42 Years ago I was in the school gym locker room ready to go out for junior high school soccer practice. In the musty confines of the staid old country prep school, it seemed like all the rooms echoed with bad acoustics and ghosts of students from passed eras—pre World War II with the same traditions, good and not so good.
I was rushing to my locker when an upper-class friend ran by me and shouted “The president’s been shot.” I asked him what he meant by shot, and he said the news was that Kennedy was shot in Dallas. I didn’t even know he was going to Dallas, as if the itinerary of the President of the United States on any given day was of note to me.
Out on the soccer field, one of the teachers had placed a radio on the sidelines, so we could hear the latest news about a president being shot. It was a brisk fall afternoon and we were kicking the ball around not thinking about current events. Suddenly one of the kids yelled, “The president is dead.”
I remember where I was, and what I was doing, just like everyone remembers where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor, or 9/11, or November 22. But I don’t remember anything of that day after that announcement.
As an undergraduate student in the late 1960’s at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, I was in a political science class taught by Dr. Peabody. Robert Peabody had published a scholarly tract on the campaign and election of Congressman Gerald Ford of Michigan, for minority leadership of the House of Representatives. Ford’s dream goal was to be Speaker of the House of Representatives, but the democrats were the majority party so Ford could only be minority leader.
Members of the US Congress actually have to run elections within their peer group in order to be the head of their party in the House and Senate, after they just ran to be elected from their district. Seems like there’s little time left to accomplish anything in the job they for which they were elected.
Dr. Peabody had befriended Mr. Ford when he wrote about him, so as a special part of our course, we students were taken on a field trip 45 miles down I-95 to Washington, D.C. to the office of the minority leader of the House of Representatives of the United States, in order to meet the Honorable Gerald Ford, Republican from Michigan. In our intimate gathering in Mr. Ford’s sumptuous office, we asked several questions, germane and otherwise, to the course we were taking. I was mostly interested in the huge set of volumes on the overly-impressive bookshelf, titled “Warren Commission.” This was the group set up by President Johnson, under the direction of former Chief Justice Earl Warren, to accumulate evidence and come to a conclusion regarding the facts surrounding the murder of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Mr. Ford was a member of that commission.
I had read several accounts of the probability of a conspiracy of various elements to kill JFK, and that Lee Harvey Oswald was just a patsy and may not even have shot at Kennedy. These were the 1960’s, and not a timid time for students to hold back on questioning authority. So I asked Mr. Ford, point blank, what he thought of the Warren Commission, of which he was a part, and of its finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy, despite so much evidence of a conspiracy.
Mr. Ford’s simple and direct answer was that he was extremely proud of the work he and his partners did on the commission, and absolutely he stood by its conclusion. I really got nothing out of that, except how cool guys like Ford could be about answering any question, especially from a pinhead college kid.
Couple of years went by, and I was working on putting together some sort of documentary film project for my post graduate thesis at Boston University, tying in Watergate and Nixon’s shenanigans going back to the 1940’s, and up to the present in 1973. One friend who knew I was working on this attended a lecture given by the author Mark Lane, who had written Rush to Judgment in the 1960’s about the JFK murder conspiracy. My friend called my on a pay phone and said there were some things about Lane’s lecture that might be able to be used in the treatment about Nixon and Watergate. I no sooner said, “like what?” and Lane was on the phone spouting facts and issues to me in a studied and enthusiastic voice. I was thrilled—Mark Lane wanted to talk to me.
So much for my JFK remembrance stories. I wrote the thesis about Alger Hiss and how the use of bugging and other government improprieties helped corner him, just as covering up for these tricks helped Nixon get pushed out of the presidency.
What does this mean today, 42 years after the last assassination of a US president? What do we know now that we didn’t know then? Certainly the conspiracy theories are still in the forefront of the American imagination, while in that hunt for justice, nothing has gone further than Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone killer.
When Nixon appointed Ford Vice president, after Agnew resigned because he was indicted on kickback schemes while Governor of Maryland, was there a quid pro quo that Ford would pardon Nixon if Nixon was convicted of crimes related to Watergate? Ford pardoned Nixon the minute Nixon resigned, saying he wanted to spare the country of a lengthy trials etc. I didn’t believe that it wasn’t a cooked up deal and wrote my first telegram to a US president saying simply “I condemn your decision to pardon Nixon.” It was my firm belief that a trial would have brought forth the truth of the web and interweaving of who was involved in the money gathering and laundering, lest it continue without punishment.
Does any of this relate to our times, of post 9/11, Iraq involvement, international terrorism, misdirected priorities?
The current Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was first sworn in to that job on November 20, 1975, under President Ford, and was in that post for 14 months. Until President George W. Bush put him in there again, where he still is.
Vice President Dick Cheney was appointed Chief of Staff for President Ford in 1975. Then George H. W. Bush made Cheney his Secretary of Defense.
Talk about bad acoustics and old echoes!
ps: Did you know Nixon was in Dallas on November 22, 1963? I’ve never known if that was important or just a coincidence.