ASSASSINATION OF JOHN F. KENNEDY
In my memory, Shepherd never made a political comment in his decades on the air, although some of whom I interviewed for Excelsior, You Fathead! said that, privately, he often spoke vociferously about political and social matters. A few months after the March on Washington, President Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Shepherd’s wife at the time, actress Lois Nettleton, said in a recorded interview that she, her mother, and Shepherd, were intensely disturbed by the news, watching on TV, “We even went down, walked around, went over to St. Patrick’s and saw all the people sitting on the steps and everything. And he was—he had a very emotional side—very strong feelings, but I think you have to know that if you know his work.” Nettleton commented that she and Jean had been strongly pro-Kennedy.
In regard to the assassination, Shepherd did not travel to another geographical location as he did in the other experiences gathered here, but he used the occasion not only to express his strong feelings about Kennedy, but his strong feelings about the state of the American psyche in those early days of the 1960s. He took a heart-felt journey–a 45-minute odyssey–into the psychic innards of the deep mental and emotional problems he saw in the American culture of that time.
The power of his words about the president and about the feelings he had might be compared to Walt Whitman’s elegy upon the assassination of Lincoln in 1865: Whitman’s ruminations on death, and his homage to the president he loved, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.”
Shepherd’s style the week after the assassination was not typical in that, instead of his usually engaging in an apparent, informal dialog with listeners, he spoke as though delivering heartfelt lectures regarding Kennedy and American culture and personal psychology. He suggested that the recent ferment of student unrest, the civil disobedience, demonstrations and riots in the streets, with the America-bashing of those days, probably contributed to the atmosphere that led to Kennedy’s killing. He commented that there was a trend of righteousness in the country, “a super, hyper-thyroid Holden Caulfield.” Shepherd admitted that America had problems, but said that other countries had more problems. He recognized that America was not living up to its ideals. His somber tone that week was underscored by his comment that he was not playing his usual, ironic, pompous, musical theme music at the programs’ beginnings and endings. Shepherd talked about Kennedy’s intelligence, humor, zest–all of which make people nervous. He talked about the problems of being a president in a democratic system.
I remember the first time I heard about Kennedy, and I suppose many of you remember… I’ve always been a Kennedy man. And–for probably different reasons than you can always state–how you like a certain person–very hard to know all the personal things that make you lean towards a man–make you believe in a man, and so on. The one thing that I have always noticed about Kennedy, that appealed to me specifically, was that Kennedy was a realist. And being a realist in today’s world is very dangerous. Because realism is not a thing that is easily accepted by Americans in the 1960s. And I always felt sorry for Kennedy because I recognized the fact that Kennedy did not give people a soft pap that most of them somehow wanted–on both sides of the political fence….
Noted by Shepherd–and probably by no others–at the end of the
Arlington Cemetery’s TV coverage:
Here was just this little, simple grave–and–it was just a hole in the ground–there was this little, simple bronze coffin. And there was a quick shot, which they cut away from, I don’t know whether you saw this or not–but it was one of the most poignant shots of all. It was a little moment after the funeral party had left Arlington and–the cars were winding back up the drive over the bridge, back over the river to Washington. And the four soldiers were still standing guard over the grave. You saw coming down from the lower left hand corner, two workmen. Did you see them? Dressed in overalls? Just two workmen with baseball caps, and they were coming to do the inevitable.
And I have a–tonight I have a feeling inside of me–there is a great sense of–apprehension–I suppose you might say–a kind of feeling of–I hate to say fear, because it’s not that clearly defined. It’s a kind of free-floating thing–a strange unreasonableness–a fanaticism that brought about this unbelievable weekend–is not only still around but is slowly beginning to grow in this land.
For the days right after the assassination, regular broadcasting on Shepherd’s station and most others was suspended for coverage of the event. Shepherd was quoted as saying, “For crying out loud, finally have something to talk about–they took us off the air!“ But it gave Shepherd some time to think carefully, not be forced to immediately improvise as he usually did on his broadcasts. It gave him time to compose his elegantly crafted eulogy for his first night back on the air, in which he suggested how the mood of the country had been changing to an unsettling dissatisfaction with the world, and that this mood-change probably contributed to the tragic events. He ended by saying, “It was a terrible weekend. And I’m not so sure that we’re not in for a few more in the next hundred years.” He concluded the broadcast in a way very unusual for him, that suggested to me that he knew he had expressed something very special in this night’s program–he did the equivalent of signing his name to the eulogy, ending it with: “This is Jean Shepherd.”
A close friend and I had taken a train from New York to Washington
and we stood in line overnight to walk past Kennedy’s coffin in the Capital Rotunda.
Then we stood outside on the curb, watching with thousands of others
as the Kennedy family and foreign dignitaries slowly walked by in tribute.
Afterward, the public then dispersing, I removed one of the no-parking signs
from a street-pole along the route. I saw it almost daily
hanging in my workroom
for over 50 years.
Yes, it has been over fifty years.
I still can’t think about the events or see documentary footage of them,
without welling up with tears.
I can’t watch those images–I have to avert my eyes.
[Now, over 50 years later, Shepherd would advise us
to keep our knees loose and not avert our eyes.]