On JFK assassination, other presidential deaths, America and the Divine Spirit.
My mother always remembered exactly where she was when she heard that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died.
My daughters will never forget where they were when they first heard about airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center on 9/11.
People of my generation have an indelible mental image of what they were doing when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.
A sniper with a long-range rifle fired down on President Kennedy as he passed the Dallas Book Repository 44 years ago this week.
I was a junior just leaving gym class at a Catholic high school in Buffalo, N.Y., when the principal’s voice boomed over the public address system. He notified us that the president had been shot and ordered all students to immediately attend a Mass to pray for the president’s recovery. Before the Mass began, it was too late.
In the 1960s, television programming existed on only three channels and almost entirely in black and white.
Over the next three days, nothing was broadcast except images of the tragedy.
America watched hour after hour as the drama unfolded. Lyndon Johnson was sworn in, Jackie Kennedy standing beside him in a dress still stained with her husband’s blood.
Plans for Kennedy’s funeral ceremony were formed and executed.
We saw pictures of the sniper, Lee Harvey Oswald. We watched in macabre fascination as his own murder – committed in the basement of a police station, no less, in the presence of dozens of law enforcement officers - was broadcast live directly into our living rooms.
Kennedy was the last victim of a curious presidential curse: beginning in 1840, presidents elected every 20 years until 1960 all died in office – including all four of those dispatched by an assassin: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and Kennedy.
Lincoln’s death and its effect on subsequent actions of our government can only be viewed as tragic.
His successor, Andrew Johnson, in no way up to the task of steering the country toward a peaceful reunion of the North and the South, made enemies in Congress.
They passed a series of laws to thwart him that hamstrung the presidency for a couple of generations. The result was a succession of ineffective presidents and the creation of Jim Crow laws in the South that deprived blacks of their civil rights for nearly a century.
But when we look at the practical effect of the tragic shortening of the lives of the other three presidents we see, oddly, that many Americans ultimately benefited.
James Garfield, for instance, had been in office for less than three months when a delusional young man named Charles Guiteau shot him in the back. Garfield hadn’t actually accomplished much. He’d spent most of his time filling thousands of patronage jobs – and weeding his way through tens of thousands of candidates for those jobs. This included Guiteau who, though singularly unqualified, expected to be named ambassador to France.
Garfield found himself wrangling with members of his own party – including his vice president – over the filling of many of these jobs. When the assassin explained that he’d killed the president solely to see that Vice President Chester Arthur replaced him, the country was mortified.
The embarrassed new president led a successful movement to install civil service reform. This largely did away with the corrupt practice by which the victorious party provided jobs to campaign workers whether they were qualified or not and then charged the recipients a kickback in order to keep their jobs.
McKinley’s, whose vice president was Theodore Roosevelt, was elected in great part through the raising of large sums from big steel, coal and oil interests. (He was thus able to out-spend his opponent, William Jennings Bryan, 12-1).
When an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley, Roosevelt became president. He wasn’t beholden to the moneyed interests, however, and he eventually took after them. He broke many of the big monopolies, especially John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company.
Kennedy’s death, like each of the others, was a national tragedy. But in fact, although he was personally popular, he was unable to pass civil rights legislation because Southern politicians with great seniority in the U.S. Senate were able to bottle up such legislation.
Kennedy’s successor was himself a former senator of the Old South, with unparalleled parliamentary skills.
His ability, combined with public enthusiasm for carrying out Kennedy’s dreams, resulted in the passage of civil rights legislation that transformed our country and, over time, allowed millions of Americans of color to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship.
Frequently in history the assassination of a country’s leader leads to chaos.
It’s easy to believe a Divine Spirit looks after our country when we contemplate how the U.S. fared after these three assassinations.
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