50 years after Kennedy assassination, memories remain fresh
From The Des Moines Register
Nov. 17, 2013
By Daniel Finney
Iowa Congressman Neal Smith was shopping at a downtown Des Moines department store that Friday afternoon, home for a rare three-day weekend.
He noticed people huddled around a radio. He joined them to hear a news bulletin: President John F. Kennedy was dead, shot by an assassin in Dallas.
The date was Nov. 22, 1963.
“It felt like the whole world stopped,” Smith recalled nearly 50 years later. “Some people started to cry. Others just stood there. We were just so shocked. You never imagine something like this could happen.”
It took three rifle shots and less than 10 seconds to change America’s fate and snuff out the image of vitality and energy that Kennedy seemed to personify.
In the half century since, the public has learned more about Kennedy. He was a flawed man who made mistakes both personally and politically.
But in 1963, at just 46, his youth, charisma and gift for powerful speeches embodied the bold spirit of his nation in the years after World War II. The American ethic of the era epitomized excelsior — ever upward. People talked of world peace, the end of racial inequity and landing on the moon.
Many believed all that would happen and more.
Then came that terrible day in Dallas.
Of any Iowan, John Culver, who served Iowa for 16 years in Congress, got perhaps the earliest look at Kennedy.
Culver grew up in Cedar Rapids and played fullback on the Harvard University football team with Kennedy’s youngest brother, Ted Kennedy.
One weekend, Ted Kennedy invited Culver and several of his friends to the Kennedy estate at Hyannis Port. John Kennedy, who was in his second term as a Massachusetts congressman, came home to visit.
Culver played touch football with Ted Kennedy and friends.
“Suddenly a window opened, and (JFK) stuck his head out and said, ‘Culver’s a bum!’ And slammed the window,” Culver recalled in a 2004 oral history given to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. “I’d never met him, of course. He was, you know, having a lot of fun.”
The future president put on a T-shirt and shorts and joined the game.
His mobility was limited, giving Culver a rare look behind his invulnerable aura.
John Kennedy suffered severe back pain throughout his life, aggravated by injuries suffered in World War II when a Japanese warship cleaved in half his gunboat, PT-109. Despite his injury, Kennedy swam to shore, pulling a more grievously injured man by clenching in his teeth the man’s life-vest strap.
“This was prior to any surgery that he ever experienced,” Culver recalled. “So he couldn’t really run with us in touch football, but he played quarterback on both our teams that day, and he threw the ball and so forth. And that was the first time I met him and became so fond of him and admiring of him.”
What Culver heard and saw of John Kennedy impressed him, though he was much closer to Ted, he recalled in a recent interview with The Des Moines Register.
“He was very scholarly and had a sharp mind,” Culver said. “He listened to arguments and was thoughtful. I tried to stay out of the way whenever I was around, but they had some serious political discussions. It was amazing to listen to.”
Iowa, like the rest of the nation, was changing as Kennedy rose to political stardom. Kennedy was elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in 1952, after serving six years as a congressman.
The Hawkeye State was not the starting line then for the presidential election cycle as it is now with its first-in-the-nation caucuses. Still, its 10 electoral votes were prized.
As a first-term senator, Kennedy first visited Iowa on June 3, 1956, to speak at the Loras College commencement in Dubuque. The years since his election to the Senate had been physically tough for Kennedy. He underwent multiple spinal surgeries to correct chronic back injuries suffered during his U.S. Navy service and earlier in his life.
The procedures and recuperation meant he was often absent from the Senate, something for which opponents chastised him. But the truth was even graver. Kennedy was critically ill, and received Catholic last rites at least once.
But 1956 was a turning point. His book, “Profiles in Courage,” which told of U.S. senators who risked their careers for their personal beliefs, became a national best-seller. He would win a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957.
The book brought Kennedy and his ideas to the living rooms and nightstands of America, a multimedia approach to political ascendancy duplicated many times since.
In his Loras speech, Kennedy spoke kindly of Iowa and took inspiration from one of its post-Civil War statesman who also suffered physical struggles in carrying out his duties.
U.S. Sen. James W. Grimes, the third Iowa governor, helped establish the Republican Party in Iowa. Grimes was one of seven senators to vote against the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, who was acquitted by a single vote.
Grimes, who suffered a stroke attributed in part to the strain of the trial, was bedridden in May 1868. Four men carried him to the Senate floor so he could call out his not guilty vote.
Grimes was harshly criticized, censured by friends in Iowa and called a traitor by influential editor Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune. Grimes resigned the next year and never recovered from his stroke, but also never recanted his vote.
In Grimes, Kennedy saw a metaphor for his times. Grimes stood against the popular tide to act in what he believed was the best interest of his nation.
Kennedy told Loras graduates, “The responsibility … to carry on the continuing search for the truth — both for its own sake and because only if we possess it can we really be free — is even more important today than even before.”
Iowa also reached a turning point in 1956. That marked the first year more Iowans lived in cities than rural communities and unincorporated areas. The state’s population growth stalled at 2.4 million after World War I and has never again topped 6 percent growth in any decade. Current population stands at 3.07 million.
Agriculture was still the state’s largest employer. Iowans preferred crooners Perry Como, Pat Boone and Dinah Shore, according to Des Moines Register Iowa Polls. They believed movies were becoming too sexually graphic and violent. They ranked deteriorating highways and school funding as their top problems.
Iowans were also overwhelmingly Protestant. Catholics measured less than a quarter of the state’s churchgoing public. Many Catholics felt a deep-seated prejudice against their faith.
“A Catholic could not be president of the United States, and that’s just the way it was,” recalls Ken Quinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, who grew up in Dubuque. “The nuns would tell us that in school.”
Myron Marty, a retired Drake University history professor, was teaching high school at a Lutheran parochial school in Missouri in 1960. He remembers a local pastor coming to speak the day before the election.
“This pastor said, ‘Tomorrow, we may elect a Roman Catholic president, and we are afraid,’ ” Marty said. “The fear was a Catholic would turn over control of the country to the pope. There were a lot of deep-seated religious prejudices that most people wouldn’t understand today.”
Kennedy was not a popular presidential candidate in Iowa. The Hawkeye State was solidly Republican.
Iowa’s electoral votes had gone to a Democratic presidential candidate just six times since receiving statehood in 1896, and two of those were to President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the heart of the Great Depression.
Iowa stayed true to form in 1960, going solidly for then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Kennedy won just six of the state’s 99 counties. Nixon won the popular vote by 13 percentage points and took all of Iowa’s 10 electoral votes.
Nationally, Kennedy won by the tightest margin since 1916, when incumbent President Woodrow Wilson narrowly won re-election.
As president, though, Kennedy scored high with Iowans. In an Iowa Poll published after his first six months in office, 78 percent of Iowans believed Kennedy was doing a good job as president. He earned high marks for his handling of diplomatic challenges in Berlin and with Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
It was a time of such optimism, Quinn recalled. Quinn had been in high school when Kennedy first visited Loras. He did not attend the speech, but he felt Kennedy’s presence. He read all that he could about the then-senator. One article stuck with Quinn.
“I read an interview in which Kennedy said that if he had not gone into politics, he would have considered the Foreign Service,” Quinn recalls. “I remember thinking that was for me. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but somehow this kid from Dubuque was going to get in the Foreign Service.”
Quinn felt caught up in the idealism of the era.
“Kennedy had this aura about him that reached me, and I think many young people my age,” Quinn said. “He represented the youthful part of America, this sense that Americans could do almost anything — that we had this incredible power and ability to transcend the great problems of our time.”
Quinn was a student at Loras when Kennedy gave his inaugural address in 1961, in which he issued his clarion call to service: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
One of Kennedy’s first acts as president was to create the Peace Corps, which sent volunteers to struggling nations to help develop education, farming, health care and industry.
Kennedy’s words cemented Quinn’s resolve.
“It was a wonderful time,” Quinn said. “There was a sense that public service was the highest calling and a great national interest.”
After a year in office, Kennedy’s approval rating in Iowa dipped slightly, to 74 percent in a February 1962 Iowa Poll. But he held the same rating as his popular immediate predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, at the end of his administration.
Kennedy would not live to face a third rating by the Iowa Poll.
Neal Smith, the Iowa congressman, immediately liked Kennedy. “He was the sort of man that you liked the minute you shook his hand,” Smith said.
Smith was surprised by how informed Kennedy was on the issues Iowans faced.
“You don’t expect anybody from Massachusetts to know anything about agriculture, but he was on top of things,” Smith said.
Kennedy once summoned Smith to the White House to listen to the results of an agricultural referendum that would have benefited Midwest farmers. The referendum failed. Kennedy turned to Smith. “Well, what are we going to do now, Neal?” the president asked.
Smith suggested some policy moves that eventually became part of that year’s farm bill.
However, Kennedy, despite his years in Congress, could be aloof when dealing with the legislative branch. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, was a deal maker who regularly called lawmakers to work policy through Congress.
“Kennedy didn’t do much of that,” Smith said. “He had his ideas, and you took them or left them, but there wasn’t a lot of give and take.”
The greatest challenge the Kennedy administration faced came in October 1962, when an American spy plane spotted ballistic missile sites under construction in Cuba.
The U.S. had placed missiles in Turkey, aimed at Moscow. Khrushchev retaliated by placing similar missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from American shores.
Kennedy ordered the Navy to block Cuban ports. He declared that any nuclear missile attack from Cuba would be regarded as an attack by the Soviet Union and would be responded to accordingly. The fate of a nuclear world hung in the balance.
Marty, the Drake history professor, remembers talking to a college friend at the time of the crisis.
“He was driving out near Seward, Neb., where there was a missile silo,” Marty said. “One day the silo was open, and the missile was out of the ground. Smoke was coming up. He knew he should get out of there, but he didn’t want to miss it if it launched. That’s how close we were.”
On Oct. 28, 1962, the U.S. and the Soviet Union reached an accord. Russia would remove its missiles from Cuba and dismantle its weapons sites there, and the U.S. agreed to not invade Cuba and secretly agreed to take its missiles out of Turkey. The period marked the closest the world ever came to nuclear war.
Smith was a spectator during most of this period, but he was the rare Iowan to have met both men. Smith traveled with Khrushchev in his 1959 tour of Iowa, and, as a congressman, he regularly worked with the president.
“These were flesh and blood men with families and homes,” Smith said. “I was worried. We were all worried. But they wanted to keep on living as much as we did.”
The end came so suddenly on that late autumn day in 1963.
Kennedy and Johnson were in Texas to raise money for the 1964 elections. It was hoped the joint appearance would bolster Kennedy’s flagging support in the South.
The presidential motorcade turned onto Houston Street into Dealey Plaza at 12:29 p.m. At 12:30 p.m., Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots from a rifle in quick succession. One missed. The two others hit Kennedy and then-Texas Gov. John Connally. The brief barrage took four to 10 seconds.
Kennedy was rushed to a nearby hospital, but doctors had no chance to save him. He was given last rites and declared dead at 1 p.m. The announcement of his death was made 33 minutes later, to give the newly sworn-in President Johnson time to leave the hospital.
By then, Culver had graduated from both Harvard University and Harvard Law School and had worked as an aide to U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy. He had just resigned and returned to Iowa with the idea of running for Congress.
That Friday, Culver had returned from lunch at his small Cedar Rapids law firm, and he received the news by phone. First, he went to church. Then someone called from the Kennedy family. He flew out to Washington to be with Ted Kennedy for the funeral. He went to Hyannis Port and spent Thanksgiving with the grieving family.
“I mean you just can’t express the sorrow and grief and loss that everyone in the nation felt, all those privileged to know him personally even more deeply,” Culver said in 2004.
Quinn, the former U.S. ambassador, was a senior at Loras in Dubuque. He and three friends were driving in a car when the news came over the radio.
“It just ripped your heart out,” Quinn recalled. “You just didn’t want to believe it. Here was this young guy with a young family, and leadership had a whole new look. And just like that, it was gone.”
For Quinn, Kennedy was “the apogee of the great American post-World War II inspiration. Everything was up, up, up. We lost so much optimism and hope, and we are still searching for it to this day.”