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Echoes from Dealey Plaza

JFK moments before his assassination. Credit: Wiki Commons.

Excerpted from Larry J. Sabato's
The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy. Copyright © 2013 Larry J. Sabato.

Winston Churchill's dictum about Russia fully applies to the murder of John F. Kennedy: It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The intrigue is part of the lasting Kennedy legacy. In fact, as cynical as it may sound, the assassination has taken a short presidency and made it the stuff of legend. The gnawing sense of incompleteness, the intense emotions of regret and grief felt simultaneously by almost everyone, and the overwhelming melancholia of unfulfilled dreams obliterated John Kennedy's faults. They created in the slain president the image of a secular saint that has proven impervious to all sorts of lurid revelations over a half century.

Eerily, JFK foresaw the advantages of an early death. Much given to speculation about his possible assassination -- he brought the subject up frequently with family and friends -- Kennedy said to Jackie after his triumph in the Cuban Missile Crisis, "If anyone's going to kill me, it should happen now." The comment was made after a historian's lecture on Abraham Lincoln, where Kennedy had asked, 'If Lincoln had lived, would his reputation be as great?" The historian's answer was obvious -- no, because Lincoln would have had to struggle with the titanic problems of post–Civil War reconstruction. Instinctively, Kennedy understood that it is better for a leader to leave the stage in both a moment of triumph and the tragedy of too short a time than to face the inevitable, wearing controversies of many years' leadership, being ushered out of office to a chorus of critical evaluations about his shortcomings. Such is the fate of most presidents.

In any event, it is impossible to understand the Kennedy legacy without understanding the assassination -- the sequence of events, as well as what most Americans think happened and why. Millions have never been, and will never be, satisfied with the official findings of two separate government inquiries -- not least because the inquiries came to opposite conclusions on the critical question of conspiracy. The assassination dictated that JFK would not have the time to create a full record and make his whole claim on history. For fifty years the unfinished record of the man and his presidency has stirred Americans as they mourned an unconscionable loss and wondered what might have been. This "ghost legacy" is as powerful as the real one.

Four days after JFK was laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery, President Lyndon Johnson asked the Chief Justice of the United States to head a federal probe into the assassination. Earl Warren initially refused. He did not think that Supreme Court justices should be saddled with additional responsibilities when they already had a crowded docket; why not ask a retired judge to spearhead the investigation instead? Undeterred, LBJ summoned Warren to the Oval Office. The Chief Justice later recalled their meeting:

[T]he president told me how serious the situation was. He said there had been wild rumors, and that there was the international situation to think of. He said he had just talked to [Secretary of State] Dean
Rusk, who was concerned, and he also mentioned the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, who had told him how many millions of people would be killed in an atomic war. The only way to dispel these rumors, he said, was to have an independent and responsible commission, and that there was no one to head it except the highest judicial officer in the country ... He said that if the public became aroused against Castro and Khrushchev there might be war. "You've been in uniform before," he said, "and if I asked you, you would put on the uniform again for your country." I said, "Of course." "This is more important than that," he said. "If you're putting it like that," I said, "I can't say no."

LBJ signed an executive order later that day that created "a Commission to ascertain, evaluate, and report upon the facts relating to the assassination of the late President John F. Kennedy and the subsequent violent death of the man charged with the assassination." The other members of what became known as the Warren Commission were Democratic congressman Hale Boggs, Senator Richard B. Russell, Republican congressman and future president Gerald R. Ford, Senator John Sherman Cooper, former CIA director Allen Dulles, and John J. McCloy, FDR's assistant secretary of war. (Three of the four congressional members, Russell, Boggs, and Cooper, only reluctantly supported all the conclusions and would later criticize parts of the commission's final report; alone among the congressional members, Ford was an enthusiastic backer.) Among the staff hired by the commission was a future United States senator, Arlen Specter, who served as an assistant counsel.