Back Then

Published: November 22, 2011

By Jim Lichtman
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In November of 1963, I was a High School freshman in New York. It was just after lunch and we’d only been back in class a short time when our Algebra teacher, Mr. Freeman was called into the hallway by the vice-principal.

The door remained open and my desk had a perfect view of the hallway. That’s when I noticed something strange. It wasn’t just Freeman; all teachers on our floor were meeting in the hallway. Although I couldn’t hear beyond whispers, the shock on their faces was apparent. Back then, there wasn’t an internet, cable or Smartphone to offer Breaking News. Important news came by way of Father Al.

Mr. Freeman came back to class and announced that President Kennedy had been shot, and soon after another teacher entered to tell us that he had died.

Back then, we had to wait until we came home and turned on the black and white TV to watch the Special Reports carried live on all three networks. Kennedy died on a Friday and throughout that shock-filled weekend, the streets were nearly empty. Everyone spent the weekend watching the reports from Dallas and the service in Washington on TV.

Nobody had a closer association with Kennedy than the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee who was a reporter forNewsweek at the time. Kennedy and Bradlee became friends when the two moved into the same Georgetown block.

What follows are selected pieces from Bradlee’s remembranceof his friend.

“Jack Kennedy was many things when he took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1961: a glamorous figure, the youngest man ever elected to the office, the first Catholic president. He was also my friend….

“He lived a few doors down from me in Georgetown. We ate and drank together. We played golf. We’d been to Hyannis Port. I made him laugh. You never think a friend is going to make it all the way to the top. And there was a moment when it hit: my God, Jack is going to be president of the United States.

“But who the hell knew what kind of president he’d be? Nobody. I sure didn’t.

“I was a Newsweek correspondent who had relocated to Washington and didn’t know a whole hell of a lot about American politics. As a junior reporter, I had drawn the junior presidential candidate, who happened to win….

“Kennedy’s inauguration was a singular moment of hope for the country. He was the first president born in the 20th century, and that was overwhelmingly important as he pledged to get the country moving. Americans believed in government then, in that time before Jack’s murder, the quagmire of Vietnam, and the Watergate crimes of his old rival, Richard Nixon, took their toll on the public’s trust.

“Even then, on that snowy day, I had my doubts. Jack had no executive experience. The press by then was smitten with him. But could he deal with Congress and with Nikita Khrushchev at the height of the Cold War? …

“To his detractors, Kennedy was a pretender to the throne, callow and Catholic, the son of a supposed crook. But damn it, I liked the guy. He was smart, he was articulate, and he just ‘got it.’ …But I was worried about how Jack’s new job would affect our relationship and making sure I didn’t carry his water as a journalist. The press knew we were pals, and myNewsweek bosses loved the access and the scoops, but they looked at my copy twice as carefully because of the friendship.

“In 2008 America broke another barrier by electing a young, charismatic president, but the differences were enormous. Barack Obama was another color, obviously, and he seemingly came out of nowhere. Nobody knew his family, no journalist had met his Kenyan father, and the country had grown far more cynical since Camelot. Jack had already been a minor celebrity, he had a war record, and his family had a lot of dough. The Kennedys were American royals.

“But he was also graceful and natural and funny, and the possibilities seemed limitless when he stood hatless at the Capitol in the bitter cold, long before the awful day in Dallas that cut the dream short. It was 50 years ago, a different time—a different country, really—and we all held our breath and hoped for the best.”

Back then, days seemed longer before it was chopped into cable-internet-tweet bites of information churned out every second. Back then, we believed in our leaders. Yes, Kennedy failed in the Bay of Pigs, but he stood up to the Russians during the Cuban missile crisis.

Among his many words of inspiration, none seem more relevant that these:

“So, let us not be blind to our differences—but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved.”


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