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The day before JFK was assassinated

What America was like on November 21st, 1963
President and Mrs. Kennedy arrive at Love Field, Dallas, Texas, Nov. 22, 1963.
President and Mrs. Kennedy arrive at Love Field, Dallas, Texas, Nov. 22, 1963.

Like a lot of Americans, I remember November 22, 1963, but not November 21. If, as I was, you were very young—I was two months shy of my sixth birthday—there’s very little of your life before that date that you can remember. Of John F. Kennedy, I knew only two things when our kindergarten teacher told us, on the playground of Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School in New Rochelle, New York, that he’d been killed. He was the president, and his job was to send John Glenn into outer space. Now he wouldn’t.

If you were older, it’s still doubtful that whatever occupied you on the day before, or the day before that, was anywhere near so memorable as Nov. 22. And most people alive today have no memory of the run-up to Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, for an even simpler reason: they had not yet been born.

What was America like in 1963, before Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby became household names? 

  •  Median family income was about $6,200, but for “nonwhite” (mainly black) families, it was $3,465. The black-white income gap is narrower today, but only by about six percentage points. 
  • Martin Luther King had given his “I Have A Dream” speech three months earlier; all the major civil rights laws had yet to be enacted. 
  • New York City still had six daily newspapers. A seventh, the Hearst-owned Daily Mirror, had died the month before, the victim of a lengthy newspaper strike whose aftereffects would, over the next four years, kill off three more.
  • Diane Sawyer, age 17, was America’s reigning Junior Miss--a competition since renamed “Distinguished Young Women,” probably in deference to the social movement that Betty Friedan helped create that same year by publishing "The Feminine Mystique." 
  • Ronald Reagan--having recently ended an eight-year stint with General Electric, for whom he’d been a TV host and speechmaker—accepted his final film role, that of mob boss Jack Browning in "The Killers." It would be the only movie Reagan made after switching his registration from Democrat to Republican, and (coincidentally) the only one in which he played the bad guy.
  • The U.S. media was starting to take note of the Beatles phenomenon in Britain, though mainly to sneer. “The London Times has carried the sobering report that the Beatles may bring their Mersey sound to the United States,” Edwin Newman reported November 18 on NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report, “to which it may be rejoined, ‘Show us no Mersey.’”

Chronologically, 1963 marked a rough midpoint between the death of the last surviving veteran of the Civil War (1956) and the first moon landing (1969); between Hitler’s defeat (1945) and the first clinical recognition of the AIDS epidemic (1981); and between the Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring" (1913) and the final episode of "Breaking Bad" (2013).

On November 21, 1963, Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz” whose life was romanticized in a 1962 movie starring Burt Lancaster—Stroud’s ornithological enthusiasms did not, in fact, gentle his violent impulses—died at 73. (Stroud was never permitted to see the film.) That same day saw the births of the actress Nicollette Sheridan ("The Sure Thing," "Desperate Housewives"), the playwright-director Moises Kaufman ("The Laramie Project"), and Tony McConkey, a conservative Republican member of Maryland’s House of Delegates.

It’s November 21, and you want to go to the movies. What’s playing? "Under The Yum Yum Tree," "The Incredible Journey," "It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," John Wayne in "McClintock!," Vincent Price in "Twice-Told Tales," and James Stewart and Sandra Dee in "Take Her, She’s Mine" (remembered today solely because the Dee character was loosely based on the teenage Nora Ephron; her parents wrote it).

Hmm. Maybe you’ll stay in.

It’s Thursday, right? ABC’s got "Donna Reed" and "My Three Sons," CBS has "Rawhide," and NBC has something called "Temple Houston" (Perry Mason-goes-west drama starring Jeffrey Hunter; lasted only one season).

Or maybe you’ll just catch up on your reading. Mary McCarthy’s racy "The Group" tops The New York Times best-seller list for fiction. The non-fiction list is headed by "JFK: The Man and the Myth," a hatchet job by Victor Lasky, followed (somewhat ominously) by "The American Way of Death," Jessica Mitford’s expose of the funeral industry, at number two.

Kennedy was on his way to Dallas, but on November 21 Richard Nixon was already there, to attend a meeting of the American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages. After losing the 1960 presidential race to Kennedy, Nixon had lost the 1962 California gubernatorial race to Pat Brown. Now he was a partner in the New York law firm of Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander, & Mitchell, where Nixon’s friend Donald Kendall, president of Pepsi, was a client. Also in attendance at the bottlers meeting was the actress Joan Crawford, widow of Pepsi’s former chairman.

On the morning of November 21, Nixon met with reporters at the Baker Hotel in downtown Dallas. He noted that Kennedy had lost support in Texas, which was true; indeed, that was Kennedy’s main reason for visiting the state with his Texan vice-president, Lyndon Johnson.

“We were going to do something about Castro in Cuba,” Nixon told the reporters. “We were going to do something about American prestige abroad, and also about sort-of-permanent unemployment” (then 5.7%). “We find that on all of these issues there’s been no action.” Nixon added that Johnson’s “stock is not as high in Texas, at least from what I’ve seen, as it was. In 1960, Lyndon was a help. In 1964 he might not be.” A Dallas News headline the next day blared, “Nixon Predicts JFK May Drop Johnson.”

There was, in fact, much gossip about whether Kennedy might dump Johnson from the 1964 ticket, and Kennedy’s secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, later recalled that before he left for Dallas Kennedy told her he might replace Johnson with North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford. Of particular concern was the ethics investigation of Bobby Baker, Secretary of the Senate and a Johnson protégé when Johnson was Senate majority leader. Outrageous stories alleging that Baker paid bribes and hosted debauched parties in which naked young prostitutes poured champagne over each other were embarrassing the Kennedy administration, and the investigation was starting to suggest Johnson knew about them.

An article published in Life magazine on Nov. 18 quoted one anonymous source calling Baker (who eventually did jail time for larceny, fraud and tax evasion) “Lyndon’s bluntest instrument in running the show.” Two former Life magazine editors later told Johnson biographer Robert Caro that the magazine was preparing a more ambitious investigation into Johnson’s own extensive history of ethically questionable financial dealings. Life would scrub the project after November 22, first because the assassination was the only story, and later because it wanted to give the new president a chance to succeed.

Another journalistic casualty of the assassination was a special CIA issue of the short-lived satirical magazine Monocle, edited by Victor Navasky and dated November 19, 1963. Because of the assassination, Navasky would recall in his 2005 memoir, "A Matter of Opinion," “most of the 75,000 copies never left the warehouse.” The decision not to distribute was a costly one, and within a couple of years Monocle was no more.

During a Nov. 21 stopover with Kennedy in San Antonio, Johnson suffered another setback. Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, a Democrat, was feuding with Texas Governor (and fellow Democrat) John Connally. Kennedy wanted Johnson to put an end to it; winning Texas in 1964 would be difficult enough without a Democratic party riven by conflict. To resolve the matter, Johnson had to talk to Yarborough. But Yarborough refused--in full view of reporters--to ride in a motorcade with Johnson. A headline in the next morning’s Dallas News would read, “Yarborough Snubs LBJ.” Connally, Johnson felt, was also treating him disrespectfully, and later, in a Houston hotel room, Caro writes in "The Passage of Power," “there were, perhaps for the first time since Kennedy had been elected, loud, angry words directly between the president and the vice president.”

All of this—the investigations, the slights, Johnson’s fears about his political future—would evaporate on Nov. 22.

In San Antonio, Air Force One landed in Lackland Air Force Base, where the future playwright John Guare ("Six Degrees of Separation") had reported the previous month for basic training. November 21 marked the first interruption Guare recalls from “the endless calisthenics, aimless marching, learning to fire a rifle, kitchen duty, learning to take orders.” Guare’s platoon stood at attention and saluted the president, vice president, and their wives on a distant landing strip. Then it was time for a smoke. According to Guare (whose monologue about that day was included in a recent multimedia event at New York’s Symphony Space and reprinted in the Huffington Post) his “fellow airmen basics” used this precious free time to mutter one hateful thing after another about the visiting party: “We got to stand in this hot sun for a n----- lover?” “He don't belong in Texas.” “He ain’t my president.” “I’d like to show that wife of his what a man is.” And so on. When word came the next day that Kennedy was dead, Guare writes, “a cheer went up…. I have never felt so isolated in my life as I did that day.”

Kennedy’s own experience of November 21 is, like Kennedy himself, a bit of a cipher. His aide Kenny O’Donnell recalled him saying that morning, in the White House, “I feel great. My back feels better than it’s felt in years.” The historian William Manchester reported in his book "Death of A President" that Kennedy told Jackie he looked forward to riding that weekend at the Johnson ranch. But he was wearing a back brace, and at a speech later that day in Houston, Johnson aide Jack Valenti told Manchester, he observed Kennedy’s hands “vibrating so violently at times that they seemed palsied,” a symptom of Kennedy’s Addison’s disease.

A helicopter flew the Kennedys to Andrew Air Force Base at 10:45 a.m.; on the flight to San Antonio, the president asked aides about his brother Bobby’s 38th birthday party the night before, which he hadn’t attended. (Bobby himself spent most of Nov. 21st in a Justice department meeting about targeting organized crime.) None of Kennedy’s public comments that day is particularly memorable. Kennedy spent much of the day trying to get aides to twist Yarborough’s arm into talking to Johnson. He and Jackie spent the night at Fort Worth’s Texas Hotel, in a suite decorated with paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, and others, lent by local collectors. The splendor was lost on them, because they didn’t arrive at their hotel until after midnight and went straight to bed.

Not quite one month before, on October 24, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had given a speech in Dallas and been jeered by an angry right wing crowd shouting “Communist!” and “Traitor!” and “Kennedy will get his reward in hell.” Stevenson said to one heckler: “Surely, my dear friend, I don’t have to come here from Illinois to teach Texas manners, do I?” The protesters, egged on by a rally staged the night before by retired Army Major General Edwin Walker, a prominent, mentally unstable, and ultraconservative Dallas activist, had spat upon Stevenson and whacked him in the head with a placard that said “If You Seek Peace, Ask Jesus.” The bearer was Cora Lacey Frederickson, wife of a Dallas insurance executive; Dallas’ haters were drawn not from society’s fringes but from its pathologically angry haute bourgeoisie.

This was well known to the rest of the country. James McAuley argued in a recent New York Times essay on Dallas before the assassination that it was parodied by Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews in a (retrospectively creepy) TV production number of the song “Big D” that ended with Burnett pulling a gun on Andrews and saying, “What are ya, some kinda nut?”

The Stevenson incident left Dallas’s hard right feeling more aggrieved than ashamed. On the morning of November 22, an ad in the Dallas News read: “Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas. A city so disgraced by a recent Liberal smear attempt that its citizens have just elected two more Conservative Americans to public office.” The ad, taken out by a group that called itself The American Fact-Finding Committee, continued: “A city that will continue to grow and prosper despite efforts by you and your administration to penalize it for its nonconformity to ‘New Frontierism.’”

Kennedy laughed it off, but the hatred in Dallas was real. A “Wanted For Treason” leaflet distributed in Dallas in the days before Kennedy’s visit accused Kennedy of (among other crimes) giving “support and encouragement to the Communist inspired racial riots” and appointing “anti-Christians to Federal office.”

Shortly after the Stevenson incident, a woman named Nelle Doyle had written White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger to urge him not to send the president there because of “this ‘hoodlum mob’ here in Dallas… it is a dreadful thought, but all remember the fate of President McKinley.”

Strangely, though, it wasn’t a right-wing extremist who would end Kennedy’s life, but a confused and angry Marxist—one who, seven months earlier, fired a shot not at Kennedy, nor Connolly, nor Johnson, nor Yarborough, but at Walker, whom he considered a fascist.

That time, Oswald missed.