JFK's shooting: How it shapes a gloomier nation

On a day 50 years ago, a bullet changed the trajectory of American politics in ways that still echo.
Crosscut archive image.

President John F. Kennedy's Dallas motorcade

On a day 50 years ago, a bullet changed the trajectory of American politics in ways that still echo.

A month from now, the nation will reimmerse itself in President John F. Kennedy's Nov. 22, 1963 assassination — an event which changed the country and has absorbed us since.

In recent days, Hollywood has released a new film, "Parkland," named for Parkland Hospital in Dallas where both JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald, his presumed assassin, were treated and declared dead. And there's a new book, "The Interloper," tracing Oswald's life, including his time as a would-be defector in the Soviet Union. Both will serve to intensify our fascination with the episode.

The film sheds no new light on the assassination, other than to bring Oswald's mother and an older brother, Robert, more fully into the Nov. 22 Dallas narrative. It covers only the three-day period from the assassination until Kennedy's and Oswald's respective burials in Arlington National Cemetery and a bleak Dallas cemetery.

The central figure is Abraham Zapruder, the Dallas photographer whose film graphically documented the assassination (a YouTube version is at the end of this story). Zapruder is played by Paul Giamatti. Others in the film include Zac Efron as a Parkland physician, Marcia Gay Harden, playing a Parkland nurse, and Billy Bob Thornton, playing the head of the Dallas Secret Service office. The portrayals of JFK and Oswald are purposely brief.

I was in Washington, D.C. at the time of the assassination. I knew both the big names and the working-level people of that political time, and also knew some of the people present at the murder and during its aftermath. I've read all available literature about the event and talked about it with Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson aides of the time, as well as Secret Service personnel and reporters on the scene in Dallas. I went to see  "Parkland" out of mild curiosity. I was surprised that it hit me violently and absorbed me for the rest of the day and night. It was truth in filmmaking.

The book, "The Interloper", by Peter Savodnik, includes interviews with Oswald's friends and fellow workers in the Soviet Union (to which he defected after Marine Corps duty and from which he departed after his disenchantment with the Soviet system). It confirms Oswald as a poor, lost soul searching for an unattainable utopia.

The Warren Commission, appointed by President Johnson, worked hastily. Everyone involved, including the Kennedy family, wanted it done that way. Johnson later told staff and friends he doubted the "lone gunman" finding of the Commission and suspected conspiracy. A later House of Representatives committee inquiry leaned in that direction.

I always thought that Oswald might have been right when he said he was "just a patsy" in an operation in which he, no doubt, was involved. He could say no more before he was killed at Dallas police headquarters by Jack Ruby, a Dallas strip-club operator who was a low-level member of the Chicago mob. (Later it became known that Oswald knew Ruby and had been in his club.) The mob had a big grievance with the Kennedys. The family scion, Joseph Kennedy, had made his fortune as a Prohibition bootlegger and reportedly had solicited the mob's help in JFK's 1960 campaign. Then, after the election, Attorney General Robert Kennedy had turned on the mob.

Those with major grievances also included CIA and Cuban emigree operatives who felt JFK had abandoned them at the Bay of Pigs invasion. Fidel Castro, too: Robert Kennedy had been coordinating a mob-CIA operation to assassinate Castro (Johnson learned of it only after he became President). Others suspected South Vietnamese operatives seeking revenge for the murder of South Vietnamese President Diem in a JFK-sanctioned coup. Some thought the Soviets had done it. Oswald had been to their Mexico City embassy a short time before.

I had done military duty as an intelligence analyst, specializing in the Soviet Union, and was prepared to entertain even the most improbable scenarios regarding Soviet operations. But, in this case, I thought a mob-rogue CIA operation far more likely, if in fact Oswald did not act alone.

In the assassination's aftermath, a cavalcade of idolaters have attempted to raise JFK's three-year presidency to heroic status. Kennedy would have been the first to laugh. He was a man of intelligence and irony, but also a pragmatic politician representative of the time.

He won the presidency in 1960 by running to the hawkish, Cold Warrior side of Richard Nixon and later got the U.S. involved in Vietnam. At the time of his death, liberals were complaining about his caution on civil rights. It was Johnson who later would push through the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and the Great Society. In his personal life he was a reckless womanizer. Perhaps his greatest achievement, seldom mentioned, was his introduction of Keynesian economic policy to the postwar White House. It worked, and initiated a period of growth and investment. JFK was a shrewd politician, a good communicator, and a man who generally wanted his country to move in progressive and peaceful directions. But not at great political risk.

Over the ensuing years, I would know and work with all the main Kennedy-era figures. John F. Kennedy Jr. spent a college summer working for me as an intern. It was the first time he had come to the capital since the 1963 murder; he had no memory of his father. His mother, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, was devoted to him and checked on him regularly. Members of the JFK domestic Cabinet and White House staff were mainly good people who loved the political game — not just for itself, but as a way to good policies. Almost all are gone now. So. too, the LBJ team that followed.

The country lost its innocence with the JFK murder. The 1968 murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the attempted murder of Ronald Reagan, Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11, Iraq, and a truly nasty domestic political gridlock have stripped us of the optimism and good feelings we shared with the coming to office of a handsome, witty, young president and his attractive wife and children.

There never was a Camelot, but we thought there was, and its loss remains painful to this day.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.