Thursday, December 26, 2013

When Christmas Wishes Come True

I woke early on Christmas morning, perhaps an hour or so before sunrise.

I don't know why I have fallen into this pattern of rising early, but it has been that way of late. It is the only reason why I would be up before dawn on Christmas. I am no longer a child, eager to unwrap my Christmas gifts. I am an adult, living alone. There were no gifts under the tree for me to unwrap. Fact is, there was no tree.

But I was up, and it was Christmas, and that was cause for a little reflection. Good as any, I suppose.

I grew up in Arkansas, but I've spent most of the Christmases of my life here in Dallas. There have been a few exceptions but not many. My parents were born and raised here, and my grandparents lived here when I was a child. My father was a college professor, which meant he was off from his job at roughly the same time my brother and I were off from school so it made sense for the whole family to pack up and head for Dallas and an extended holiday with the grands (grandmothers, mostly — both of my grandfathers were deceased before I turned 10).

A few of the exceptions I mentioned were when I was about 10 or 11 years old. We drove to Dallas on those occasions, too, but we had our family Christmas a couple of days ahead of the actual day, then drove to South Padre Island at the southern tip of Texas where we spent three or four days soaking up the south Texas sun and playing on the beach.

One or two adults traveling in an average vehicle probably could make that trip in eight or nine hours, stopping only for gas, the occasional bathroom break and perhaps a takeout burger. But we were a family of four with two dogs and one of those popup camper/trailer rigs hitched to the car. We frequently stopped along the way, my parents concluded that stopping for sit–down meals rather than takeout was best (it wasn't as potentially messy even though it took longer), and we couldn't really build up a high rate of speed when we were on the road so it usually took us 11 or 12 hours to reach our destination.

For a variety of reasons, we only made this trip about three times. As I recall, the last time we went down there, we arrived in brilliant sunshine and were in high spirits after putting up the camper and preparing to bed down for the night. During the night, though, a heavy rainstorm moved into the area and pounded the area for a couple of days. Finally, my parents decided enough was enough, and we packed up the trailer in the rain and made a beeline for my maternal grandmother's home. As we were making that long drive, we heard the radio report that the storm was the heaviest to strike the area in decades, perhaps a century.

We also heard there were reports of recreational boats lost at sea. That was the last time my family made a trip to South Padre Island.

But I recall that, just before we made our first or second trip to south Texas, I received probably the best Christmas present of my young life — an electric football set. (Actually, it may be better than any Christmas gift I have received since.)

I already had an electric football set. I had wanted one ever since a neighbor and playmate got one a few years earlier, and my parents had given me one, but his was better. It was like the picture shown above, with the players wearing genuine pro football uniforms and helmets, and there was a scoreboard with what appeared to be crowds of fans in the stands.

By comparison, my set was rather bare bones.

My set had no such detail. The players for one team were all red, from their heads to their feet, and the players for the other team were blue, from their heads to their feet. My friend's set looked like it had inch–tall football players, football cards come to life (I was an avid football card collector in those days); mine looked like two teams of plastic figures, no different from the mass–produced plastic green soldiers I played with when I was younger.

There was no scoreboard, either. Well, actually, I think there was something that was supposed to be like a scoreboard, but it was all so generic. My friend's set came with two teams — it was possible to order additional teams, in their home and/or road uniforms —and it had punch–out team names so it was possible to change the name of the team(s) on the scoreboard, too.

When the teams were mailed, the company included tiny sets of numbers that the recipient could apply to the players if desired.

A couple of my playmates had a brother who was about six years older than us, and he had a whole collection of those NFL teams, in their home and away uniforms, on display in his bedroom. He had put numbers on all the players — and not randomly, either. The numbers corresponded with the players who played for the teams.

I remember looking at them from time to time with a sense of awe and wonder.

Looking back on it, there was nothing wrong with the first electric football set I got. It's just that the other was so much better in my eyes. I dutifully played with the first set for a couple of years, but I never got over wanting the one with the authentic–looking players and the scoreboard.

And, when I was about 10 or 11, I finally got it for Christmas.

The teams weren't the hot teams of the day — although they did considerably better in later years — but they looked authentic.

They weren't just red and blue figures.

I think I will always remember that adrenaline rush I felt on Christmas morning (we actually stayed at my grandmother's house for Christmas before embarking on our journey to south Texas that year) when I unwrapped the electric football set. But alas! I couldn't enjoy playing with it yet. The family had to pack up the car for an early departure for South Padre Island that next morning, and most of the Christmas gifts (including my electric football set) had to stay behind.

So, for the next three days, I could only fantasize about playing with my electric football set. For a 10– or 11–year–old boy, it was sheer agony. I thought about that football set while I played on the beach during the day, then I dreamed about it at night.

I don't know if the reality ever lived up to the fantasy, but I know I played with that set for a few years before I tired of it.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


As 1968 was drawing to a close, rational people probably would have been happy to get as far away from earth as they could — if such a thing was possible.

By just about any measure that year, the planet was in turmoil as the Christmas season approached.

Three Americans — Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders — had such an opportunity. NASA was going to launch its first manned mission to orbit the moon, and those three men had been selected to make the flight. They would be gone from Dec. 21 to Dec. 27, which meant they would have to be away from their homes and families on Christmas.

But, as I say, in 1968, such an opportunity would have been welcome for most people — and, after a three–day journey, the astronauts arrived at their destination. They made 10 orbits of the moon, during which they did a Christmas Eve broadcast from space (at the time, the most–watched television program ever) and Anders took a famous photograph called "Earthrise," depicting the earth "rising" above the moon, before embarking on the voyage home.

Actually, many photos were taken of the earthrise. The first, in black and white, was taken by Borman, the mission commander. Many others followed.

It was eventually determined that the one that would serve as the representative image was taken by Anders, the lunar module commander.

In many ways, the woes of 2013 don't really seem to compare to the woes of 1968.

Then, as now, there were American soldiers fighting on foreign soil, but the war in southeast Asia had been going badly since the beginning of 1968, when the Tet offensive persuaded many Americans that there was no hope of winning in Vietnam.

Americans are polarized today as they were 45 years ago, but the divisions we face in 2013 don't seem nearly as insurmountable as they did in 1968, when leaders were being shot down and protestors clashed with police in the streets of major cities.

But Apollo 8 — through its Christmas Eve broadcast and its iconic "Earthrise" photo — gave America and the world a boost when they needed it most.

Our problems may or may not be as severe as the ones of 1968, but we could use another boost like that today.

Don't you think?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Princess Diana: Case Closed?

Perhaps a handful of people — but no more than that — have been as wildly popular in my lifetime as Princess Diana, who died in a car crash in a Paris tunnel in 1997.

She was popular long before her death, a living icon of the late 20th century, and I have always thought that the overwhelming sense of loss that people experienced fueled the rampant speculation that some sort of sinister conspiracy was to blame. Perhaps it was the unfairness of the loss of one so young that people couldn't accept. She was, after all, only 36. There had to be a comprehensible reason for it.

It is, therefore, appropriate that an official conclusion on whether Diana was murdered was issued less than a month after the 50th anniversary of the death of another prominent person that has long been at the heart of conspiracy theory stories — John F. Kennedy.

Ever since Diana died, there have been persistent rumors — helped along by the man who would have been her father–in–law, Egyptian businessman Mohamed Al–Fayed — that England–s elite Special Air Service played a role in the crash.

The rumor has had more credibility at some times than others, but I'm inclined to think maybe this will put the lid on it — unless evidence surfaces linking the SAS to the crash.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Last Flight of Pan Am 103

When this day dawned 25 years ago, Americans really weren't thinking much about terrorism.

We were naive about what was happening in the rest of the world. We had been through the hostage crisis in Iran, but it ended with no loss of life — except for a few servicemen who died in an aborted rescue attempt — and we had gone through the next several years without any disruptions in our daily lives.

There were isolated instances of terrorism that involved some Americans, but they were few and relatively far between. In the 1980s, it had been easy for Americans to pretend that the world's problems were not our own.

That is ... it was easy until 25 years ago today when a Pan Am flight, en route from London to New York, was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Lockerbie is a tiny town in southwest Scotland. It has existed for more than 1,000 years, but few people ever heard of it until Dec. 21, 1988 when debris from Pan Am Flight 103 rained down on it. Eleven residents of Lockerbie died along with the 259 people on board the flight. Americans accounted for more than two–thirds of the casualties.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi took responsibility for the bombing and paid compensation to the victims' families but denied ordering the attack.

In part because of that ambiguity, there have been a number of persistent questions about the bombing that have gained some traction with the public over the years. There are many who believe the whole story will never be known, and I am one of them.

After 25 years, what is known is relatively little, and both emotion and speculation have been rampant at times.

It has been fairly well established that a suitcase bomb detonated on the plane, sending it back to earth, and the record will show that a Libyan intelligence agent, Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, was tried and convicted in connection with it.

But that is about the extent of it.

Much like the Kennedy assassination 50 years ago, there were elements of the event that looked suspicious. Many of them may have been coincidental, but, after all the time that has passed, it seems unlikely that we will ever know the truth.

For example, one thing that has never been satisfactorily explained (as far as I am concerned, anyway) is the fact that there were at least four officials from the U.S. government who were on board the plane. According to unconfirmed rumors, there was actually a fifth official on the plane.

One of those officials was with the CIA. Another was with the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) — two others were Diplomatic Security Service agents acting as bodyguards.

Perhaps their presence on the plane was a coincidence, but it is easy to see how a conspiracy theory could come from it. There had been several confrontations between the U.S. Navy and Libya in the Gulf of Sidra (which Libya claimed as its territorial waters) during the 1980s. The Libyans avenged some incidents, but Gadhafi harbored a lingering resentment for what he saw as ongoing acts of aggression against Libya by the French and Americans.

Perhaps the bombing of Flight 103 was intended to avenge a perceived act of aggression.

Megrahi was the only person ever tried for the bombing, and he was given a compassionate release from prison in 2009 because he had terminal prostate cancer and was only expected to live for three months. The decision generated some controversy, which was revisited when Megrahi survived the prognosis by a couple of years.

Gadhafi died more than two years ago. Megrahi died in 2012. If they had anything more to tell us, they took it to their graves.

The mystery surrounding what happened to Flight 103 continues.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Passing of Nelson Mandela

"I was not a messiah but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances."

Nelson Mandela (1918–2013)

Nelson Mandela died yesterday at the age of 95, and I have been struggling over what to write about that.

It really seems as if I said all I wanted to say five months ago when the world braced itself for this moment. At that time, to borrow a famous line from Mark Twain, any reports of Mandela's imminent death seemed to have been "greatly exaggerated." Nevertheless, many people the world over began to accept the idea that Mandela was not immortal, that death would come to him eventually as it must to all men.

Mandela emerged from that experience and lived to observe his 95th birthday a few weeks later. Turned out it was his last.

Whatever one's opinion of his politics, it must be said of Nelson Mandela that he was resilient. I think everyone could agree on that.

From there, you could expand your remarks to include additional adjectives with which others might or might not agree. But no one could say that a man who spent nearly three decades in prison for what was widely seen as a quixotic quest to rid South Africa of white minority rule was not resilient.

It was that very resiliency, I'm sure, that prompted so many of his countrymen to resist the idea that he was dying last summer. And their faith was rewarded by what I (and, I am sure, many others) felt was a miraculous recovery.

But the season of miracles held no miracles for Nelson Mandela. His legacy will forever be the miracle in which he played a part in South Africa long before the arrival of this Christmas season.

That would be plenty, but what I will always remember, what I will always appreciate the most about Mandela is his commitment to constitutional government, peace, freedom, democracy, those bedrock values that define the character of the United States and all the countries in the world that have sought to live up to its example.

Not that the United States is perfect, but it makes its transitions of power peacefully, no matter the circumstances. And that is precisely what Mandela sought to achieve when he became South Africa's first black president. He and F.W. de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their transition from apartheid to a democratic South Africa.

Mandela was elected president of South Africa once, then chose not to seek a second term. Like George Washington in my own country, Mandela believed that, like the United States, South Africa would benefit from periodically changing its leadership.

He retired from the presidency but not from his involvement in the direction his country was taking.

After all his years in prison, Mandela could have used his position as president to seek retribution. He didn't. He could have used his position to seize power indefinitely and essentially become a dictator. He didn't.

In the New York Times, Lydia Polgreen writes that, with Mandela's death, South Africa is left "without its moral center at a time of growing dissatisfaction with the country's leaders."

You could say the same thing of the rest of the world.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Death of Harvey Milk

"If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country."

Harvey Milk
Nov. 18, 1977

Since his murder 35 years ago today, I sometimes wonder if Harvey Milk anticipated the changes that have occurred for homosexuals not only in California, where he became the first openly gay individual to serve on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, but in the nation as a whole.

A lot of things that were true then are hard for people of the 21st century to comprehend, but at the time of Milk's death, San Francisco did not have the reputation for being a haven for homosexuals that it has today. Many gay people had migrated to San Francisco during and after the counterculture days of the 1960s, but the demographic group really had yet to flex its political muscle.

I'm not homosexual, but I have friends who are, which has made me more sensitive to the gay community's issues and icons than I once was. In 1978, I paid little, if any, attention.

I remember hearing about the slaying at the time, but the victims and the killer were just names to me. I lived two time zones away, and the story didn't really resonate with me beyond the few minutes I heard about it on the evening news.

And, I must admit, from the vantage point of one living in Arkansas and hearing San Francisco mentioned in connection with the story, it was hard to differentiate between that news event and the story that broke a week earlier about mass suicides in Guyana — since many of those who died in Guyana came from San Francisco, as did the congressman who was killed at the same time. I'm sure it was different for people living on the West Coast, but that was kind of a vague reference point for me.

At the time, I suppose I reasoned that the two events were connected in some way. I may even have assumed that Milk's sexuality (if I even knew about it then, and I probably didn't) was the reason for what happened — in San Francisco, anyway.

In fact, there was a connection between Guyana and San Francisco of which I remember hearing nothing at the time. Milk was a big supporter of Jim Jones when Milk was a rising local political star and Jones was a prominent community activist. Reporters might have quoted Milk at the time on what had happened when Jones was in San Francisco, but I honestly don't remember anything like that.

Milk didn't start out in politics. In fact, his political career turned out to be very brief.

As a young man, he served in the Navy during the Korean War and attempted several occupations after his discharge. A native of New York, Milk came to San Francisco when he was 42 and opened a camera shop, but he gravitated to politics and followed a path that eventually made him the first openly gay politician to hold office in California.

In 1978, only a few months before his death and long before Bill Clinton was recognized as "the man from Hope," Milk delivered what has come to be known as his "Hope Speech," urging gays to come out of the closet.

"We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions," he said. "We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I'm going to talk about it."

Around the time that Milk was settling in San Francisco, Dan White, a native San Franciscan who had been working in Alaska as a high school security guard, returned to his hometown to work as a police officer. After that, he was in the city fire department.

In 1977, White was elected city supervisor and took office in January 1978 with Milk. I've heard that they had a cordial relationship at first, but things clearly went sour somewhere.

I gather that things began to go irretrievably awry between them over a proposal by the Catholic church to establish a rehab facility for young offenders in White's district. White was against it, and Milk was for it.

But I also gather that White had problems with others in city hall, not just Milk. And, by November 1978, he had reached the end of his rope. He resigned his seat early in the month, citing corruption in city politics and his limited income potential as his reasons. As a city supervisor, he was prohibited from holding a job as a policeman or a fireman at the same time. The law allowed no one to hold two jobs with the city simultaneously.

A few days later, White changed his mind and went to see Mayor George Moscone about being re–appointed to his old job. Moscone was agreeable at first but reversed himself after conferring with Milk and others.

Then, on this day in 1978, White went to city hall with a gun, climbed in through a window to avoid the metal detectors that had been installed recently and went first to Moscone's office, where he tried once again to get his job back and shot Moscone twice in the head when the mayor refused.

Then White reloaded, went to Milk's office and shot Milk five times, the last two fired at Milk's head at close range. He fled the building.

The task of announcing to the public what had happened fell to future Sen. Dianne Feinstein, then president of the Board of Supervisors, who identified the bodies and was so shaken by what she had seen she needed to be supported by the police chief while she spoke in front of a shocked audience and numerous TV cameras.

That night, tens of thousands gathered for a candlelight march to the steps of city hall. Appropriately, a candlelight march is planned in San Francisco later today to commemorate the Milk and Moscone assassinations.

"[T]he time has come," writes Andy Towle, "to make their vision of a city of hope come alive."

Monday, November 25, 2013

Burying Kennedy

On this day 50 years ago, America said goodbye to the 35th president of the United States.

The numbing shock of the events of the previous Friday had worn off enough for the grief to set in, kind of like when the novocaine wears off and your jaw starts to hurt, and it was time to mourn for John F. Kennedy, the youngest man to be elected president and the youngest president to die.

On Saturday, Nov. 23, the president's flag–draped coffin was placed in the East Room for 24 hours. The next day, it was carried on a horse-–drawn caisson to the Capitol to lie in state.

The new president, Lyndon Johnson, proclaimed Monday, Nov. 25, a national day of mourning. A requiem mass was held for Kennedy at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, with the archbishop of Boston, Richard Cardinal Cushing, presiding, then Kennedy was buried in Arlington Cemetery. Representatives of more than 90 countries attended the funeral.

My father and I usually have dinner together on Thursdays, and on more than one occasion he has observed that people are frozen in his memory as they were the last time he saw them. When I was growing up, he taught religion at a small college in central Arkansas. When he sees obituaries for old friends and colleagues that include pictures of them late in their lives, he can scarcely recognize them.

I guess it is like that for public figures.

Take John F. Kennedy Jr., for example. He was about to turn 3 when his father was killed, and, throughout his life, most people remembered his salute on this day 50 years ago. I can still remember my grandmother — who lived in Dallas most of her life and was not a Kennedy sympathizer — speaking of that "brave salute" that John–John gave his father's casket as it went by.

As an adult, he was recognizable because he had so much of the Kennedy look to him, but, right up until the time of his death in a plane crash in July 1999 — and even after — he lingered in the public's memory as little "John–John." Even though he went on to accomplish other things as an adult, the salute he gave his father's casket following the conclusion of the requiem mass was what most people remembered.

After he died, I remember reading obituaries that mentioned his childhood nickname in the lead paragraph. It was how most people probably remembered him, even though he had spent some time in the public eye as he launched a politically oriented magazine.

On this day in 1963, though, he and his sister were regarded as too young to attend the burial. John–John's salute, in addition to being an iconic image, was his final farewell to his father.

Anyone who has ever lived through the sudden death of a loved one knows that it doesn't end with the funeral, that there are many unexpected issues to confront in the weeks, months, even years that follow. It is a journey, sometimes an arduous one. So it was with those who survived John F. Kennedy.

It was on this day in 1963 that the president's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, truly embarked on what historian Arthur Schlesinger called the "corridors of grief" that he would have to navigate. To an extent, I guess, it was that way for all the Kennedys.

"[F]or those who believed in a universe infused by the Almighty with pattern and purpose — as the Kennedys did — Dallas brought on a philosophical as well as an emotional crisis," Schlesinger wrote. "Robert Kennedy in particular had to come to terms with his brother's death before he could truly resume his own existence."

The first steps on that journey began 50 years ago today.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Television's First Live Murder

Fifty years ago, plans were being finalized in Washington for John F. Kennedy's funeral the next day.

Back in Texas, churches in Dallas were holding their usual Sunday services under most unusual circumstances. At Dallas' Northaven Methodist Church, Rev. Bill Holmes gave a sermon that is still talked about half a century later. Holmes told the congregation that Dallas could not avoid its own responsibility for the assassination even if only one man pulled the trigger.

As Holmes spoke, the suspect in Kennedy's assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, was gunned down while being transferred from police headquarters to Dallas County's jail. The TV networks provided live coverage so some folks who were watching their TVs instead of attending church to pray for the Kennedys saw Oswald get shot by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner.

"The killing occurred in the presence of 70 uniformed Dallas policemen," wrote historian William Manchester. "Because NBC was televising the transfer, it was also television's first live murder."

That shooting left a gaping wound in the American experience that probably will never heal.

Because Oswald's death meant some questions will remain unanswered — no matter what kind of evidence is uncovered. There were questions that only Oswald could have answered. Investigators might have been able to establish whether he spoke the truth or not. But without Oswald's testimony — like the forensic evidence that was lost when the limousine was cleaned of blood spatter and John Connally's suit was sent to the dry cleaners — the case will forever remain unresolved.

Nothing that has been uncovered in the last half–century has definitively established the guilt or innocence of anyone.

The killing of Oswald short–circuited the American judicial system. Admittedly, it doesn't always work, but it was the only hope to get Oswald's side of the story. Maybe he would have told the truth. Maybe he wouldn't. That is the kind of thing that juries must decide, and, most of the time, jurors simply have to hope that they have seen and heard enough evidence to reach the right conclusion.

That hope was snuffed out by Ruby, acting as judge, jury and executioner, 50 years ago today — but that is only if one accepts what he said at the time. Conspiracy theorists cite Ruby's organized crime connections and speculate he was sent to rub out Oswald to keep him from talking.

In the words of John Pope of the New Orleans Times–Picayune, Oswald's death "opened the floodgates to a tsunami of speculation about Kennedy's murder." Is it any wonder that JFK conspiracy theories have found a welcome audience from an America still seeking closure for what happened here 50 years ago?

Three previous American presidents had been killed by assassins. The American public managed to achieve closure with two of them when the accused assassins were arrested, charged and eventually convicted. The absence of an assassin to convict, to hold responsible leaves a wound that does not heal easily.

The first presidential assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was killed before he could be brought to trial, which was another supposed link between the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (a list of such links has been making the rounds almost since the day Kennedy was killed, but many of the items on the list have been discredited). And, to a degree, I suppose, the assassination of Lincoln by a Southern sympathizer led to more than a decade of abuse, known to history as the Reconstruction era. Was that because there was no formal trial for Booth? I don't know.

No one disputed that Booth shot Lincoln. There was a theater full of witnesses who saw Booth leap from Lincoln's box after the shooting. I have heard of no credible witnesses who could identify Oswald as the man who fired at Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.

"It would have been easier for the American people to accept any enemy, any conspiracy, any plot and then avenge John F. Kennedy," Theodore White wrote. "But what they had to face was an act of unreason, avenged by an individual act of obscenity."

That "act of obscenity" was witnessed by millions and captured on film. There was no doubt about who killed Oswald.

But doubts about who killed John F. Kennedy have lingered now for half a century.

I believe they will linger forever.

Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK Assassination: Still No Answers

Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I honestly cannot recall any anniversary being as anticipated as this one.

Well, perhaps with the exception of the American bicentennial in 1976 (for consistency's sake, perhaps this should be called the JFK semi–centennial). And maybe it only seems that way to me because I live in Dallas, and the city has been preparing for this anniversary all year (the behind–the–scenes preparations have been going on longer, I'm sure).

I suppose part of the reason it was so anticipated is the sense that, even after 50 years, the Kennedy assassination is an unsolved mystery, a cold case. The Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald alone shot the president, but there were enough loose ends that conspiracy theories flourished, especially after the American public got to see the Zapruder film for the first time.

Doubts persist. A recent Gallup poll shows that more than three–fifths of respondents do not believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Gallup acknowledged that the number is the lowest in nearly 50 years. What Gallup did not point out is that a majority of Americans accepted the Warren Commission's findings until the Zapruder film became public.

Since then, a solid majority of Americans has believed that Oswald did not act alone — if he acted at all.

By modern standards, I suppose the Zapruder film is almost primitive in its quality. But it is the most detailed visual record of a presidential assassination that we have — and, after they saw it, most people had to conclude that the Warren Commission's findings were not supported by the photographic evidence. By the time the Zapruder film was released (more than three years after it was made), the Kennedy assassination was already regarded as the most photographed assassination ever.

( focuses on a different image, one that sums up the global reaction to what happened here 50 years ago today.)

I hope we never have another attempt on a president's life, but if we do, I have to think that will become the most photographed assassination ever, given the number of cell/camera phones that are sure to be in use.

Today in Dealey Plaza — where the shooting took place — there will be a crowd of people holding tickets for a special program planned to commemorate the exact moment on this day in 1963 when the first shot was fired. As it did on that day in 1963, the day has dawned with rain — but it is considerably colder here today than it was then, and the rain doesn't seem likely to clear by midday.

Regardless of how cold it is, these tickets have been as hot as Willy Wonka's golden tickets, and I'm sure there will be few if any no–shows. A monument commemorating the assassination will be unveiled at that time (an "X" already marks the spot in the street where Kennedy suffered the fatal head wound). My understanding is that the program will be televised locally. Portions of it will almost certainly be shown on the national newscasts tonight.

It seems that so much has been said and written about the Kennedy assassination that almost nothing more could possibly be said, but the 50th anniversary is an invitation for all kinds of things — even if they aren't entirely relevant, such as Professor Nicholas Burns' piece in the Boston Globe on the three lessons of the Kennedy presidency (which is a separate topic from his death — as it is and should be for all presidents — and would be a dandy topic on the 100th anniversary of Kennedy's birth, which will be in less than four years but isn't necessarily appropriate on this occasion).

Relevance (or lack thereof) hasn't kept publications like the Los Angeles Times and others from running eyewitness accounts that are interesting but really add nothing to public knowledge of what happened.

For that matter, we know what happened. We continue to obsess over the who (which is also irrelevant). We're still asking the same questions. United Press International, for example, ran a piece a few days ago wondering who was responsible for the assassination.

Such things are to be expected, I suppose, but it has always struck me as inexcusable that so much time and energy should be wasted on speculating about who was responsible without determining why Kennedy was killed. I am certainly not a criminal investigator, but it seems to me that, if you answer the why, the rest should fall into place.

Larry Sabato, of whom I have written here before, wrote last week about five persistent myths about Kennedy. Most, like his points that the 1960 Nixon–Kennedy debates did not propel Kennedy to victory in the election that year or that JFK was not the liberal he is perceived to have been, come as no surprise to anyone with an interest in history.

Likewise, Tricia Escobedo's piece for purports to tell readers five things they don't know about the assassination.

But I've been studying the assassination for a long time, and I knew that Oswald wasn't arrested for killing Kennedy. I also knew that the TV networks suspended all other programming for four days to report exclusively on the assassination and related events. And I knew that Judge Sarah Hughes, who swore in Lyndon Johnson on board Air Force One that afternoon, was the first woman to swear in a president.

I also knew that, earlier in 1963, Oswald tried to kill General Edwin Walker, a critic of the Kennedy administration and integration, while Walker was inside his home.

I'm not sure, though, that I knew that assassinating a president was not a federal offense in 1963. Interesting to know — at least from an historian's perspective — but of no real value when trying to answer the still unanswered questions.

Fred Kaplan of, a onetime believer in conspiracy theories, recently devoted his energies to debunking them even though he acknowledged that "[t]here's no space to launch a full rebuttal" — apparently not even in cyberspace.

For a long time, whenever the Kennedy assassination has been the topic of conversation, the focus has been on whether it was the result of a conspiracy and who really fired the fatal shot.

America should have been asking why, not who. After half a century, I think it is too late.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Nixon's Turning Point

Forty years ago today, it became much more difficult for Richard Nixon's defenders to argue against the barrage of Watergate–related charges he faced.

In my opinion, it was the point of no return for Nixon.

Through most of 1973, the Watergate story progressively ensnared Nixon, but, in those days, the talk was not so much about which illegal acts he might have committed but rather how and whether his presidency would be affected. I don't recall anyone suggesting, even in jest, that Nixon might not serve his full term.

That changed on this day in 1973.

Until this day, it had been relatively easy for Nixon to maintain plausible deniability, even after the existence of his taping system was revealed in the Senate Watergate hearings. It had been largely his word against former White House counsel John Dean's.

Naturally, those who were investigating the case wanted to have access to the tapes. After all, they could verify who was telling the truth and who wasn't. But Nixon refused, insisting the tapes were protected under the principle of executive privilege and because subjects involving national security were discussed in the conversations — and his defenders supported him as long as they could.

One of Nixon's solutions to the standoff over the tapes was to offer transcripts of the conversations to investigators. He would explore that option in greater public detail in the spring of 1974, but the job of transcribing subpoenaed tapes for that purpose began in 1973 shortly after the recording system's existence had been revealed. Transcribing the tapes was a task to which White House secretaries were assigned, including Nixon's longtime personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods.

It was while transcribing one of the tapes in late September 1973 that Woods claimed to have accidentally erased a portion of it while answering a phone call. Her original estimate was that roughly five minutes of a June 20, 1972, conversation had been erased.

Woods later amended her statement, saying that she might have accidentally erased as much as six minutes of the tape, but she strongly denied being responsible for the rest of the erasure.

H.R. Haldeman's notes (consisting of two legal pads of paper) suggested that the conversation, which was between Nixon and Haldeman, was at least in part about Watergate.

Nixon's lawyers had been told of the erasure before they sat down on Nov. 14, 1973, to listen to the tape, and they expected to find an erasure. But it went on longer than five minutes — many minutes longer, not seconds. Eventually, it was determined that 18 minutes and 15 seconds of the conversation had been erased — and the gap appeared to be the result of not one but several erasures. This could be determined by changes in pitch.

The inescapable conclusion was that the gap was not accidental.

This had been suggested earlier in the month by "Deep Throat," Bob Woodward's secret source in the early days of the investigation. Deep Throat told Woodward there were "gaps" in some of the tapes, implying they were the result of deliberate erasures.

At the time, there was some doubt among Nixon's lawyers whether the conversation was even covered in the subpoena. But, by the time they reported their findings to Al Haig, the White House chief of staff, the lawyers had determined that the conversation was, in fact, included in the subpoena.

The lawyers discussed their options and finally decided that, if they didn't tell the judge what they knew and the special prosecutor found out about it some other way, they could be suspected of destroying evidence.

Thus it was that, on this day in 1973, Nixon's lawyers informed the judge in the Watergate trials, John Sirica, of their discovery, which, in turn, was made public.

Sirica appointed an advisory panel of experts (nominated by Nixon's lawyers and special Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski) to examine the tapes. An "index and analysis" of the existing tapes was given to him five days later. The clamor for the tapes grew louder, not softer.

Nixon's defense was starting to fall apart — irretrievably.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Four Score and 70 Years Ago

The president's speech followed a two–hour address so
photographers could be forgiven for thinking they had
plenty of time to prepare. But Lincoln's speech was so
brief it was over before photographers could get ready.

"The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."

Abraham Lincoln
Nov. 19, 1863

In my experience, days that have truly historic significance rarely begin with any clue that something special is going to happen.

Take Sept. 11, 2001, for example. When I think of that day, I think of how truly ordinary it was when I drove to work that morning. There was no hint that anything unusual was about to happen — until the radio mentioned an apparent airplane crash at the World Trade Center.

I'm not old enough to remember the day John F. Kennedy was shot, but I have read a lot about it, and the accounts I have read suggest that there was no indication that morning that anything was going to happen — at lunchtime or any other time.

Sometimes big events are anticipated, but nobody really knows when they will happen — like the fall of the Berlin wall or Richard Nixon's resignation.

Sometimes, of course, there is advance notice that something historic will happen at a certain time on a certain day. When I was a child, I followed the Apollo 11 moon landing — as did everyone, frankly — with great interest. And, if you followed their mission schedule, you knew when the astronauts were scheduled to land on the moon and take their first steps. There was no element of surprise, just the sensation that all the people in the country, if not the world, were holding their collective breath waiting for the Eagle to land or Neil Armstrong to take that giant leap for mankind.

Even in the annals of unexpectedly important events, the Gettysburg Address, which Abraham Lincoln delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa., 150 years ago today, holds a unique place in American history.

(Few speeches have begun as memorably: "Four score and seven years ago ...")

It was in that speech that Lincoln re–defined the objective of the Civil War. It began as an effort to keep the Union together. But, after Lincoln gave this speech, it was about abolishing slavery. That was what he meant when he spoke of a "new birth of freedom."

It had been the official policy of the Union since Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but it became the focal point of the war effort after Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg.

As I wrote last summer on the 150th anniversary of the start of the battle, I remember when my classmates and I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address and deliver it in class. I took my turn at reciting the speech, just like everyone else, but I don't know if I gave much thought to the words or what they meant.

I don't remember it as some kind of epiphany. I didn't feel anything unique when I was called to the front of the room to deliver the speech. Well, my stomach was a little queasy ...

Heck, I was a teenager. I was nervous about having to stand in front of a room full of my peers and say anything. But I committed it to memory, and I recited it, just as everyone else did.

Years later, I could still recall all the words upon hearing a single sentence, even a single phrase, from the speech. And then the talk about a rebirth of freedom had more of an impact on me.

I realized that Lincoln was not talking about the past, about the sacrifices that the soldiers on both sides had made at Gettysburg. He had turned his attention to the future. Like spouses renewing their wedding vows and re–pledging themselves to each other, with a deeper understanding of what the commitment meant, Lincoln urged the people of his own time and the generations to come to periodically renew their commitment to freedom.

But Lincoln's actual words were "a new birth of freedom," and I interpret that to mean an expansion of freedom to those who had not experienced it — primarily the slaves. Lincoln had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation; the Gettysburg Address confirmed it as an objective of the war.

As I said before, that wasn't the objective when the war began. But it became one 150 years ago today.

Maybe that is the special quality of the Gettysburg Address. It had the power to move people at the time it was delivered — well, except for Lincoln — and it can have the same influence in a sort of delayed reaction, kind of like those time–release capsules you take when you're sick.

Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln reported that the president was not pleased with his speech — which was a rather last–minute assignment. Edward Everett of Massachusetts, one of the great American orators of the 19th century, was the featured speaker, and he spoke for two hours. Lincoln followed with his two–minute address.

"That speech won't scour," Lincoln told his bodyguard after he concluded and sat down. "It is a flat failure, and the people are disappointed."

To understand what Lincoln meant, it is necessary to understand something about the language of the farmers of Lincoln's boyhood. "When wet soil stuck to the mold board of a plow, they said it didn't 'scour,' " Sandburg explained.

Some of the newspapers of his day agreed with him.

"The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dish–watery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the president of the United States," wrote the Chicago Times.

(The Times no longer exists, but a Pennsylvania newspaper recently felt compelled to retract its 150–year–old negative review of the speech.)

But some did not.

The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, for example, wrote that few who read Lincoln's words would do so "without a moistening of the eye and a swelling of the heart."

Everett himself, in a letter to Lincoln, wrote, "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as close to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."

"Lincoln had translated the story of his country and the meaning of the war into words and ideas accessible to every American," wrote historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

"The child who would sleeplessly rework his father's yarns into tales comprehensible to any boy had forged for his country an ideal of its past, present and future that would be recited and memorized by students forever."

Monday, November 18, 2013

Drinking the Kool-Aid

Thirty–five years ago today, the world was shocked to learn of what was being dubbed the "Jonestown massacre" in the South American nation of Guayana.

I have always thought it was misleading, though, to use the word "massacre" because, while there were some people who resisted, the available evidence suggests that most of the 918 people who died took their lives willingly. But you can still find those who will argue that what happened in Jonestown was mass murder, that the victims were coerced into drinking the poisoned Flavor–Aid (yes, that is what it was called. I guess I always assumed it was some sort of generic equivalent of Kool–Aid).

To a degree, I suppose, that was true. Ironically, apparently there were those who drank the Flavor–Aid against their will. Still, all available evidence suggests the vast majority of those who drank it did so willingly, giving birth to the pop culture cliche "drinking the Kool–Aid," which is generally understood to mean blind, unquestioning acceptance of something.

(I often wonder how many people who use that phrase but weren't born when Jonestown happened know how it came to be.)

The Rev. Jim Jones' People's Temple Agricultural Project (aka "Jonestown") was a planned socialist community established in the South American nation of Guyana.

Originally, Jones, a charismatic leader similar to David Koresh, formed the People's Temple in his home state of Indiana not long after he started attending Communist Party rallies in the 1950s. He was active in local pro–integration politics and adopted several children who were at least partly non–white.

By the 1960s, Jones apparently had his eye on South America as a safe place to be in the event of a nuclear war, but instead he told his congregation that they would find their garden of Eden in California. And the People's Temple migrated west, where it enjoyed considerable success in its endeavors. Jones became an influential figure in the San Francisco area, rubbing elbows with important Democrats, both local and national.

By the mid–1970s, they had relocated again — to South America — and formed, under Jones' guidance, the People's Temple Agricultural Project.

And some of the relatives of Temple members were concerned that, among other things, no one who was part of what Jones called a "model of socialism" was permitted to leave.

There were other complaints, some from within. There was talk of long workdays and six–day work weeks followed by hours of study and lectures on socialism. Jones was said to have had sex with most of the women in the community and to have fathered several children.

Jones held what he called "White Nights" — simulated emergencies involving the CIA or some other investigatory agency that sometimes included Jones' call for "revolutionary suicides." Members would be given cups of a red liquid to drink. They would be told that the liquid was poisoned and that they would die within 45 minutes.

When the members realized that the liquid they drank was not poisoned after all, Jones told them it had been a loyalty test.

Thirty–five years ago today, it was not a test. It was the real thing.

Jonestown was being investigated again — a familiar experience for the People's Temple and its corrupt/paranoid leader. A U.S. congressman was leading this one, though, and that definitely was not a familiar experience.

The congressman was Leo Ryan. He represented a portion of San Francisco, and some of his constituents were former Temple members or relatives of Temple members. They had contacted him about their concerns over conditions in Jonestown. And they were denied access to Jonestown for the first couple of days following their arrival in Guyana.

When Ryan and his party were finally allowed into Jonestown on Nov. 17, 1978, the Temple members put their best foot forward, but some of the members who wanted to leave managed to contact the visitors, and the facade began to unravel.

And then, 35 years ago today, Ryan and others were gunned down on the airstrip at Port Kaituma as they tried to leave. Back at Jonestown, Jones announced what had happened and issued another call for "revolutionary suicides." This time, there was cyanide in the Flavor–Aid, and, before long more than 900 Temple members lay dead around the compound.

Jones died that night, but he did not die from poisoning. His body was found with an apparently self–inflicted gunshot wound to his left temple. I don't think it has ever been established whether Jones shot himself or he was shot by someone else.

The Guyanese coroner who examined him said the wound was consisted with a self–inflicted wound.

I have seen few articles on Jonestown's milestone anniversary.

Rachel Sheeley writes, in the Palladium–Item, the newspaper in the small east–central Indiana town of Richmond, where Jones attended high school, that the town was unprepared for the massive media attention that came its way after the events in South America.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian took the opportunity of the anniversary to call for the establishment of a memorial to those who died.

"San Francisco should stop trying to whitewash Jones from its history books," writes Court Haslett, equating what happened 35 years ago today to two more recent tragedies, the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Talk about drinking the Kool–Aid.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Who Are You Gonna Believe, Me or Your Eyes and Ears?

"People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got."

Richard Nixon
Nov. 17, 1973

It seems more than a little ironic to me that Barack Obama should be insisting — at this particular time — that what he really said about people being able to keep their health care plans was not what he clearly did say in some two dozen video taped campaign moments last year alone.

But presidents — as much as we might wish to believe otherwise — don't always appreciate the irony of some of the things they say and do.

Forty years ago tonight, I remember watching in utter astonishment as Richard Nixon insisted in a televised statement that he was "not a crook."

I was a mere boy at the time, but it sounded odd to my young ears, a president who felt compelled to assert that he was honest. Don't know why I felt that way. I was old enough to know better. (I can only imagine how it must sound to young ears today to hear the president insist that what those ears heard him say over and over was not what he really said.)

I grew up in a Democrat household, and my parents routinely accused Nixon of being deceitful. I had vague memories of his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, but it wasn't until I was older that I realized the extent of Johnson's lies to the American public about the war in Vietnam.

I learned early that neither party has a monopoly on the truth — and that both parties routinely lie to the voters.

Still ...

Maybe I was naive — I probably was — but I thought it should go without saying that a president would tell the truth to the American people. (Maybe I was thinking of the early presidents, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, not the modern ones.)

Nixon was speaking to a gathering of Associated Press managing editors in Orlando, Fla., at the time. I think it may have been the first time Nixon ever publicly denied his involvement in any illegal activity. (I have long thought what Nixon considered to be criminal behavior and what motivated it was revealing — as he saw it, it was an illegal act if it was for financial gain. Apparently, illegal acts for political gain were just part of the give and take of life in the arena.)

Before that, I believe, he allowed surrogates to do the dirty work, but, by November 1973, the existence of Nixon's Oval Office taping system had been revealed to the public, and he had fired the special Watergate prosecutor because he demanded access to the tapes (precipitating the infamous "Saturday Night Massacre") — and, before the month was over, the mysterious 18½–minute gap in the White House tapes would be discovered.

Nixon may have been feeling a lot of pressure at this time 40 years ago. He may have realized that the gap would be discovered soon. His attorneys had been reviewing the tapes, after all. If he had been aware of the gap — or if he had been responsible for the erasure — he may have figured it was only a matter of time, and he needed to make a pre—emptive strike.

Of course, I'm just spitballing here. I didn't know what went through Nixon's mind. That was a common problem in those days. No one really knew how much Nixon himself had known about the break–in or the coverup. Much of it — well, at least Nixon's state of mind — is still speculation, nearly 20 years after his death.

If there was one strength Nixon and his staff had at that time — and, until things really began to collapse around Nixon in 1973–74, there wasn't merely one thing but a whole bunch of things that could be considered Nixon's strengths — it was that they may have been early masters of what has come to be known as the art of spin.

It didn't seem to matter, in 1973 and into the early months of 1974, what kind of accusation was tossed at Nixon or how irrefutable it may have appeared. He and his staff always managed to come back with a justification. Most of these explanations were only barely plausible — if they were plausible at all — but they opened the window of doubt just enough.

Maybe it was that history of success — or semi–success — that led Nixon to believe that he could get away with simply protesting that he was honest and implying that it was ridiculous to believe otherwise. Obviously, it didn't work.

(Five years ago, TIME magazine ranked it #1 on its list of the "Top 10 Unfortunate Political One–Liners.")

It is tempting, I suppose, to speculate on such an occasion, coming, as it does, only days before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Joel Rubinoff of The Record of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, writes that, among other things, the whole "I am not a crook" episode would never have happened if Kennedy had not been assassinated. Well, that was "one potential outcome," at least.

Rubinoff observes that "that's the thing about historical projections — there are no wrong answers. And no right ones either."

True, true.

On a short–term basis, I suppose, Nixon's strategy was successful. In a Gallup survey a couple of weeks later, Nixon's approval rating went up and his disapproval rating went down — by four points in both cases.

Unfortunately for Nixon, that survey was taken around the time that the 18½–minute gap in one of the tapes was revealed to the public.

And all bets were off.

Nixon's approval rating dipped below 30% in the next survey and never bounced back.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Seventy-Five Years After Kristallnacht

Seventy–five years ago, Nazis in Germany and Austria launched Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, which was designed to intimidate German Jews.

Actually, it did a lot more than intimidate the Jews, I suppose, and I don't mean to belittle the significance of the event by using that word.

One can reach many conclusions about Kristallnacht's role in the Holocaust — whether it was truly the starting point for the Holocaust or merely another step in a process that had been under way for years (the persecution of the Jews, observes TIME magazine, was "already intense by the mid–1930s").

If it was the latter, it was a massively violent step and signaled more clearly than anything that had come before — to those who did not turn away and ignore what was happening, which was still a sizable number in 1938 — the Nazis' intention to eliminate the Jews from Europe. Synagogues were burned, Jewish schools, homes and businesses were vandalized, and nearly 100 Jews (men, women and children) were killed.

Some context is necessary here.

A few days earlier, a 17–year–old German Jewish refugee shot and killed the third secretary of the German embassy in Paris. "The youth's father had been among 10,000 deported to Poland in boxcars shortly before," wrote historian William Shirer, "and it was to revenge this and the general persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany that he went to the German embassy intending to kill the ambassador."

Instead, the third secretary was sent out to see what the young man wanted and paid with his life.

As Shirer observed, there was irony in the death of the third secretary — "[H]e had been shadowed by the Gestapo as a result of his anti–Nazi attitude," Shirer wrote. "[H]e had never shared the anti–Semitic aberrations of the rulers of his country."

But it was used as the pretext for the Night of Broken Glass.

All through the night of Nov. 9–10, 1938, the sound of shattering glass could be heard throughout Germany and Austria as the Nazis carried out their search–and–destroy mission.

"According to Dr. (Joseph) Goebbels and the German press, which he controlled, it was a 'spontaneous' demonstration ... in reaction to the news of the murder in Paris," Shirer wrote. "But after the war, documents came to light which show how 'spontaneous' it was. They are among the most illuminating — and gruesome — secret papers of the prewar Nazi era."

Those papers revealed that it was Reinhard Heydrich — perhaps the main architect of the Holocaust and "the man with the iron heart," in Hitler's words — who was the "real organizer" of Kristallnacht, Shirer asserted.

On Nov. 9, Goebbels ordered that the "spontaneous demonstrations" were to be "organized and executed" during the night.

But Heydrich issued more specific instructions on how the demonstrations were to be organized:
  • "Only such measures should be taken which do not involve danger to German life or property. (For instance, synagogues are to be burned down only when there is no danger of fire to the surroundings.)"
  • "Business and private apartments of Jews may be destroyed but not looted ..."
  • "The demonstrations which are going to take place should not be hindered by the police."
  • "As many Jews, especially rich ones, are to be arrested as can be accommodated in the existing prisons ... Upon their arrest, the appropriate concentration camps should be contacted immediately, in order to confine them in these camps as soon as possible."
The thing I found telling was that the numerous rapes on Kristallnacht were of greater concern to Nazi leaders than the killings — because it was a violation of the Nuremberg racial laws for Gentiles to have sex with Jews. That says a lot about the priorities of the Third Reich. The day after Kristallnacht, Heydrich made a preliminary confidential report:
"The extent of the destruction of Jewish shops and houses cannot yet be verified by figures ... 815 shops destroyed, 171 dwelling houses set on fire or destroyed only indicate a fraction of the actual damage so far as arson is concerned ... 119 synagogues were set on fire, and another 76 completely destroyed ... 20,000 Jews were arrested. 36 deaths were reported and those seriously injured were also numbered at 36. Those killed and injured are Jews."
In the story and timeline of the Third Reich, what was the significance of Kristallnacht? Was it a perpetuation of a policy that was already in place, or was it the introduction of a new and more sinister phase of the Third Reich's rule? The Los Angeles Times favors the latter, writing that Kristallnacht "marked the Nazis' transition from discrimination to genocide." Given the historical record, it was reasonable for BBC News to wonder recently "how strong is anti–Semitism in Germany?" The answer to that question is unclear, but Stephen Evans of BBC News writes that "[w]hat does seem to be clear is that anti–Semitism is rising in Germany."

Evans cited figures from the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an anti–racism organization, that reported more than 800 attacks on Jews in Germany in 2011. The number was more than 850 last year. The trend has continued this year; figures show 409 attacks in the first half of 2013. Not all the attacks have been physical; some have been verbal.

Makes me wonder if civilization has learned anything in the last 75 years.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Day Nixon Won the Presidency

There haven't been many cliffhangers in presidential politics, and one of the most interesting, from the perspective of an historian, has to be the one that occurred 45 years ago today.

It was the last truly paper–thin popular vote margin in a presidential election in the 20th century, and it was the last time for nearly 40 years that voter turnout in a national election exceeded 60% — in spite of the fact that the voting age was lowered to 18 before the next presidential election.

And, if the outcome had been different, the nation might have been spared the Watergate scandal that consumed the Richard Nixon presidency.

But the Democrats' nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, had to win the grudging acceptance of those who had supported antiwar candidate Gene McCarthy in the primaries. The war influenced most voters that year, either directly or indirectly, and McCarthy's supporters didn't completely trust Humphrey because of his role in the Johnson administration.

Gradually, Humphrey had been winning them over that fall; Democrats who had supported McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy earlier in the year apparently began to realize that, like it or not, the choice was between Humphrey and Nixon, the man they had been demonizing for a couple of decades. About two weeks before the election, when Humphrey announced in Salt Lake City that he would pull the plug on the bombing in southeast Asia as "an acceptable risk for peace," the momentum was on his side.

"Up until Salt Lake City," wrote historian Theodore White, "the position of the Democrats had been that any bombing halt in Vietnam must be coupled with reciprocity on the part of the enemy. Now, in a three–point program, Humphrey declared that he would risk a complete bombing halt in the interests of peace, and then see what response might develop, reserving the right to resume bombing if no such response was clear."

The impact on the polls was immediate. Gallup reported that Humphrey had cut Nixon's lead in half.

Then, less than a week before the election, McCarthy ("who had been pouting on the Riviera" since losing the nomination to Humphrey, wrote historian William Manchester) announced his support for Humphrey — and, at that point, wrote Manchester, "Humphrey was at the top of his form; Nixon had begun to sound uncannily like Thomas E. Dewey."

The late Humphrey surge would have changed the outcome, many people argued, if the campaign had gone on for a day or two more — and, in fact, the Democrats had no one but themselves to blame for that. The Democratic National Committee decided to postpone the Chicago convention until the end of August to coincide with the birthday of President Lyndon Johnson.

At the time, it was the latest start for a national convention since the Civil War more than a century earlier — and the change cost Democrats valuable campaign time that could have altered the outcome of the general election.

(It is worth noting that LBJ was much more popular when that decision was made than he was when the convention was held.)

In hindsight, the whole election really hinged on the outcomes in three states — California, Illinois and Ohio. Nixon carried them all by relatively close margins. If Humphrey had carried all three, he would have been elected president.

And if Humphrey had carried any two of those three — or California alone — the independent candidacy of George Wallace would have accomplished its objective of forcing the election into the House of Representatives — where Wallace, who had been fading in the polls that autumn and must have been aware that he could not possibly win, could play the role of kingmaker.

Nixon, a native Californian, never really seemed likely to lose his home state (although the Republican ticket did lose the home state of the vice presidential nominee, Spiro Agnew). Oh, sure, some major party presidential nominees had lost their home states over the years — Democrat Adlai Stevenson even managed to do it twice — and, if that had happened in 1968, Nixon would not have won in the Electoral College (and, given his final popular vote margins in both California and the nation as a whole, he might not have won the popular vote, either).

But, contrary to what modern political observers may think of California's electoral tendencies, the fact was that, in 1968, the state had voted Republican in three of the previous four presidential elections, and it had never rejected Nixon in a national campaign.

Realistically, California was off the table.

But if Humphrey could have won about 67,000 votes from Nixon in Illinois and about 45,000 votes from Nixon in Ohio, he could have prevented Nixon from receiving enough electoral votes to be elected. And if he had carried both of those states, along with California, he would have won the election outright.

That kind of scenario (or something like it) seemed like a real possibility on this day in 1968 — even moreso after midnight, when all three states (along with Missouri and, for a time, Texas) remained too close to call.

Humphrey and Nixon were even with each other in the polls heading into Election Day, and many states remained too close to call well into that evening — and the early morning hours of the next day. In fact, it was not until the next morning that the TV networks called the election for Nixon — and, even after they did that, some states stayed too close to call for awhile.

My memory of those days is vague, owing primarily to my youth. But one memory stands out.

As I have written here before, I grew up within 350 miles of my grandparents. It wasn't all interstate in 1968, but my family still managed to visit my grandparents frequently. My father taught at a local college, which did not have summer sessions in those days, and my mother stayed at home until she re–entered the workforce in the mid–'70s so my family typically made two, even three trips to visit the grandparents in the summers — in addition to trips we usually made at Christmas and sometimes at Thanksgiving or during spring break.

I loved my grandparents and wanted to please them, and I'm sure I must have heard them talking about the election that summer. My mother's parents, with whom we always stayed when we visited Dallas, were Nixon supporters. My father's mother was a Democrat, and I am sure she supported Humphrey, but my maternal grandparents spent more time with me and had more influence on me.

Anyway, I must have heard them speaking of Nixon that summer. My grandfather could be — shall we say? — loquacious on certain topics, one of which was politics. My best guess is that I must have boldly asserted, at some point, that Nixon would win — and, then, as children will, I forgot about the conversation.

Until a day or two after the election.

It was then that I received the first telegram I had received in my then–brief life. It was from my grandparents and a couple of their friends (who must have been there when I made my prediction) congratulating me.

I wish I could say I still have that telegram, but I don't. As nearly as I can remember, it said something like this: "Congratulations on your prediction! We're all proud of you!"

At that point in my life, I knew nothing about politics, but I guess my grandparents' praise made me feel like I was some sort of prodigy, that I was destined to be some kind of political historian.

Maybe I was. After all, I still enjoy analyzing election returns, and I still like to make predictions.

I must confess, however, that those predictions involve considerably more thought and research than the one I made in 1968.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Never Assume

Today is the 65th anniversary of the appearance on the news racks of physical proof of perhaps the most spectacularly bad headline decision ever.

As I have mentioned before, I used to work on newspaper copy desks, and I understand the temptation to write a headline for a story when you already know — or think you know — how it is going to turn out even though it isn't official.

I worked on sports copy desks, and there were often times when Super Bowls or something similar became lopsided early and, even though much of the game had yet to be played, it was clear which team would win. On such occasions, we felt we had extra time to work on our headline, and most of the time we were right.

(I always felt that we held ourselves to somewhat higher standards at those times, given that we had the luxury of time to reflect and come up with just the right headline. I have always been proud of a headline I wrote at the Arkansas Gazette about a college football game that got out of hand early.)

That is one of the biggest differences between writing a sports headline and writing a news headline, I suppose. Most team sports events are rigidly timed. When one team grabs a big lead over another, the game eventually reaches a point when it is no longer possible for the other team to come back. (Baseball is the sole exception to that rule, I guess. In baseball, as Yogi Berra said, it really ain't over until it's over.)

But news doesn't work that way — as the folks at the Chicago Tribune found out on this day in 1948. They probably knew it already, but what happened 65 years ago was a reminder to them and a cautionary tale for the generations of editors to follow.

It was a banner headline about the 1948 presidential election, which was held 65 years ago yesterday. It famously proclaimed "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" in big bold letters on Page 1.

History remembers the 1948 campaign as Harry Truman's "Give 'em hell, Harry" campaign, the greatest political comeback ever. The 1948 election made Truman the patron saint of political lost causes. I can't remember a single political campaign in which the underdog failed to invoke the memory of Truman and his upset win as evidence that anything is possible (regardless of whether the cause was really lost at that point or not).

When I was a journalism student, they told us about the 1948 election and the Tribune headline — and I'm sure it is still this way in most schools — as a reminder never to assume.

Sixty–five years ago, the folks on the Chicago Tribune's copy desk made a huge assumption. They assumed that Tom Dewey, Truman's Republican opponent, would win the election, and it was a reasonable assumption to make. Truman was the incumbent, but he was unpopular. In June 1948, Gallup reported that only 39% of respondents approved of his job performance.

It may have been due, in part, to wishful thinking on the part of the Tribune. It was a Republican–leaning paper and had called Truman a "nincompoop" on its editorial page.

And there is no doubt that still–primitive polling methods played a huge role, too. There were flaws in polling methodology that would be corrected after the election, but the flaws were firmly in place before the voters cast their ballots as the polls persistently predicted Dewey's victory for months. Pollsters were convinced that most voters had made up their minds in September and stopped polling weeks before the election, thus missing a late shift in Truman's favor.

It has been estimated that as many as 14% of voters who originally intended to vote for Dewey decided in those final weeks to vote for Truman or someone else — or not at all.

And part of the reason was due to deadline pressure.

As Tim Jones of the Tribune writes, "a printers' strike ... forced the paper to go to press hours before it normally would." The accelerated deadline forced the managing editor to make the kind of judgment call that no editor wants to make early on an election night. He had to choose a headline for a story that wasn't over when he made the decision — but would be when the readers picked up their papers the next morning.

Obviously, he made the wrong choice. He relied on polling data that was weeks old and made the pollsters his scapegoat — even though he had also depended too much on the judgment of the Tribune's Washington correspondent, who was almost never wrong, as well as the fact that LIFE magazine had just published a picture of Dewey with the caption "the next president of the United States."

It was a huge mistake, but remember, this was in the days before the internet, before cable TV. Heck, TV was still in its infancy in those days, anyway. Few people outside the Chicago area knew of the headline faux pas — until Truman, who was returning to Washington by train, made a stop in St. Louis and was handed a copy of the Tribune with its erroneous headline.

"He had as low an opinion of the Tribune as it did of him," Jones wrote. "Truman held the paper up, and photographers preserved the moment for history."