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A Heartbreaking Contemporary Account of America's Grief for Kennedy

The New Republic Covers The Assassination of JFK

National Archives/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"Romans," by Murray Kempton and James Ridgeway

The New Republic, December 7, 1963

To read more of The New Republic's coverage of the Kennedy Assassination, click here. 

By Saturday night, even the television seemed worn out by attempt and failure and ceased to comment and gave over to a succession of photographs of the columns and the windows and the corners of the White House and of the shadows of the great Lincoln head in Springfield, and to a voice resting, “Oh Captain, My Captain.” It is to be, then, the grand style. But the ship has not weathered every storm; Mr. Kennedy is not Abraham Lincoln not because he is more or less, but because he is a remembered physical presence and Mr. Lincoln an image of the plastic arts. One’s own time is personal, not historical. Just how long will it be before many of us will want to read a book about the day Mr. Kennedy was shot?

The news of the president’s assassination was given by a taxi driver to the three gentlemen as they left a hotel on Arlington Street in Boston. They turned right around and hurried back inside to attend to their investments. Packed with students and businessmen, a shuttle plane from Boston to Washington waited for permission to take off when the captain came on the intercom: “Folks, up here on the flight deck we’ve been listening to the news and the President is dead.” There was only time to hear one woman say, “How dreadful” before three men went back to discussing plan specifications. A college student reading Agamemnon paid no visible attention. One of his notes read, “love-in-hate.” The plane took off, the stewardess collected the money and started to serve drinks. Then the captain was back again. They had been listening to more news, that is trying to listen to news because their real job was to hear flight control. There had been a gun battle in Dallas; a patrolman was killed; the police had taken a man in a movie theater. Vice President Johnson was now the president. The talk of business went on through this, and stopped only when the captain again interrupted to say that the new president had been sworn in aboard an aircraft. A few laughed.

They ask too much of us when they ask us to act up to the grand style. We are not emotionally affluent people. And yet some of us always complained that Mr. Kennedy did not seem quite emotionally committed enough. But now someone remembered with special affection a moment late in the 1960 campaign. Mr. Kennedy was in a motorcade and the Democratic governor who was with him said how wonderful it was to feel the love with which these crowds pressed forward to feel the touch of their candidate. “Oh, dry up,” Mr. Kennedy said. It seemed now somehow a special grave in him that he used only the real emotion and abstained from fabricating the expected. He had too much respect for the grand style to counterfeit it; how much truer to him might we have been if we had come down in scale and if the many of us who must have remembered the lines from Cymbeline had thought them proper to speak.

“Fear no more the heat of the sun/Nor the furious winter’s rages.

Thou thy worldly task hast done/Home art thou and ta’en thy wages.

Golden lads and girls all must/As chimney sweepers come to dust.”

Cymbeline is a Roman play. The Kennedys are a Roman family; America seems only a Roman crowd. For us alone in it, there is only a terrible irritation with God and with self and with every other face that is left.

Friday night caught most of the president’s cabinet away from the city. All that could be collected from his official establishment came to Andrews Air Force base to meet the dead man come back from Dallas.

Everything mechanical intruded as it would intrude all weekend. The lights were vagrant, savage, and aimless; the planes came and went on distracting irrelevant missions. The face of undersecretary of Commerce Roosevelt seemed the ruin of his father’s. Every uncared-for lank of Senator Dirksen’s hair, every fold under every chin seemed for the moment our own fault.

For we had lost in the instant the hope of beginning again. Reason might argue that the sense of a new start was already gone. The main story in the morning’s Washington Post had detailed the exculpations of a Congressman who had made a 1,000 percent profit from a stock company which had enjoyed his good offices with the Internal Revenue Service. The very Senate which dissipated in shock at the news from Texas had just before been waspishly disputing the privileges and emoluments of elective office. For weeks it had been hard to remember anyone in Washington talking about anything except who was getting what from whom. Mr. Kennedy seemed to be wasting in his city and to be nourished only by the great crowds in the countryside. The films from Dallas, painful as they were, reinforced the feeling that he was his old self only away from Washington. It could be argued then that we would see a time when we recognized that all that promise had been an illusion; but you need only look at hope lain dead to know how easy it is to look forward to regret. It had been less than three years since Mr. Kennedy had announced that a new generation was taking up the torch, no old General de Gaulle and old Mr. Mikoyan were coming to see the young man buried.

The great red and white plane of the President of the United States came to Andrews at least bearing all the transition in one horrid large economy-size package. There was a portable yellow elevator to bring Mrs. Kennedy and Attorney General Kennedy down with a casket that looked like a ship’s chest. Half of Lyndon Johnson could be seen waiting in the open door behind them. Mrs. Kennedy’s weeds as a widow had to be what some said was a strawberry and some said was a raspberry-colored campaign suit. Everything mechanical that did not intrude functioned badly; the elevator seemed to stall; Mrs. Kennedy tried a door of the ambulance, which did not work, and the Attorney General, with a deliberation unbroken as hers was, found one which did and she was gone at least, the high Roman figure that she would be all weekend.

So Mr. Johnson came on, tall as ever but wearing the glasses which his image of himself has always thought unsuitable to state occasions, emptied by his misfortune of all his vanity, small and large, and of almost everything else. His lips seemed wet, his chin uncertain; there was a fear that he might be a man who would cry in public and who there was enough his better to blame him? He said something into the microphones that was identifiable only as being hoarse, broken, and undeservedly apologetic, and then his new household gathered around him. And the eye as cruel to everyone else as the heart was cruel to self, focused and saw only the hearing aid of an undersecretary. The next morning, Mr. Johnson had repaired his interior and left off resenting himself, as all of us had better do it we are to get about our business.

As the people waited the passing of the cortege on Sunday some of them squabbled over who was to stand on the step ladder and shoot the first pictures and at what speed and at what lens opening. A mother trying to tune up a transistor radio said to a pouting child, “I want  you to understand one thing. This is very important to me.” Amidst the people came a teenager with a portable tape recorder. He stuck out a microphone and said, “Sir, on this day of national mourning, how do you feel?” Coming away from the Capitol after viewing the bier, a man with a camera slung over his head said to another man with a camera, “Did you get any good pictures?”

One sat in the Senate press room away from the rotunda on Sunday night and read a wire service report on the tributes paid to the patriotism of Jack Ruby by the master of ceremonies of Mr. Ruby’s strip parlor. There was a story about the good fortune of the Dallas citizen who had been in at the death with his movie camera and had sold the films to Life for $40,000. The National Football League had played its full Sunday schedule; every seat in Yankee Stadium was filled with  mourners. One thought was respect—it was not possible to be grateful to anyone—of Randall Jarrell for having known enough soon enough to have written a book and called it A Sad Heart at the Supermarket.

Then a man spoke up and said:

“She came in with the children this afternoon when the rotunda was first opened and she was standing and waiting and the kid looked up at the dome and began to walk around, and she bent over and touched him and he looked up and straightened her shoulders to show him how to stand at attention, and he did it for about ten seconds. You know, I wish it was a dynasty and the kid was taking over and she was the regent.”

Monday was sunny and for those to whom life is a picture, the Capitol was the best and largest color television screen anyone could hope for. A boy sat on his father’s shoulders and his father told him to use the Number One setting. The band began “Hail to the Chief,” the boy raised his camera and instructed his father not to move. Behind them a woman put a child on her shoulders’ the child must have tickler her because she kept laughing, comfortably, and this pleasant distraction continued until the coffin could be detected from its flag to be coming out and she left off and pointed her finger and said with an undiminished gaiety, “See, there he is.” One left and walked past a girl clutching a paperback. Then suddenly there was one man kneeling with his hands over his eyes and his hat on the sidewalk, and it was impossible not to stop and put a hand upon his shoulder and not begin to hope that a chain might be put together again.

In front of St. Matthew’s the crowd was quieter. The bands and the soldiers went by, the pipers last; and then, like thunder, there was Mrs. Kennedy with the Senator on one side and the Attorney General on the other and ramrods up their spines. And behind them, the powers and potentates of the earth; the Kennedys were marching with all of Madame Tussaud’s in their train, as though Charles de Gaulle had been created a Marshal of France and Haile Selassie I the Lion of Judah only for this last concentrated moment. The powers and potentates waited; Mrs. Kennedy, for the moment made flesh again, gathered her children. Cardinal Cushing came down, under his mitre, looking, to his credit, a trifle irritated with God; we could be grateful for the Catholics and grateful to them for providing one Cardinal who looked like a Prince of the Church.

And the children in their sunny pale blue coats began walking with their mother up the stairs, the little boy stumbling only at the vestibule and then they were gone. We had lived awhile with old Romans; now the doors were closing and we must make do with ourselves.