C.W. Gusewelle

Separating the grief from the greatness

I deliberately avoided immersion in last month’s outpouring of reminiscence on the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

The memory of that day has not become any less painful with time’s passage. I was seated in the restaurant at an Ozark fish hatchery, a baked trout on the plate before me, when one of the servers brought the dreadful news: “Someone in Dallas has shot at the president.”

Disbelief soon became crushing grief.

Fifty years after the event, the telling and retelling of that day — on radio and television and in published work — has been practically unending. Most of it I’ve neither listened to nor read. For, selfish as it might seem, I simply have not wanted to live that sadness again.

Much of the first half of 1960 I’d spent traveling in Europe, and I was lodging in a town on the southern coast of Spain on May 1, which happened to be the day that a Soviet ground-to-air missile shot down an American U-2 spy plane flown by Francis Gary Powers.

The event sparked an international crisis and threatened to derail an East-West summit scheduled for two weeks later in Paris, to be attended by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and hosted by the French president, Charles de Gaulle.

Hoping to salvage the summit and avoid a confrontation with the Russians, the Eisenhower administration concocted an elaborate lie about what had happened, saying the pilot of a U.S. reconnaissance flight out of Turkey had strayed into Russian airspace when the pilot lost oxygen in the cockpit.

Then Khrushchev announced publicly that the U-2’s wreckage had in fact been found; that Powers, who had parachuted to safety, had been captured and interrogated; and that the Kremlin had in its possession aerial photos of Soviet military and missile launch facilities taken from the American spy plane. Washington’s lie was exposed and the U.S. humiliation was complete.

“Your country is supposed to be a great power,” a Spaniard in a cafe told me. “How could your people be so stupid?”

There was no sensible answer to the question.

I returned from Europe that autumn, and the political race was underway in which Kennedy, at age 43, would defeat Richard Nixon for the presidency. The election brought a fresh sense of vigor and promise to the leadership of this country. But there was opposition as well, some of it a reaction to JFK’s Catholic faith.

I remember attending a family reunion in a country church yard near the small town where my father spent his boyhood. At the meal’s end, the Baptist preacher climbed atop the picnic table and proclaimed, in a strident voice, “A vote for John Kennedy is a vote for the pope.”

The young president had charisma, eloquence and the capacity to engender hope.

On the night of June 10, 1963, I sat in a motel room in Tuscaloosa, Ala., watching on TV Kennedy’s message to the nation, explaining why he had sent his deputy attorney general to oblige George Wallace to stand aside from the University of Alabama doorway and allow two African-American applicants to enroll.

“We are confronted with a moral issue,” said the president. “It is as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution. And our nation, for all its hopes and its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”

In the torrent of reflection on the tragedy of a half century ago, some of the writers and talking heads have been moved to include comment about Kennedy’s political failures and personal shortcomings.

They are entitled to their opinions, of course. But I prefer to remember him alive — a vital presence and an inspiration in his time.