The Fading Light of Camelot

December 4, 2017
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Novermber 15, 2013 - February 17, 2014


It might have been the very instant that the newly sworn-in President declared “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” that the legend was born. Camelot – an elegiac and magic moment in American history when gallant heroes would do great deeds. For an electrifying 1000 days, the administration of John F. Kennedy would try to confront new challenges and right old wrongs – and with such verve and vigor, that it gave the country, indeed the world, a lift. But as no light burns forever, so in turn the shining moment that was Camelot, began to fade. War abroad, unrest at home, even privately, the death of an infant son – darkness edged in, until noon, in Dallas, on November 22, 1963, when it all turned black.

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Major Policy Issues


A New Frontier

He would be, at 43, the youngest man ever elected President and, on the night of his party’s nomination, he made that youth his calling card.  “It is a time,” John F. Kennedy declared, “for a new generation of leadership – new men to cope with new problems and new opportunities.” He then told the eighty thousand people at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and the millions watching at home, that he stood facing West on what was once the last frontier. “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier,” he proudly proclaimed. Six months later, he was the President, having his photo taken by the great Alfred Eisenstaedt. When asked to sign “Eisie’s” guest book in February 1961, he was still thinking of that bright promise for the future –

To Alfred Eisenstaedt – Who has caught us all on the edge of the New Frontier – What will the passage of the next four years show in his revealing photo[s]

But neither Kennedy, nor his New Frontier, would be alive in four years. The New Frontier was succeeded by another new, and even more powerful, mythic destination: Camelot.


A week after Kennedy became President, he was handed a report on South Vietnam. Speed-reading, he was heard to mutter, “This is going to be the worst one yet.”

By summer, Kennedy was under increasing pressure to make greater commitments to shore up South Vietnam. Introduce American combat troops, he was told by the Joint Chiefs, the State Department, and the C.I.A. Kennedy resisted, looking for less dangerous ways to intervene. He ordered his newly appointed “Military Representative,” former Army Chief of Staff, Maxwell Taylor, to go to Vietnam to assess the situation. Here is the October 13, 1961, letter which sent Taylor marching.

I would like your views on the courses of action which our Government might take at this juncture to avoid a further deterioration in the situation in South Viet-Nam…

Departing a hawk, Maxwell came back only more hawkish. Kennedy’s first instincts were, it turned out, his best: Vietnam was downhill all the way. His mission to Taylor, was the first step of the descent.

The Civil Rights Movement

At eight o’clock on the evening of June 11, 1963, President Kennedy, in a nationally televised speech from the Oval Office, called for the end of race-based discrimination and the full and complete integration of the nation’s “Negro” minority into the nation’s life. The issue was a moral one, he said, as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution. Congress needed to enact, as soon as possible, sweeping legislation that would finally guarantee equal rights and equal opportunities to all Americans. But as much as that speech marked such a turning point in American history, it changed nothing when, just four hours later, a Ku Klux Klansman in Mississippi ambushed and killed a civil rights activist, Medgar Evers. This letter, written on the same day – June 12, 1963 – Evers bled to death in front of his wife and children, in front of his own home, is the first draft of Kennedy’s powerfully felt response.

Although comforting thoughts are difficult at a time like this…Achievement of the goals he did so much to promote will enable his children and the generations to follow to share fully and equally in the benefits and advantages our Nation has to offer.

The Cold War

In Berlin’s Rudolph Wilde Platz on June 26, 1963, millions gathered to hear President Kennedy defiantly proclaim that in their struggle against communism, he too was a Berliner. To a clapping, waving, crying, cheering three-fifths of Berlin’s population, Kennedy – having viewed for himself the wall splitting the city in half – declared that “in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’” That exhilarating triumph was the apogee, many believe, of his presidency – and now ranks as the greatest speech, ever, by an American president on foreign soil.  In this July 8, 1963 letter, he graciously thanks the American military command in Europe for the success of his visit.

I am well aware of the sensitivity and the complexity of the many requirements placed upon the members of your command…That you and they fulfilled these requirements so willingly and efficiently is a source of great satisfaction… Please relay to the members of your command my good wishes and my appreciation for their support during my visit.  You have, of course, my most grateful personal thanks.

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President Kennedy’s trip to Ireland was notable in that it marked the first visit of an Irish-American President, the first of a Catholic President, and the first of a sitting President. No one traveling with him – including all his staff of Irish descent, two of his sisters, and his sister-in-law – had ever seen him happier. Visiting his relatives in New Ross, touring the modest ancestral homestead in Dunganstown, climbing out of his car, unprotected, into adoring mobs of people – Jack Kennedy was ecstatic. A press aide recalls seeing him running up the stairs of the American Embassy in Dublin to greet Lee Radziwell. “They love me in Ireland!” he exclaimed. This letter, written July 9, 1963, less than a week after his return home from Europe, recaps his excitement.

…I have nothing but pleasant memories… It couldn’t have been better. We loved it – All of your countrymen were wonderful to us and so were you.

Kennedy signed his postscript, “Love, Jack” and added, as if not wanting to end the conversation, “How did they like us?

At Home

The Kennedys were a competitive lot, and their chief form of relaxation, exertion. If it involved internecine rivalry, so much the better. Solitary pursuits were generally shunned. When young bride Jacqueline Kennedy bought her husband a paint set for Christmas ’53, all the Kennedys descended on it, competing to see who could produce the most paintings in the shortest amount of time. Jacqueline was appalled: her idea had been to allow Jack to emulate his hero, Winston Churchill, who found painting a serene distraction from political pressure. Kennedy took up painting, by himself, that spring, and when, a year later, he was recovering from back surgery, he painted even more. Kennedy painted mostly seascapes. This painting, dated 1955, is of the Kennedy’s Palm Beach house.

Dot Turbridy, the young Irish widow of a riding champion – Captain Michael Turbridy – was befriended by the Kennedys, and spent some time visiting them in Palm Beach. She became, it was said, like an Irish cousin to the family – and when President Kennedy traveled to Ireland in 1963, she was with his party every step of the way.

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Baby Patrick Bouvier Kennedy's Death

The death of a child, at any age, is unbearable – and Kennedy’s anguish at losing his new-born son was terrible. Patrick Bouvier Kennedy was born prematurely on August 7, 1963, and died just 39 hours later; President Kennedy was with him.

Five days after his death, the President writes his sister-in-law Ethel’s brother George and his wife Pat, on August 14, 1963, to thank them for their message of condolence. It was “a comfort”, he says, “to me and my family.”

Kennedy was not a man who showed emotion readily. But in the days surrounding Patrick’s death, he was seen weeping on three occasions; alone, after the boy’s death; when telling his bedridden wife about the ordeal; and at the funeral, so “overwhelmed with grief,” Cardinal Cushing recalled, “that he literally put his arm around the casket as though he was carrying it out.”

The day before President Kennedy died, he dedicated the Aerospace Medical Health Center at Brooks Air Force Base. Looking at an experimental oxygen chamber that simulated air pressure, he asked if it could lead to knowledge, on how to keep premature babies alive.

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“You can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you”

On, September 2, 1963,  flying in Air Force One, President Kennedy jotted down some notes concerning Texas:

Jan 31st 1964 – registration ends in Texas on that date – Check with John Connolly, Stew & V.P.

Perhaps he was thinking about voter registration in Texas; perhaps Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, and land use or oil, was on his mind – but the mere words “Texas…Connolly….V.P” is, and must always be, a terrible reminder of what happened in Dallas as the motorcade carrying President and Mrs. Kennedy, Governor John Connolly and Mrs. Connolly, and Vice-President and Mrs. Johnson, slowly crossed Dealey Plaza past a cheering noon-time crowd. Mrs. Connolly had just turned to Kennedy, in fact, to remark, “Mr. President, you can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you” when blood, suddenly, was everywhere.

"A Storm of Political Controversy"

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If it had rained that morning; if Jacqueline Kennedy had not been with him; if the crowds to greet them hadn’t been so deep, slowing down the limo; or if the driver, hearing shots, had sped up and not down – those were the variables. Had any one of them been different then, perhaps, this edition of the November 22nd, 1963, Dallas Morning News might not have been, in all likelihood, the last thing signed by the 35th President of the United States before he was shot and killed, riding with his wife in an open limousine in Dallas, Texas, at 12:30 p.m., that Friday noon.

“I didn’t shoot anybody”

One thousand days in office, and Kennedy was worried that the backlash from the Civil Rights issue would cost him the South.  He would need Texas, and by more than the margin he’d squeaked by with in ’60.  The plan was to fly to Texas, make half a dozen appearances, and end the visit on November 22nd, 1963, dinner for the State Democratic Executive Committee in Austin.

On the afternoon of the 22nd, as President Kennedy rode in an open limousine in Dallas, three shots rang out from a nearby building. One struck the president in the upper back and exited from his neck; another entered the rear of his head, exiting and shattering the right side of his skull. He was, effectively, dead at that moment, although death was not pronounced until an hour later – by which time 68% of all Americans had heard the news: the President had been assassinated.

This ticket to the “Texas Welcome Dinner” at 7:30 would, of course, never be used.  At 7:30 that night, a young man, suspected of murder, was paraded past a crowd of newsmen in City Hall. “Did you shoot the President?” a reporter asked Lee Harvey Oswald. “I didn’t shoot anybody,” he lied, “No sir.”

The Oath of Office

Lyndon Johnson taking the Presidential oath of office aboard Airforce One, next to Jackie Kennedy

Here is the awful answer to the question President Kennedy, having his portrait taken, posed to the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt: “What will the passage of the next four years show in his revealing photo[s]–”?

Lyndon Johnson inscribes one of the most famous, and searing, of all American images:

With high regard and appreciation

Cecil Stoughton’s own iconic photo of Johnson taking the Oath of Office, November 22, 1963, aboard Air Force One at Love Field, Dallas Texas, as a dazed and bloodstained Jacqueline Kennedy stands at his side, staring ahead.

"Kennedy Slain on Dallas Street"

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On November 22, 1963, the 35th President of the United States wrote his name across the front page of that day’s edition of the Dallas Morning News for a hotel chambermaid seeking an autograph. Beneath a headline declaring “Storm of Political Controversy Swirls Around Kennedy on Visit”, Kennedy scribbled, “To Jan White, John Kennedy.” Those five words were, in all likelihood, the last Kennedy would ever write; this famous headline of the next day’s edition of the Dallas Morning News explained why.

Congressman Dan Flood of Pennsylvania was old-school, and a letter from the President on his birthday, the sort of thing it was savvy to send him: he liked attention from On High. It would seem, then, that Kennedy took care to cover his eastern flank with this letter, and so signed and sent it to arrive with his “warmest congratulations” on Flood’s birthday, November 26th – which, that awful year, would be the day after Kennedy’s own funeral.

…I hope that this will be a happy and memorable occasion…