Saturday, November 22, 2008

November 22: death of John F. Kennedy (1963), birth of Charles de Gaulle (1890)

President John F. Kennedy's family has always preferred remembering him on the anniversary of his birth, May 29, to remembering his on the anniversary of his death.

That is the more appropriate remembrance, but for the rest of us, November 22 is the day when we have the reflex of memory. Any of us who were over the age of three or four on November 22, 1963 --45 years ago today-- remember exactly where we were when we heard that the President had been shot in Dallas, Texas, and had died.

As I just posted in comments over at Padre Mickey's (he has a remembrance of November 22, 1963, as does Dcap), I was a child of eleven in Paris. It was evening. My grandmother was visiting from the U.S. The phone rang and she picked it up. (My mother may have been working on Thanksgiving dinner in the kitchen.) She walked in from the bedroom to the front of the apartment where the rest of us were and said "the President's been shot."

We really do all remember where we were when it happened. (Now we also remember where we were when the planes hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 9/11/01.)

The next day, when I got to school, one of my French friends said her mother had told her might not be in class that day.

The French were in shock. They loved JFK and remembered his 1961 visit to Paris with his wife, who charmed General Charles de Gaulle, president at the time, and who spoke fluent French. (When was the last time we had a bilingual First Lady? That was it.) JFK knew his wife had been a big hit and at the news conference luncheon of the Anglo-American Press Association, he quipped in his opening remarks, "I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris."

General de Gaulle's birthday, coincidentally, was November 22. He received the terrible news the day he turned 73.

De Gaulle, my father wrote in his memoir, "was the man who made the immortal comment: 'How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?' " He added "I cite this for a reason: To remind ourselves that this austere, grandiloquent guardian of French glory, a man of vision who knew when to take risks, was also a man of wit and humor not just the aloof, forbidding figure of legend." (Bernard S. Redmont, Risks Worth Taking: The Odyssey of a Foreign Correspondent, University Press of America, 1992, p. 144)


Ken said...

I am not certain (it's not even 7:30 AM yet!) that November 22, 1963 was also the date of death of Aldous Huxley. Bad day all around....

Ken said...

Oh...where we were.

I was 19. I was sitting in a Philosophy class at Hunter College, Aesthetics. At 1:55 some man in a lab coat came in and whispered to the professor, who turned pale. Someone else said "Kennedy was shot in Dallas."

By the time I got to the student center there was Cronkite on TV, confirming that JFK was dead. It's the only time I ever heard Uncle Walter's voice break.

At the risk of sounding like Eeyore again, the lights went out that day on...what? Simple trust, belief in the power of leadership, the idea that the universe made sense and wasn't random? I'm not sure yet. I am sure only that something changed that day that we shall never get back.

For all that, the loss of RFK in 1968 left a wound that is still open. After Bobby died, the word "hope"--regardless of who says it--became a sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. I'll write about all that later, in my own space, when the time comes.