The eyes of leaders on Capitol Hill seemed lost
The feeling inside the Capitol Rotunda could only be described as surreal. A young political reporter all of 27, I was standing beside former U.S. Sen. Claude Pepper of Florida and former U.N. ambassador and two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. To my other side, within arms’ reach, was our nation’s first lady, veiled in mourning as her husband lay inside the flagdraped coffin before us.
Her solemn figure held the entire room, her every slight movement carefully monitored by the hundreds gathered as her husband’s brothers stood by her and the two young children at her knee. We watched her private goodbye as she knelt to kiss the flag and her children caressed the box holding their father’s body.
For a political scribe who cut his teeth on local campaign stories and minor legislative fisticuffs, I was in foreign territory. But of course we all were. As our 35th president lay in state, I was not there to reflect, pay my respects or mourn. My job was to report, which meant capturing the emotions of America’s power brokers as the floor fell from beneath their feet.
My bureau interviewed our Florida senators, Spessard Holland and George Smathers, the latter having served as a groomsman at JFK’s wedding to Jacqueline. Despite the overwhelming sense that the order of things had been overturned, I noticed an eerie similarity to the statements I collected on Capitol Hill those few days. Congressional heavyweights offered prayers for the family and our nation with picture perfect, if not profound, words. But the eyes of these men, that had always seemed so confident and assured, now seemed lost, aware that the world they knew would never return.
There’s an element to historic moments always beyond reach of modern comprehension. To wake up each day in the aftermath of the JFK assassination was like waking up in a new town, or a new house. Everything felt different, as it was different. People were not exactly who they were yesterday; their emotions changed, their priorities were turned upside down. For the first time in our history, an American president was killed publicly in broad daylight, and through a spectator’s 8 mm home movie camera, every frame was caught on film for us to see.
America knew our nation had changed that day, yet nobody was exactly sure how. We knew something had been lost, but were far from knowing just what. Whether you voted for Kennedy or not, Camelot had come to America. The youthful war hero turned president embodied an earnest energy and a hopeful vision that inspired a nation still fearful from the black cloud of communism and a world in tumult. His death was an ear-shattering clap of thunder that robbed us of this hopeful vision and turned the clouds a shade darker.
The passing years have provided answers to many of the questions haunting us that day, through the Vietnam War, Watergate, cynicism toward government, and a nation seemingly perpetually divided by politics. Yet through these 50 years, JFK has endured, as has the hopeful vision of the strong, ascending nation he symbolized. While America was forever changed that day, we too have endured. And like the flame that stands vigil at his grave site at Arlington National Cemetery, JFK’s light continues to shine brightly on an ever-hopeful nation.
“America knew our nation had changed that day, yet nobody was exactly sure how,” writes James L. Martin, who was a reporter and radio/ TV broadcaster in Washington when he covered President Kennedy’s funeral.