November 20, 1963

“Students,” Mr. Morales said in his unmistakable Chilean Spanish accent, “…take out a neat, clean, leaf of paper.”

As a freshman high school student in New York, those words clearly meant that we were about to receive a snap Spanish quiz. But I know what you’re thinking. Why does he say “leaf” instead of “sheet” of paper? I asked that question once.

“Señor Lichtman, I will tell you,” he said. “One day I say shit instead of sheet and now, I don’t say that word anymore.”

You had to be in the room to actually hear Mr. Morales repeat this, because both words – through his accent – sounded identical: “sheet” and “sheet.”

Despite all my efforts that year, I struggled with Spanish. The class that followed, however, was a breath of fresh air: English Literature. Taught by a very fastidious English teacher who looked like a young Franklin Roosevelt, Mr. Stellwag may have been a by-the-book grammarian when it came to written papers, but he opened our minds to all manner of authors and poets.

Today, we were reading from the canon of Sherlock Holmes. “You see, but you do not observe,” Holmes tells Watson. “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

President Kennedy, working from his office on November 19, historian Richard Reeves tells us in Profile in Power, “was concerned with both Cuba and Vietnam… the CIA was still recruiting assassins. In fact, a ballpoint pen with a poisoned needle designed to kill Castro was scheduled to be delivered to a potential assassin on November 22…”

On November 20, Kennedy spent considerable time reviewing updates on military and economic aid to Vietnam after the end of the Diem government. Speaking with Mike Forrestal, assistant to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy reminded the young aide, “When you get back, after the first of the year, I want you to organize an in-depth study of every possible option we’ve got in Vietnam, including how to get out of there. We have to review this whole thing from the bottom to the top.”

So much has been analyzed, dissected and written about Kennedy, his time, and his assassination that it’s staggering. According to Beattie’s Book Blog, some 40,000 books have been written since his death. Many volumes offer more myth than fact.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Sabato debunks some of the myths surrounding Kennedy.

1. JFK was a liberal president.

“This view is widely held today, both because Kennedy is now associated with the civil rights movement and because his legacy is lumped together with those of his late brothers, the much more liberal Bobby and Ted. In reality, JFK was a cautious, conservative chief executive, mindful of his 1964 reelection bid after the squeaker of 1960. He was fiscally conservative, careful about spending and deficits, and sponsored an across-the-board tax cut that became President Ronald Reagan’s model for his 1981 tax cut.

“While he was more conciliatory after the Cuban missile crisis, JFK’s early Cold War rhetoric was so hawkish that Reagan and other Republicans later quoted him at every opportunity to buttress their fight against communism. And Kennedy was so hesitant and timid about civil rights that he frustrated the movement’s leaders at virtually every turn until finally articulating a vision for equal rights in June 1963.”

2. Kennedy was determined to land Americans on the moon.

“That’s how we recall it, because of JFK’s blunt declarations to Congress and the public beginning in May 1961, yet Kennedy actively considered alternatives…. Kennedy even approached Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev about ending the superpower space race and establishing a Soviet-American partnership for a moon landing. Khrushchev responded favorably, and JFK mentioned it in his fall 1963 speech to the United Nations. His order to NASA to ‘make it happen’ fell by the wayside in the next administration.”

3. Fifty years later, we know everything we’ll ever know about Kennedy’s assassination.

“Even a half-century later, we don’t have the complete story. This is because many government documents remain classified and hidden. Reputable groups and individuals have estimated that there are 1,171 unreleased CIA documents concerning Nov. 22, 1963. The Center for Effective Government has even claimed that there may be more than 1 million unseen CIA records related to Kennedy’s assassination. No one can close the book on this subject without examining them.

The Assassination Records Collection Act, signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, requires that all remaining documents about the Kennedy assassination be released by Oct. 26, 2017. The next president will rule on any requests from the CIA and other agencies that materials be withheld or redacted after 2017. Under the law, the president can do so only if there is ‘identifiable harm to military, defense, intelligence operations, or conduct of foreign relations, and the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure.’ ”

When it comes to the many theories regarding Kennedy’s assassination, Sherlock Holmes words ring true: “Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” And facts themselves have become so malleable over the last 50 years that new theories are spawned (or spun) every year.

On Thursday, November 21, Reeves reports that the President and Mrs. Kennedy flew to Texas along with Vice President Johnson. “Kennedy wanted to look like the leader of a unified Democratic Party, particularly in Texas where he already had enough troubles. He called Kenny O’Donnell and told him his job that day was to make sure that Vice President Johnson and Senator Ralph Yarborough, political adversaries for decades, rode in the same car. ‘I don’t care if you have to throw Yarborough into the car with Lyndon, get him in there.’ ”

Reading the Dallas Morning News, the President noticed a full-page ad paid by a group of right-wing businessmen “…asking the President twelve loaded questions including: ‘Why did you host, salute and entertain Tito – Moscow’s Trojan Horse…?’ and ‘Why has the Foreign Policy of the United States degenerated to the point that the CIA is arranging coups and having staunch Anti-Communist Allies of the U.S. bloodily exterminated?’

” ‘We’re heading into nut country today,’ Kennedy said when he saw the ad. But the reception certainly seemed friendly when he looked out the [hotel] window again at the platform from which he would be speaking in a few minutes. ‘Look at that platform,’ he said to O’Donnell. ‘With all these buildings around it, the Secret Service couldn’t stop someone who really wanted to get you.”

On November 20 and 21, I was preparing for a much-dreaded Algebra test on Friday.

 

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