Fifty years ago today, a dizzying whirl of events began flying past Americans over a four-day period the likes of which no one had never witnessed.
It began just after noon on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. By Monday afternoon, a president was dead and a new one taken office. His accused assassin was dead as well, murdered on live television. And the nation was haunted by images of a blood-spattered widow, an Army caisson pulled by a riderless horse with boots reversed in the stirrups, and a toddler saluting not just the nation’s fallen leader but his lost father.
It was a lot to absoib in a short time. That’s why those who were alive to experience the shock and grief when President John F. Kennedy was slain agree it was a watershed event.
Those too young to recall it can relate it to their own pivotal day in history: Sept. 11, 2001, another common national tragedy. In both events, horrible news came out of the blue like a lightning bolt on an otherwise pristine fall day as everyone went about their routines. As events unfolded, we lived the moment as it happened, the shock and confusion of news anchors reflected through those watching at home.
Yet 9/11 was just the latest and not last in a long line of such shared moments, including the Munich Olympics tragedy, Reagan assassination attempt, Challenger explosion and the first Gulf War. And that unique experience of watching history as it transpired began on Nov. 22, 1963.
In 1967’s “The Death of a President,” the first comprehensive narrative of the assassination, author William Manchester summed up the mood as word of the shooting spread:
“The swiftness of the blow intensified the national trauma. There is no way to cushion the shock of an assassination, but the knowledge that fantastic events were in progress at that very moment, coupled with the maddening uncertainty, had created a havoc which had swept up tens of millions of Americans. The immediacy of a running account, however piecemeal, outstrips any report of an accomplished fact. If a thing is done, it is done; if it is being done, the spectator feels that the outcome may be altered — may even feel that he himself can alter it. Americans are under the illusion that they are on stage. In a sense they are. Their yearning puts them there.”
For the first time in history, the public experienced news as it was occurring, not after the fact, as with Pearl Harbor or other landmark stories. It was as if events were running ahead of themselves, the headline on the page changing as if by magic. Americans didn’t have to wait for the newspaper to hit the driveway to tell the tale. It was right in front of them on the black-and-white screens in their living rooms.
Up to that point, TV’s key role in society was to turn people into passive observers of game shows, sitcoms and Westerns. Now it was a window into a life-changing event.
We learned that day how history takes on a different size and scope when seen as it happens, as if being reflected in a funhouse mirror. It is larger than life but also more like life, everyday actions taken by both extraordinary and ordinary people that live on for decades.
We recall iconic images of the extraordinary — Washington crossing the Delaware, Lee and Grant at Appomattox, Theodore Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill, Lyndon Johnson taking charge aboard Air Force One — all mortal men put in a time and place that lead to their brush with immortality.
But here also was the ordinary: a Dallas clothier named Abraham Zapruder who filmed the murder of a world leader with his 8 mm home movie projector in stark, violent color, footage that would be disseminated by analysts for decades to come as the definitive chronicle of the tragedy.
When historic events are scaled down to our size, we see our narrative isn’t locked into an irreversible pattern, and outcomes are not predetermined. They could be altered by the slightest change in fortune. On the narrow road of history, a slight detour on one end can lead to a far different destination on the other.
What if, say, a gust of wind in Dallas had diverted the fatal bullet? The last 50 years would have been very different.
Yet the deadly shot found its mark and the die was cast. One age was laid to rest and a new one begun, not quite the bright march to the future Kennedy envisioned in his inaugural address. The torch was passed to him in January 1961 but didn’t remain in his grasp for long, and in falling it set aflame a decade that began with the promise of Camelot and ended in chaos, violence and sadness.
And as the calendar turned and the world turned with it, all watched as it happened, the overwhelming “now” blending into the fabric of history, still as vivid as the day it occurred for those who lived it.