- - Thursday, November 21, 2013

Nov. 22, 1963 — the day that haunts us still.

That beautiful cloud-free morning in Dallas, when the youthful and handsome president of the United States and his equally appealing wife, Jacqueline, rode in an open limousine with Gov. John Connally and his wife, Nellie, in the motorcade through the heart of the city.

Mrs. Kennedy wore a shocking pink copy of a Chanel suit with a matching pillbox hat and carried a bunch of vermilion roses. (That unforgettable outfit, now carefully enshrined in a vault in the National Archives, remains one of the most powerful symbols of the Kennedy mystique.)

It was so warm and sunny that the Secret Service had removed the Plexiglas bubble top from the presidential vehicle, so there was nothing to separate the charismatic couple from the cheering crowds. (The president hated using the bubble on any occasion.)

They seemed relaxed, smiling and waving until suddenly three shots rang out from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository on Dealey Plaza.

Merriman Smith, the venerable UPI reporter, snatched the only phone in the press car several cars back, screamed the news to his bureau chief and alerted the world.

A dress manufacturer, Abraham Zapruder, captured the slaying in the most notorious 26-second film clip in history. The first bullet missed. The second struck the president in the throat. The third blasted through his head. One sickening frame shows the horrific explosion.

Fifty years later, the recriminations, the conspiracy theories, the what-ifs and the second-guessings linger.

Dr. Kenneth Salye, who was a 27-year-old resident at Parkland Hospital, recently declared that Kennedy might have survived if he had not been wearing a back brace. Because of chronic back pain, the president always wore a tightly laced, chest-to-waist corset, which that day prevented him from ducking or moving in order to avoid that final fatal shot.

According to Secret Service agent Clint Hill, Mrs. Kennedy cradled her husband in her arms whispering, “Jack, Jack what have they done to you? I love you.”

Mr. Zapruder never used his camera again.

Later, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite looked at the clock on his office wall and mournfully announced that the youngest elected president in U.S. history had died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, “some 38 minutes ago.”

John F. Kennedy was 47.

The world seemed to stand still. Everyone who was alive remembers that horrible Friday and exactly where they were and what they were doing. (It’s an invisible, emotional scar equivalent to the horror of Sept. 11, 2001.)

Shattered, we huddled around black-and-white TV sets for the weekend, asking friends to stop by. It was communal grief. We needed to share.

CBS correspondent Roger Mudd was reporting in the Senate on Nov. 22. He recalled a gaggle of Southern senators, many who opposed Kennedy, standing around the Associated Press ticker tape in the Capitol, some quietly weeping.

The unanswered questions

Television news zoomed into our lives. In real time, it gave us the shooting death of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by nightclub owner Jack Ruby in the Dallas jail. It was another incomprehensible act that launched myriad conspiracies theories that still exist.

Innumerable books, movies, TV shows, documentaries and magazine articles have been written and produced posing or attempting to answer, who killed JFK and why? Did the itinerant Oswald act alone? Was there a second gunman? Was the Mafia involved in the murder? How about Fidel Castro, whom the CIA attempted to snuff out? Even Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson’s name entered the mix.

Despite the findings of the Warren Commission, which concluded there was a lone gunman and a single bullet, conspiracies and conspiracy buffs flourish.

Dr. Cyril Wecht, the first nongovernmental forensic pathologist allowed to view Kennedy’s autopsy report in 1972, calls the evidence he saw “botched and incomplete.”

The assassination is “a cold case that needs to be reinvestigated. There were two shooters — one behind the picket fence on the grassy knoll and one in the rear who may or may not have been Lee Harvey Oswald,” Dr. Wecht asserts.

As for the validity of the Warren Commission report? “Pure nonsense,” he answers.

In a new book, “The Accidental Victim,” author James Reston Jr. insists Oswald was out to kill Connally, not JFK.

So, the mystery endures.

The aura of Jackie

Jackie Kennedy created the image of Camelot to ensure her husband’s legacy and place in history. She perpetuated the glamour and optimism of the New Frontier by writing a memoir for the JFK Memorial Issue of Look magazine in November 1964, one year after the assassination.

Surrounded by touching photos of her young children, John-John and Caroline, she penned, “Now he is a legend when he would have preferred to be a man.”

For millions, the youthful Kennedys with their picture-perfect children epitomized sophistication and style, and as Kennedy would say, “vigah.”

It was the era of the jet set. The once-dowdy White House became the focal point of art, culture and swanky dinners. Hollywood stars, fashionable New York socialites, musicians and artists, dressed to the nines, gathered around well-appointed candle-lit tables to dine on elegant French cuisine. The guests were witty, the conversation sparkling, the people beautiful. Public service was perceived as noble.

The Kennedys were America’s royal couple. And Washington was the place to be. It was a magical time.

“People did not come here for liquor licenses or asphalt contracts,” said syndicated columnist Mark Shields. “They came to work on big issues to help people around the world, and they were proud to do so.”

After JFK’s majestic funeral modeled on the service for slain President Abraham Lincoln, and her move to New York, the 34-year-old former first lady remained on a pedestal, cloaked in the intoxicating aura of the most famous and admired woman in the world.

But five years after the assassination of her husband and four months after the slaying of his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, the Arthurian legend crashed to the ground. Jackie married Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, the lover of her younger sister Lee and opera diva Maria Callas.

There was a sense of outrage and disbelief around the globe. One Fleet Street tabloid blasted: “Jackie weds blank cheque.” Another in Rome roared: “JFK dies a second time.”

Her explanation was unsatisfying to many. “If they are killing Kennedys, then my children are targets. I want to get out of the country,” she proclaimed.

Her personal allure endured as she traveled the world, a slim figure hidden by mammoth sunglasses continually shopping at pricey boutiques, swarmed by paparazzi. She eventually became a respected book editor.

Camelot fades

At the same time, the darker side of JFK’s life began to emerge, tarnishing the image of Camelot. His reckless and flagrant womanizing with interns, society women, even one of his wife’s assistants, hit the tabloids. The most explosive revelations exposed Marilyn Monroe and Judith Campbell Exner, the mistress of mob boss Sam Giancana.

In a stunning admission, Ms. Exner told Kitty Kelley in People magazine that she carried information “envelopes” back and forth between the two men. She also said she arranged at least 10 meetings between them. One may have been in the White House.

Kennedy’s standing in public opinion slipped further when the cover-up of his many illnesses was revealed. He suffered from Addison’s disease, back pain (he frequently retreated to a rocking chair), stomach and respiratory ailments along with a variety of other serious ailments. To hide his precarious health from the nation, he took a mixture of steroids, painkillers and amphetamines combined with high-powered injections administered by a well-known Dr. Feel Good from New York.

Despite the pain, he was always debonair and never, ever complained, skipped an event or changed his schedule.

Although the dynastic myth has frayed and dimmed over the past half-century, the Kennedy family remains a thriving cottage industry.

Steve Ferber, a dealer in political collectibles in Scottsdale, Ariz., said Kennedy memorabilia is the most sought-after worldwide. The most popular item: a rare musical rocking-chair doll, which was taken off the market and destroyed by the manufacturer right after the president’s death.

“We like to think that JFK lives on because the items that we see every day bring those memories back to us,” Mr. Ferber said. “That’s what it’s all about: memories.”

The next generation

Since the death of Jackie Kennedy Onassis in 1994 and John Jr. in the crash of the plane he was piloting in 1999, Caroline Kennedy has stepped into the limelight. The 56-year-old mother of three — a lawyer, author and strong Obama supporter — was sworn in this month as the first U.S. female ambassador to Japan. She spent her honeymoon in Japan and said her father had hoped to be the first U.S. president to visit the country.

Beside her at the ceremony, stealing the scene, stood her son, John “Jack” Schlossberg, a tall, lanky, good-looking 20-year-old who is at Yale, training to be an emergency medical technician.

The dashing only grandson of the 35th president gracefully introduced President Obama at the JFK Memorial Dinner at the White House on Wednesday evening.

He has talked candidly about his political aspirations. At the Democratic National Convention in 2012, he told CNN: “Politics definitely interests me. I’m most interested in public service. I think that’s something that I got from being part of my family, which is such an honor.” For many, that legacy burns on.

Young Jack Schlossberg may just be the next member of the troubled dynasty to pick up the torch.

Washington Times reporter Kellan Howell contributed to this article.

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