On that day I was up in my sewing room, away from the TV. My four-year-old son was napping, and my 7-year-old daughter was in school. My husband was at work. It was early afternoon.
I heard the back door open and before I could start to the stairs, I could hear my neighbor, Gwen, shouting something, sobbing. I thought something must have happened to her mother, who had been ailing. By the time I got to her she could barely speak. “They shot the president! They shot Kennedy!”
I turned on the TV and we sat watching, hoping, both of us, that he would be okay. This kind of thing just didn’t happen–not in our country, not to this president. We didn’t know, of course, that the top of his head had been blown off.
But then Walter Cronkite, fighting back tears, announced that our president was dead.
A while later, long before school was supposed to be out, my second-grader ran into the house. She was terrified. When the school staff heard the news they made the decision to send the kids home, but they also decided to leave it to the parents to tell the little kids what had happened. My daughter remembers seeing her teacher cry; she remembers running the three blocks home with a bunch of scared, crying kids, and then running into the house, only to find her mom a hysterical mess.
Soon after our daughter came home, my husband arrived. The news came over the PA system and within minutes everyone had shut down their projects and left for home.
The next few days were lost to anything other than being glued to the TV. Our horror had to take a back seat to trying to calm two little kids, to reminding them they were safe, assuring them that nothing would happen to them, but at the same time we could not turn away from the television set. So when our children saw President Kennedy’s two sad little children being led through the funeral procession, what they saw and understood, throughout all this, was that somebody’s daddy had been killed.
In those early days the rumors flew. The mafia, along with Jack Ruby, was behind it. (The theory was that he killed Oswald to silence him.) Castro was behind it. Johnson hated Kennedy and he was behind it. Oswald’s wife, Marina, a Russian by birth, knew something she wasn’t telling. Nobody could comprehend that one lone gunman could have caused such chaos and grief.
And 50 years later, there are many who still wonder. (I’m not one of them, for what it’s worth.) But today, a half-century removed, this day is set aside not just to reckon with John Kennedy’s death but to look back at his time as president. His was a presidency like no other.
He was the first to give photographers such unencumbered entry into his day-to-day life. He was the first to allow movie cameras into the Oval Office, and because he did, we were able to watch him handle and agonize over crises, to accept his mistakes, to see him interact so intimately with his aides, with his children, and with U.S and world leaders. Television allowed us a kind of unprecedented intimacy we couldn’t even imagine with the presidents before him.
But on November 22, 1963, it was network television that riveted us, that forced us to witness the most painful event in contemporary presidential history. And today, 50 years later, because television was there, we’re riveted again by watching that raw horror and the sad aftermath as if it were only yesterday.