The president’s funeral: Nov. 25, 1963

The nation is still in shock as it buries its youngest president. The end of four of the most tragic days in American history.

The Oswald assassination: Nov. 24, 1963

Fifty years ago today, I saw this live on television:

I think about it today and realize this was the first time I saw what today would be immediately identified as a terrorist being led to jail by police. And it was the first time I witnessed a murder.
Years pass, and you read things that say that when the Dallas police charged Lee Harvey Oswald with the murder of the president, they said it was because of a communist plot to overthrow the government. That was noted on a PBS “Frontline” report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy:

NARRATOR: Less than one hour after the President was pronounced dead, police had arrested a suspect. Lee Harvey Oswald was a 24-year-old former Marine who had once defected to the Soviet Union. Only weeks earlier he had visited the Soviet and Cuban embassies.

JAMES P. HOSTY, FBI: The original complaint that the police department filed on Lee Oswald, around midnight on the 22nd of November, said that Lee Oswald did, “in furtherance of an international communist conspiracy, assassinate President John F. Kennedy.”

NARRATOR: That night, as Air Force One brought John Kennedy’s body home to Washington, the new president was afraid that Oswald’s apparent communist connections could spark an international crisis. President Johnson ordered the district attorney to drop any reference to a communist conspiracy.

Pres. LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON: This is a sad time for all people.

Mr. HOSTY: Johnson was fearful that if this had gotten out, it would inflame public opinion and could possibly lead to World War III. This is exactly how World War I began, with an assassination.

This fear of World War III does make sense. The Cuban Missile Crisis was just a year earlier. In October 1962, people were convinced there was going to be a nuclear war. America’s right wing, led by members of the the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted to invade Cuba.

The other thing that strikes me about the day is how totally incompetent the Dallas police were. Here’s a longer TV feed of the Oswald shooting.

No one checks ID. No one keeps people away from the transfer of the most hated man in America. And when he’s shot, the police just let reporters walk into the crime scene. It looks like anyone could walk in. Strike that. Jack Ruby, a strip club owner with mob connections and a gun did walk in and killed Oswald.

There was a “Prairie Home Companion” on recently broadcast from Dallas. One of the jokes was something along the lines of: “Here in Dallas, gun control is when you hold a gun real steady before you fire.”

In Dallas in 2013, that got a huge laugh. But all I could think when I heard the line was that in Dallas in 1963, a president was murdered. And in Dallas in 1963, the murderer of a president was murdered on national television.

Dallas was out of control.

Time Machine: The McKinley assassination

I can still remember the day of the assassination of President John Kennedy. It’s one of those life moments that you can never forget … where you were … what you were doing … how everybody reacted.

(In Brooklyn … sitting in a third grade classroom … hearing a girl in the class ask “Is he dead” when the teacher delivered the news. Class dismissed. That was 49 years ago.)

William McKinley (1843-1901)

William McKinley (1843-1901) (Photo credit: Political Graveyard)

But I have to put this in context. The previous presidential assassination was 54 years before I was born. William McKinley in Buffalo on Sept. 14, 1901. That’s 111 years ago. Maybe it was a memorable moment for the generations before me, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s ancient history.

Just as the Kennedy assassination is ancient history to the generations that followed me.

The film of the Kennedy assassination is on the Web. I’m not going to imbed it here. But this appears to be an Edison film of a McKinley speech at the Pan-American Exhibition about a week before his assassination and released on Sept. 11, 1901.

McKinley was dead about two weeks after this was filmed.

McKinley had been elected for a second term in 1900. He enjoyed meeting the public, and was reluctant to accept the security available to his office. The Secretary to the President, George B. Cortelyou, feared an assassination attempt would take place during a visit to the Temple of Music, and twice took it off the schedule. McKinley restored it each time.

[Leon] Czolgosz had lost his job during the economic Panic of 1893 and turned to anarchism, a political philosophy whose adherents had killed foreign leaders. Regarding McKinley as a symbol of oppression, Czolgosz felt it was his duty as an anarchist to kill him. Unable to get near McKinley during the earlier part of the presidential visit, Czolgosz shot McKinley twice as the President reached to shake his hand in the reception line at the temple. One bullet grazed McKinley; the other entered his abdomen and was never found.

McKinley initially appeared to be recovering, but took a turn for the worse on September 13 as his wounds became gangrenous, and died early the next morning.

Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest president in American history. Until John Kennedy claimed that distinction in 1961.

Exactly 100 years after the McKinley speech filmed above was released, a huge national traumatic event occurred in lower Manhattan. And the generations that follow me know where they were … what they were doing … and how everybody reacted. As do I. We will always remember Sept. 11, 2001.