Saturday, November 23, 2013

How Long It's Been: John F. Kennedy Was President

Fifty years. November 22, 1963:

Most members of Congress were, like him, veterans of World War II. But there were quite a few who were old enough to have served in World War I.  Obviously, there were no Vietnam War veterans in Congress yet -- because most of us didn't even realize we were at war in Vietnam.  The only 1963 member of the House of Representatives who's still there is John Dingell of Detroit, who's served since 1955, the longest-serving member in Congressional history.
 
Former Presidents Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower were still alive. Vice President Lyndon Johnson became President. Richard Nixon was still licking his wounds from losing the previous year's race for Governor of California. Gerald Ford was in the House Republican leadership. Jimmy Carter was a freshman State Senator. Ronald Reagan was still acting. George H.W. Bush was still in the oil business; his son, Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham, Al Gore, Dan Quayle and Mitt Romney were all still in high school. Dick Cheney was in college. Barack Obama was 2 years old, and Michelle Robinson and Sarah Heath (Palin) hadn't been born yet.
 
The Governor of the State of New York was Nelson Rockefeller, preparing to run for President -- and that would turn out to be a disaster. The Mayor of the City of New York was Robert F. Wagner Jr. The Governor of New Jersey was Richard J. Hughes. Elizabeth II was Queen of Great Britain -- that hasn't changed -- but she only had 3 children, as Prince Edward wasn't born yet. The Prime Minister of Britain was Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and of Canada, Lester Pearson.
 
There were 20 teams in Major League Baseball. There was an American League team in Washington, and a National League team in Texas -- the Houston Colt .45's, and they were the only team in a former Confederate State. There was a National League team in Milwaukee, but it was the Braves, not the Brewers. There was a team in Kansas City, but it was the Athletics, not the Royals. There was no designated hitter, no artificial turf, and no domes, retractable or otherwise. The Mets just moved out of the Polo Grounds, and were preparing to move into Shea Stadium. Including the Mets, 9 teams were playing in ballparks built before World War I; now, only 2 are, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs.
 
There were black and Hispanic players in the major leagues, but no Asians. The highest-paid player in baseball was Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, making $100,000 a year.
 
Yogi Berra and Stan Musial had just retired. Duke Snider and Warren Spahn were still playing. Of the defining baseball players of my childhood, Carl Yastrzemski had just won the American League batting title for the first time, Pete Rose was just named National League Rookie of the Year, Tom Seaver was in college, and Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench and Mike Schmidt were in high school. Mark McGwire and Paul O'Neill were born that year, while Barry Bonds, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz were yet to come.

There were 14 teams in the NFL, and 8 teams in the AFL. There was a team in Baltimore, but it was the Colts, not the Ravens. There was a team in St. Louis, but it was the Cardinals, not the Rams. The Rams were still in Los Angeles.
 
There were 6 teams in the NHL, and 10 teams in the NBA. Until 1961, there were 9, and Marv Albert, newly installed as the radio voice of the NBA's Knicks and the NHL's Rangers, said he used to think the sole purpose of the NBA regular season was to eliminate the Knicks, as the top 8 teams moved on to the Playoffs. The Boston Bruins, all white, weren't doing well, but they sold out the Boston Garden. The Boston Celtics, with players of both races but led by the black Bill Russell, were in the middle of winning 8 straight titles, but they barely sold half the seats at the Gahden. Gee, you think Russell had a point when he said Boston was a racist city? I'll bet JFK didn't like it.
 
As I said, the defending NBA Champions were the Celtics. The holders of the Stanley Cup were the Toronto Maple Leafs. (This really was a long time ago.) Both would repeat in the spring of 1964. The Los Angeles Dodgers, led by the pitching of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, had just swept the Yankees in 4 straight to win the World Series. Liverpool-based Everton were defending Champions of England's Football League, and Manchester United were the holders of the FA Cup, their first trophy following the Munich Air Disaster of 1958.

The Green Bay Packers were defending NFL Champions, but had lost Paul Hornung to a yearlong suspension due to gambling. Their arch-rivals, the Chicago Bears, led by tight end Mike Ditka, would win the NFL title. (Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus wouldn't arrive until 1965.)

The AFL title would be won by the San Diego Chargers -- and this remains the only time in major league play that a San Diego sports team has gone as far as the rules of the time allowed it to go. Since then, the Chargers have gone to their last possible game 3 times (the 1964 and '65 AFL Championship Games and Super Bowl XXIX in 1995), but haven't won; baseball's Padres have been promoted from Triple-A to the majors and lost 2 World Series; the NBA's Clippers have arrived and left; and San Diego has only had major league hockey (if you can call the 1970s WHA "major league") for 3 seasons.
 
The heavyweight champion of the world was Charles "Sonny" Liston, but a young man named Cassius Clay was going to perform, as he put it, "a total eclipse of the Sonny." Soon, that young man would be named Muhammad Ali.

Since then, the Olympics have been held in America (4 times), Canada (3 times), Japan (3 times), Austria (twice), France (twice), Mexico, Germany, Russia (and are about to be again), Yugoslavia (now Bosnia), Spain, Norway, Australia, Greece, Italy, China and Britain.
 
The Fugitive, The Outer Limits, My Favorite Martian, an American version of the hit British show That Was The Week That Was, and the first TV show scripted and produced by Gene Roddenberry, a military drama titled The Lieutenant, had all recently debuted on television. Doctor Who made its debut the day after the assassination, with William Hartnell as The Doctor. On The Lieutenant, Gary Lockwood -- later to appear in the second Star Trek pilot -- starred as Lt. William Rice. Like Star Trek's James Kirk, the character had the middle name Tiberius.
 
The Beatles had just appeared at a charity show at the London Palladium, attended by Elizabeth the Queen Mother, widow of King George VI. Before playing their final song, their cover of the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout," John Lennon asked the audience for their help: "Those of you in the cheaper seats, clap your hands. And the rest, if you'll just rattle your jewelry." He had threatened to ask them to "rattle yer fookin' jewelry," but was talked out of it. After all, it was live TV, broadcast all over the British Isles, and the Queen Mum was there. She did applaud the Beatles, despite being 63 years old.

Just today, for the first time, I was told that Walter Cronkite was planning to introduce a story on the Beatles on The CBS Evening News for November 22, 1963, as their second album had just been released the same day in Britain, and they were already the biggest thing in European entertainment, but they were still unknown to all but a handful of Americans. But the assassination prevented the story from being broadcast, and America didn't really find out about the Beatles until right after the New Year.
 
Also released on the day was A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, with performances by several acts that Spector, with his "Wall of Sound," had produced, including the Ronettes, featuring his girlfriend, Veronica Bennett, later his wife, Ronnie Spector, later his ex-wife. Turned out, Phil was a white Jewish version of Ike Turner. Maybe worse. Thankfully, like Tina, Ronnie escaped, and is still knocking crowds out in her 70s.
 
Just a month before, Bob Dylan recorded "The Times, They Are A-Changin'," "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," and perhaps my favorite song of his, "When the Ship Comes In." They would be released in January on his album The Times, They Are A-Changin'. Elvis Presley... was about to release his film Fun In Acapulco, best known for the song "Bossa Nova Baby." Once, Elvis was making trends; now, he was following them.
 
Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis both died the same day as JFK. In 1963, Pierre Boule published Planet of the Apes, John le Carre The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Ian Fleming On Her Majesty's Secret Service (as his James Bond novel From Russia With Love was in theaters), Alistair MacLean Ice Station Zebra, Thomas Pynchon V. (not to be confused with V for Vendetta), Kurt Vonnegut Cat's Cradle, Walter Tevis The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Morris West The Shoes of the Fisherman (about a former Communist prisoner who becomes Pope; Packer coach Vince Lombardi called it his favorite book). Sylvia Plath, despondent over her failing writing career, committed suicide; her novel The Bell Jar was published posthumously a few months later, and made her a legend.
 
Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, and John Barton and Peter Hall adapted some of William Shakespeare's plays into The Wars of the Roses -- in other words, that hours-long play mentioned on the 3rd-season finale of The West Wing is a real play.
 
Earlier in the month of the JFK assassination, the all-star comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World premiered. The biggest picture of the year -- not the best, but definitely the biggest -- was Cleopatra, the film that brought Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton together, and nearly sank 20th Century Fox studios. Sidney Poitier starred in Lilies of the Field, and would, the next year, become the first black actor to win an Academy Award.
 
The first push-button telephone had been introduced the week of the JFK assassination. There were telephones that could be used in cars, but that was it as far as "mobile phones" were concerned. Most TV shows were still produced in black and white, and less than 1 out of 5 Americans had a color TV set. Computers still took up an entire wall of a building; Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Tim Berners-Lee were 8 years old.
 
In November 1963, in addition to the JFK assassination, there was a coup in South Vietnam, which made it more and more likely that Kennedy would not be able to pull out of there as soon as he would have liked. It was a big month for coal miners: 11 of them were rescued, 14 days after a mine collapsed in Germany; but an explosion killed 458 miners in Japan. A fire killed 63 people at a nursing home in Ohio. The second of "the Moors Murders" committed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley took place in Manchester, England. Elsewhere in crime, the Boston Strangler was still at large. And in civil rights, in the wake of the awakening sparked over the summer by Martin Luther King, Malcolm X gave a speech titled "Message to the Grass Roots" in Detroit.
 
In addition to JFK, Huxley and Lewis, Amelita Galli-Curci, and Phil Baker, and "Birdman of Alcatraz" Robert Stroud died. Nicollette Sheridan, and Peter Schmeichel, and Vinny Testaverde were born.
 
November 22, 1963. Fifty years ago. The Presidency of John F. Kennedy will forever be known for how it began, with a legendary campaign and a stirring Inaugural Address; but it will also forever be known for how it ended, with three gunshots, and a thousand questions, few of which have satisfactory answers.
 
As the man himself said: "Let us not be blind to our differences – but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal."
 

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