Monday, November 25, 2013

Promise Denied and Promise Renewed

“Well, the sun is surely sinking down,” James Taylor sang from the glass pavilion of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum on November 22, 2013. Visitors gathered in Stephen Smith Hall heard Taylor’s tribute via live broadcast. “But the moon is slowly rising.”

The Library’s commemorative events that day also included a new exhibit called “A Nation Remembers.” This video tribute opened with a 50-year-old broadcast from radio station WGBH, captured during the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance of a Rimsky-Korsakov opera score.

Thirty minutes into that afternoon’s program in 1963, music director Erich Leinsdorf interrupted. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Leinsdorf told the matinee audience, “we have a press report over the wires. We hope that it is unconfirmed, but we have to doubt it. The president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination.”

Gasps of disbelief filled Symphony Hall. Leinsdorf continued: “We will play the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony.”

The country, as so many later observed, had changed forever.

Veteran newsman Robert MacNeil, in Dallas that day to cover Kennedy’s speech and parade through the city, recalled the vivid sense of promise that colored the parade’s beginning: in MacNeil’s recollection, the “resplendent” presidential couple descending to the tarmac at Love Field, the strawberry-pink suit the first lady wore, the sheaf of blood-red roses she carried, the hand reaching through the fence to break off a souvenir bloom from the bouquet.

That morning in Fort Worth, the President had cheered “no faint hearts in Fort Worth.” He had spoken of the need for all U.S. citizens to “assume the burdens of leadership.” Kennedy’s speech given five months before at American University had called for a “genuine peace … the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living …”

The presidential party left Love Field on November 22 at 11:40 a.m. The motorcade reached Dealey Plaza just minutes before its planned destination. The three shots sounded as it turned onto Elm Street, past the Texas School Book Depository.

The rest lives in collective memory: the Secret Service agent spread-eagled over the back of the convertible, the message sent to Parkland Hospital to stand by for “a severe shotgun wound.” And then Walter Cronkite’s announcement.

It was for many Americans, said a BBC commentator on the 50th anniversary, “as though hope itself had died.”

But in Dallas for the 50th anniversary memorial, where shots had reverberated through Dealey Plaza, young naval officers resplendent in dress uniform sang “America the Beautiful.” The early afternoon light glinted off their white caps. The tenor line of the song rose and fell, floating over the heads of the assembled crowd.

On the grassy knoll, Mayor Michael Rawlings unveiled a new monument inscribed with words from a speech Kennedy had prepared for the Dallas Trade Mart, a speech that was never delivered. In it, Kennedy spoke of the essential need for righteousness to underlie strength: “‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’”

In Kennedy’s 1963 Civil Rights Address to the country, he spoke of “a moral issue,” one “as old as the scriptures and … as clear as the American Constitution …” Kennedy’s brand of Hibernian optimism and inclusion continues to animate today. A young student vibrant with energy told a BBC newsman on the anniversary date of the assassination that Kennedy’s call to action is “as relevant today as it was in the sixties.”

“So close your eyes,” Taylor sang for those who heard the Kennedy Library tribute. “You can close your eyes, it’s all right. … I can sing this song. And you can sing this song when I’m gone.”

In February 2014, Anne Flaherty will present a three-lecture course titled “Pennsylvania’s ‘Molly Maguires’: Prosecution or Witch Hunt?” through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) program at American University.