JFK's Last Morning in Texas

[Joanne Roll (Colombia 1963-65) one of our bloggers on the site sent me this piece by Carl M. Cannon Washington Editor of RealClearPolitics and suggested I share it with all of you on this Thanksgiving Day. Thanks, Joanne, and Marian Beil and I would like to thank all of you for your support as we remember JKF on this fateful November day.]

By Carl M. Cannon

Good morning. It’s Wednesday, November 21, 2012, the eve of Thanksgiving Day. Not much is scheduled in official Washington today, which is probably just as well. Even with the “fiscal cliff” looming in their immediate future, Americans have earned a holiday from politics.

On this date in 1963, John F. Kennedy boarded the presidential helicopter on the South Lawn for a political trip to Texas. He was seeking to make peace between the feuding factions within the Lone Star State’s Democratic Party. Kennedy took Lyndon Johnson with him in the vain hope that the once-powerful vice president could ameliorate the rivalry between conservative Gov. John Connolly and liberal Sen. Ralph Yarborough.

Those strains still exist in Southern politics, although the emergence of the Republican Party in Dixie has made the battle lines clearer. JFK wasn’t worried about the long-term future on this date 49 years ago, however. He was concerned with carrying Texas in his 1964 re-election campaign.

JFK Greets PCVs on White House Lawn

JFK Greets PCVs on White House Lawn

According to JFK’s longtime confidant and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, the president assumed he’d be running against Barry Goldwater, hoped to face Nelson Rockefeller, and was a bit worried about the man he thought might be the strongest GOP candidate: Michigan Gov. George Romney.

First, Kennedy was intent on smoothing things over between Connolly and Yarborough, and was counting on his Irish Boston charm to do it. JFK asked Ted Sorensen to furnish him some “Texas humor” for his upcoming speeches, and at 10:45 a.m., Sorenson ran out to the helicopter on the South Lawn and handed the fruits of his research to the president.

In a moment I’ll have an additional observation about the events on this day 49 years ago, but first, I’d note that our front page links, as it does each day, to an array of pieces spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from RCP’s own staff of reporters and analysts.

President Kennedy wasted no time upon arriving in Texas on November 21, 1963. His first stop was the dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center in San Antonio. After acknowledging both Connolly and Yarborough, Kennedy spoke in a spirit of inclusiveness.

“For more than three years I have spoken about the New Frontier,” Kennedy said. “This is not a partisan term, and it is not the exclusive property of Republicans or Democrats. It refers, instead, to this nation’s place in history… and for the best efforts of all those who would test the unknown and the uncertain in every phase of human endeavor. It is a time for pathfinders and pioneers.”

Most specifically, it was the space race the president had in mind.

“Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall — and then they had no choice but to follow them.

“This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome. Whatever the hazards…with the help and support of all Americans, we will climb this wall with safety and with speed — and we shall then explore the wonders on the other side.”

Kennedy’s next stop was the historic Rice Hotel in downtown Houston, where he briefly addressed the League of United Latin American Citizens before introducing his wife, who spoke to the LULAC representatives in Spanish.

From there, it was on to Sam Houston Coliseum – Connolly and Yarborough still in tow – for a birthday dinner in honor of Texas congressman Albert Thomas. The president opened his speech with some of that “Texas humor” provided by Sorensen:

“When I came to the House of Representatives in 1947 as a fairly young congressman from Massachusetts,” he said, “I heard the old saying that you spend the first six months in the House of Representatives wondering how you got there, and the next six months wondering how everybody else got there!”

The crowd laughed appreciatively, knowing what was coming next: the president’s assertion that he never wondered how Albert Thomas got to Washington. Thomas was 65 years old then; Kennedy, who was only 46, wrapped up his remarks by referring to a passage from the Old Testament book of Joel:

“‘Your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions,’ the Bible tells us, and ‘where there is no vision, the people perish.’ Albert Thomas is old enough to dream dreams, and young enough to see visions. He sees an America of the future, in the lifetime of us all, with 300 million people living in this country with a $2 trillion economy which will happen in this century.”

Rep. Thomas would not live to see all that. He died 2 ½ years later, his unexpired term in the House served out by his widow, Lera Thomas. President Kennedy would not live even another full day – and his widow would do her level best to keep his legacy alive.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, liberal political journalist Murray Kempton had written that neither Jack Kennedy nor Richard Nixon “seems to be a man at whose funeral strangers would cry.”

This prediction proved to be false – millions of strangers cried at the news of Kennedy’s death — as did the bravado of the president’s father, who once said of his second son: “I know nothing can happen to him. I’ve stood by his death bed four times. Each time, I said goodbye to him, and he always came back.”

There was no coming back alive from Dallas, except that at this time of year John Fitzgerald Kennedy comes back to us all – at least to those of us old enough to remember him. This morning, I’ll give the last word to Ted Sorensen, who wrote only briefly about the assassination in his 1965 Kennedy biography, but who offered this conclusion:

“Some blame leftists, some blame rightists, some blame Dallas or the security forces, some blame us all. John Kennedy would have said it is too late to be blaming anyone – and he would have had compassion for his assassin and compassion for us all.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Editor


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  • I want to thank you, John and Marian, for this wonderful Forum, and all the talented writers in the RPCV community that you have found and promoted over all these many years.

    I appreciate the work of those writers, especially those who have put forth such an effort to write about the Peace Corps experiences in ways that I could recognize but never describe.

  • This is a comment to a friend, remembering 22 Nov:

    Hi Lynn, Thanks for your comments about Pres Kennedy. I was one of the early Peace Corps Volunteers who had responded to Pres Kennedy’s call to service, and was in West Africa when I heard the news, late at night, of the attempt on his life. There were two other PCVs living with me, and I still remember the muggy humid night air, the squeaky ceiling fan going, the yellow light bulb, and the looks on faces, whilst the BBC Overseas Service, broadcast first with uncertainities, then finally, hours later, the confirmed information, that Pres Kennedy was dead. I still remember the crackling short-wave radio signal. First the tones, and then through the static: “This is London calling. . .” Being out there in the middle of Africa, we felt so suddenly alone. So sad. But closer to home we had our own hero, George Carter, the Peace Corps Rep in Accra, and we knew that George would know what to do.

    Then, early in the morning, after only a few hours sleep, our cook, a Nigerian named “Johnson”, pulled back the mosquito netting and woke me up to say “Dey be beeg mahn out deh”. I got up and went out and there was a delegation from the nearby village of Saltpond (this was on the Ghana coast), in their Sunday best. They had been up all night listening to the BBC also. They knew I was an American. They read the newspapers. They weren’t anybody’s dummies. Their spokesman said, “We want to express our sadness at the death of your Paramount Chief”. I didn’t know what to say. I should have given a speech, but I didn’t know what to say. I thanked them, assured them that in America there was a Vice-president there to take charge; and they disappeared back toward the village. Later, I broke down in tears. I was staring out the window when Johnson brought in a steaming cup of coffee. I thanked him, which was all that needed to be said.

    That morning there were no Ghanaians, nor Nigerians, nor English, nor Americans. Only a disoriented, uncertain lot of human beings, who hoped that peace in this world would not be extinguished. I would learn many years later that the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, on learning of Kennedy’s death, also had been moved to tears. I would learn then, a long time ago, that foreign policy is one thing, but HOPE is something very different. And HOPE is what sustains people.

    The Peace Corps had been the centerpiece of Pres Kennedy’s message, even more than he probably realized, and which had inspired people all around the globe, and I determined then that I would do my best to see that it succeeded — and still do today.

    Best wishes, John Turnbull Lower Canoncito, New Mexico

  • His Raja is Dead
    by Don Messerschmidt, RPCV Nepal-2, 1963-65.

    This is a variation on a “Where were you when JFK was shot?” experience, from the rural mid-hills Nepal Himalayas, in the early PC days (daze!)…

    I was newly arrived at my PC post, a district headquarters town in the remote mid-Himalayan hills of Nepal.

    As it was night time in Nepal when President Kennedy was shot, we heard the news only the next morning, Saturday, November 23, a government holiday. We were awakened early by loud knocking on our door. When we opened it, we were surprised to see most of the district office staff standing thereto tell us the bad news and express their condolences to the only Americans they knew. Some of them, we realized, had walked on mountain trails for several hours from home to come to us. We had had the impression that America was too far away and our leaders were little known to the locals. We were wrong. They had heard it on Radio Nepal, and were genuinely shocked and aggrieved.

    Immediately we turned on our shortwave Transoceanic radio to find, hoping to find a Voice of America broadcast in English. But reception that day was so bad that it took some time for us to find a scratchy VOA broadcast relayed through a station in South Africa. For the first 40 minutes we heard only funereal music. Only at the top of the hour did we finally heare the somber announcement.

    Two few weeks later while trekking in the hills we saw a farmer far off up a hill tilling his field. As we came up the trail he dropped his tools and rushed down to the trail to express his condolences. As he spoke he teared up. The sincerity and concern of the Nepalese, even in such a remote place, impressed us.

    On that Saturday, November 23, another PCV who lived in a village some hours east of us was trekking to our house, alone and unawares, to spend the weekend. Along the way, some villagers tried telling him about Kennedy’s death, but his Nepali was so shaky (so early in our tenure in Nepal) that he didn’t comprehend. And when he finally thought he understand the words, he refused to believe it. After a while, in the last village before ours, an English-speaking school teacher approached and told him the news…

    Jump ahead three decades — I was on a consultancy with some Nepalese foresters when one of them said he lived near that village and knew that school. He was only four or five years old at the time, he said, and on that morning he hgad followed his elder brother to the school to attend a soccer match. When he got there, he saw a tall foreigner sitting on a bench near the school gate. “Why is the American so sad?” he asked. The brother replied: “He is crying because his Raja is dead.” #

  • I was in Baranquilla, Colombia, port town of a million, and many people I didn’t even know gave me a hug as if he were my father. I felt the huge loss also, and we didn’t have a good system for telling the 30 other volunteers in my region, but they all found out quickly and got the same treatment I got.

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