecond delay to register this as the fatal head shot. The climactic explosion of blood and brain is burned into the retina, seared for eternity into the public consciousness. The President of the United States — the most powerful man in the world — has been executed by gunfire, in broad daylight, on a routine visit.
As Kennedy slumps into her lap, Jackie screams, “My God they’ve killed my husband. I love you, Jack.” A seriously wounded Connally, a passionate hunter and experienced rifleman, knew Kennedy was dead the moment he heard the tremendous noise of the bullet cracking open his skull like a watermelon exploding. Dallas police motorcyclist Bobby Hargis, riding behind, finds himself splattered with bloody brain tissue.
We see Jackie scramble over the back of the limousine and secret service agent Clint Hill clamber on. It transpired that Jackie was picking up a fragment of skull although she had no recollection of this. Hill himself would later describe how he had stopped her from falling off. Then the final frames show the car accelerating towards the underpass.
Hill gives the thumbs down indicating that the President has been mortally wounded. He is later witnessed pounding his fist on the bonnet in despair. A secret serviceman in the follow-up car carrying Vice President Lyndon Johnson is seen holding a submachine gun. The convoy hurtles towards Parkland hospital. Footage shows spectators beyond the underpass still waving at the approaching motorcade blissfully oblivious to what has just happened.
Of course, it is too late and everyone involved knows this. As Nicholson Baker wrote:-
The Parkland hospital staff, seeing the massive head wound, whispered that it must be from some kind of hollow-point, “dumdum” bullet — and in fact a constellation of white flecks visible on the x-rays of Kennedy’s head suggests to some experts that the shooter of the fatal shot used a frangible, mercury-tipped round, which disintegrates into many tiny pieces — the sort of professional assassin’s bullet later described in Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal: “Hitting the head, such a bullet would not emerge, but would demolish everything inside the cranium, forcing the bone-shell to fragment.” Craig Roberts, a former marine sniper and author of Kill Zone: A Sniper Looks at Dealey Plaza, studied the Zapruder film. “I’ll tell you what I saw, as a sniper,” he said at a conference in Dallas in 1997. “I saw a guy hit from the right front, with a frangible mercury bullet.”
Dave Powers — part of the so-called ‘Irish mafia’ clique of loyal presidential aides — rushed to Jackie’s side when they arrived at Parkland. He cried when he saw her covered with brain tissue and blood; she was trying to hold the top of the President’s “beautiful head” down in order to keep his brains in.
Many would never forget or recover from these traumatic scenes. Jackie — unaccustomed to accompanying her husband on trips — was present to hold him in his dying moments. The motorcade never arrived at its destination for a lunch with local dignitaries at the Trade Mart, where the President was due to give a speech. A New York Times journalist in the press corps would later describe the reaction to the news in the ballroom as what it looks like if you have ever seen a rumour spreading.
Ironically, John Kennedy had confided to a close friend only weeks earlier that a rifle shot would be an easeful death. He had also play acted a mock shooting with his children. Intimations of mortality were never far away; a Keatsian type of death wish. His eldest brother Joe Jr. had died on a daredevil mission during the war and he had lost a sister Kathleen in a plane crash. He had also lost two children; stillborn Arabella and Patrick born premature.
He had survived the Japanese sinking of vessel PT-109 under his command in the Pacific — the skipper of a patrol boat as one hostile American general derogatorily put it — and been given the last rites on more than one occasion due to Addison’s disease. He once predicted that he would not live past forty-five. Moreover, he was cognizant that he was surrounded by enemies and both Kennedy brothers felt that a military coup was not inconceivable. During the missile crisis, they had found themselves under almost unbearable pressure from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Minutes after being informed of his brother’s murder, Bobby Kennedy contorted with grief, mumbled to aide Ed Guthman, “There’s so much bitterness… I thought they’d get one of us… I thought it would be me.” Little did he know that he was forecasting his own assassination less than five years later.
The nation itself would never quite recover from this convulsion — the death of a seemingly vigorous demi-god, who had represented the hopes of a new generation. As Jackie related to Life journalist Theodore White paraphrasing the Alan Jay Lerner popular musical,
“Don’t let it be forgot,
that once there was a spot,
for one brief shining moment,
that was known as Camelot.
And it will never be that way again.”
The world had been transfixed by the Kennedy saga. Perhaps the tragic parabola was the only arc to which this story bent. Over the coming years, Bobby would turn to Greek tragedy in order to attempt to come to terms with what had happened. Paroxysms of shock and grief swept across the United States and the world. People had felt wrongly or rightly that John Kennedy was for them. In New York, bystanders gathered around radios and recoiled on hearing the news. Grown men took refuge in churches or openly cried in public; something extremely unusual at the time. CBS anchor Walter Cronkite would be immortalised for his coverage. After the best part of an hour of suspension during which there was still hope that Kennedy might somehow pull through, Cronkite confirmed whilst choked up that the unthinkable had indeed come to pass.
In the wake of the assassination, former President Harry Truman wrote an op-ed in December in the Washington Post on how the agency had outgrown its original function of intelligence gathering as conceived in the 1947 National Security Act establishing the CIA. Truman wrote that the agency was now wielding unaccountable power necessitating a visit from former Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles in order to unsuccessfully solicit a retraction.
Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal had centred on the Organisation Armée Secrète’s (OAS) assassination attempts on French President Charles de Gaulle. Forsyth’s follow up The Odessa File would cement in popular culture the notion that everyone remembered what they were doing at the moment of the assassination. The opening scene narrates cars pulling over to the roadside when the radio broadcast the death of the President: -
“Everyone seems to remember with great clarity what he was doing on November 22, 1963, at the precise moment he heard President Kennedy was dead. Kennedy was hit at twelve-thirty in the afternoon, Dallas time, and the announcement that he was dead came at about half past one in the same time zone. It was two-thirty in New York, seven-thirty in the evening in London, and eight-thirty on a chilly, sleet-swept night in Hamburg.”
As far away as the Soviet Union, people spontaneously gathered to mourn. In London, Queen Elizabeth asked for the flags over Buckingham Palace to be lowered at half-mast — an unprecedented honour for a foreign leader. That evening back in Washington, Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in his diaries they still half expected the President to come bounding down the stairs and walk into the room. Schlesinger’s monumental biography A Thousand Days would help secure the legacy — rounded by the elegiac opening phrase describing the inauguration “It all began in the cold,” and similarly its funereal denouement ‘It all ended, as it began, in the cold”.
When Kennedy had descended the stairs of Air Force One at Love Field airport in Dallas, he was the occupant of the most powerful office in the world as the leader of the ‘free world’, a charismatic spokesman for a new generation, a virile man in his prime and the doting father of two young children. He was in Texas to bring together warring factions of the Democratic Party. The Texas trip was really the starting gun for the re-election year of 1964. He once joked that he could dispatch Barry Goldwater — his likely Republican opponent — without leaving the Oval Office. The reality though was opinion polls were tight and putative civil rights reforms would deter southern voters.
Before the afternoon was over, he would return up the same stairs in a casket with his head blown open by a crossfire appropriate for big game hunting. The catatonic shock of the widowed Jackie Kennedy following behind — as the secret service struggled to load the coffin on to Air Force One — is difficult to imagine. The abruptness of this seismic milestone cannot be overstated. The six seconds of the shooting gallery in Dealey Plaza would have wide-ranging repercussions for American society.
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