John Kennedy served as our 35th president with an aura made for television, a medium he became the first Commander-in-Chief to use extensively to talk to the American people. And when he died that November day in Dallas, the American people went back to their TVs.
"That may have been the first time we really, as a nation, gathered around the television sets of our homes and our businesses and were transfixed for the next several days," says former NBC News correspondent Jack Perkins. He lives in Sarasota now, but back then worked in Washington under NBC anchor David Brinkley. They learned of the shooting while at lunch, rushed back to their broadcast center, and stayed there.
"You have to keep telling it over and over because people are still tuning in,” he remembers. “You may not have many more facts at all but you have to keep telling it." Three days later, he reported from the funeral procession in Washington, DC. "And everyone along the roadside, everyone along the venue was silenced, weeping, still dumbstruck."
“It's the most singular event in our history that changed the course of our political direction,” says Jack Rabito, another former journalist who has researched the Kennedy assassination and still delivers talks about it, like one in Venice Thursday. “And when an event of that stature takes place, it never fades.”
This singular shock to the country has lasting effect in part because of the Kennedy legend that some called Camelot, and because of the lasting questions about how he died. “This is going to be something that will be discussed and looked at because it's a mystery that's never been solved,” Rabito says.
But 50 years ago, we could not know that. We knew only that the youngest man everl elected president, who led the country as a symbol of vitality, and promise for the future, suddenly had none. And we wondered what lay ahead for us. "It seemed as though something that had happened to the fabric of our nation, fabric of our psyche in our nation," Perkins says.
That, despite the fact that President Kennedy was not universally admired while he was alive. He won a close race in 1960 and he went to Dallas that day to campaign, because he needed Texas in what he expected to be a tough fight for re-election in 1964.