The eyes of lead­ers on Capi­tol Hill seemed lost

The Washington Times Daily - - From Page One - By Jim Martin

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.

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