by Larry Lehna
It has been fifty years since an assassin’s bullet took the life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, our most popular president. No other president has every enjoyed a 70 percent approval rating. Many people forget the many Michigan connections. It was during the campaign itself, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, that Kennedy proposed the creation of an organization that would become the Peace Corps. It was a few weeks later that he actually coined the name; this was on the steps of the Michigan Union in Ann Arbor at two a.m. - that is not a misprint, it was two in the morning. There is now a golden plaque on the site to commemorate the event.
The 1960 presidential election was one of the closest in this century. Detroit and Michigan played a significant role in that election. It was Kennedy’s victory in Detroit which helped him take this key battleground state. Millie Jeffrey, a labor organizer from the UAW chaired his campaign in Michigan. She had met the candidate at a dinner in Grand Rapids a few years prior to the election and was captured by his charm and idealism. Ms. Jeffery’s efforts made JFK a palatable choice for the rank-and-file union members and they are voters who tipped the scale in Detroit.
It was early in the morning of November 9, 1960, that Kennedy was declared the winner in Michigan. It was only after winning this state that the Secret Service conceded his victory and moved in to protect the new president-elect. It was in his inauguration speech that Kennedy first challenged the nation to “ask what you can do for your country.” JFK’s presidency continued with the theme of urging American’s to do more for their country and the nation embraced him.
Shortly after his election Kennedy again requested assistance from the Wolverine state. Robert McNamara, the first person without the Ford surname to head the automaker, had just been named president of the company. JFK offered McNamara the job of Secretary of Defense. McNamara had been one of Ford’s whiz kids, but he accepted Kennedy’s offer, and continued on under LBJ. A whole generation of baby-boomers was just learning about our government in ’59. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a well-spoken youngish war hero captured their imagination during the presidential campaign of the same year. He also captured enough votes to become the youngest man ever elected to the presidency. The man was an inspirational speaker and the press loved him. So did the baby-boomers. JFK was not the stuffy old politician we were accustomed to seeing on that era’s black-and-white TVs.
JFK played touch football with his family on the lawn of the white house. Unheard of. This was something that could happen on any street in the country, but never before at that address on Pennsylvania Avenue. Our president came off as a family oriented man of the people, the fact that he came from an extremely wealthy family was conveniently ignored. If baby-boomers could vote he could have run for emperor, and won.
Kennedy had the good-looks and grace under fire usually associated with an actor in a movie, but he performed in real life and with panache. He coolly guided the country through the Cuban Missile Crisis when we were poised on the edge of nuclear war. The country watched the drama unfold on television. On another occasion he wanted the country to commit to the seemingly impossible. Kennedy dared us to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The country accepted the challenge and on July, 20 1969, as the world held its breath, we heard the words, “The Eagle has landed.” Then the more famous, “A small step for man, a giant leap for mankind.” The man had such a grip on our imagination that we refused to fail him, even years after his death.
It is his death that baby-boomers remember most vividly. Anyone over 60 can tell you where they were when they heard the news. It was the end of innocence for an entire generation, and it was carried out on our television screens. We saw the impromptu swearing-in of a president on an airplane, while the new widow, still wearing her blood spattered suit, looked on in shock. All regular television programming was suspended, (something that will never happen again). For three days we absorbed every scintilla of information available. On the second day we saw the accused killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, shot and killed by Jack Ruby on live television. As if the country were not already in shock, this strained our sensibilities to the limit. We were a generation that grew up with gun-fights on TV and in the movies, but this was a real murder. The images were shown repeatedly, for those who may have missed the event. Sol Dunn, who had a law practice in Detroit, is the one who got Ruby’s death sentence set aside. Ruby died while awaiting the start of his new trial.
It boggles the mind that the limo, which had been assembled at the Wixom plant, was kept in service for four more presidents. LBJ, Nixon, Ford (who graduated from U. of M.) and Carter also used the vehicle. Ford Motor Co. leased the car to the government for $500 a year and it wasn’t retired until 1977. The 1961 Lincoln Continental four-door limousine can now be seen at The Henry Ford Museum, where it is on display for any visitor to see. Before he became president Gerald Ford was a member of the Warren Commission: a panel that was created to investigate the assassination. The commission concluded that Oswald acted alone, but admitted that they ruled on the available evidence. They also stated that there are still questions about Lincoln’s assassination. It would be wonderful to be omniscient, but they had to make their ruling with the evidence before them.
A week after the assassination Life magazine published still pictures from frames of the famous Zapruder film, which caught the assassination live. Thankfully it was more than a decade before the actual film was shown on television. There had been sufficient time for some emotional healing. Those of us who lived through this difficult time are left with images of a riderless horse being lead in front ofsix white horses drawing a caisson bearing a flag-draped coffin. As it moved down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the family a 3 year old JFK Jr. (John-John) saluted the coffin as it passed. After fifty years, and many lapses in memory of other things, those images are emblazoned on our minds as strongly as if they occurred yesterday.