A presidential commission on my dining room wall reminds me of connections to the Kennedy administration. Appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the Diplomatic Service during his first year in office, my service in Washington, D.C., and Geneva, Switzerland, included both happy and unhappy events.
I remember President Kennedy coming to the State Department auditorium for his press conferences. I worked in the public affairs division and was responsible for seating journalists. Taking advantage of the opportunity to observe the president from a front row seat, I found Kennedy taller, thinner and more handsome than news photos. His shock of hair was prominent, as was his quick wit.
I remember serving in Geneva with several of Kennedy’s friends. Jim Devine, a friend from Kennedy’s Harvard days, had scheduled a touch football game (a hallmark of the Kennedy era) for Saturday, Nov. 23. It never happened. Kennedy was assassinated the day before.
Those people who remember the day of the assassination of President Kennedy recall noontime events. My recollection is of an evening shock, around 8:30 Geneva time, precipitated by a call from our personnel officer. “Mac,” she said. “Your French is better than mine. Something happened to the president. Could you turn the radio on and see what’s going on?”
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I did so and heard:
“Le President Kennedy est mort” (President Kennedy is dead). I blurted to my wife what had happened, jumped in my car and raced to our office. There, I found many employees of our mission to the European office of the United Nations standing around the ticker tape, crying and hugging one another.
Few people know the elaborate protocol the State Department follows when an American president dies in office. Nor did I, until instructions poured in immediately from Washington, D.C. I worked nearly around the clock from that Friday throughout the Thanksgiving week that followed.
I remember spending the weekend arranging for Swiss government officials and a multitude of Geneva-based diplomats to pay their personal respects to our ambassador, Roger Tubby. I remember coordinating church services, Catholic and Protestant, at several Geneva locations.
It seemed our country had gone mad, but I didn’t have time to think about it. One day, a line of people two blocks long gathered outside our offices to sign a book of condolences. The book, something like a large ledger, was placed on a table with flowers and a large picture of President Kennedy. I stood beside the table and greeted each person who entered to sign the book. There were no restrictions on who could sign.
If I noted it was an official of some importance, such as an ambassador, I would escort that person into the ambassador’s office so they could personally express their regrets. But most were ordinary folks. Many brought gifts, such as flowers, a teddy bear for John-John or a painting of the late president. The entry area, usually occupied by a receptionist, became filled with flowers and other gifts as the stream of well-wishers continued throughout the day.
The several church services were coordinated so that none were held at the same time. I attended all of them. In each instance, I watched overflowing crowds drying tears.
I was still working the Thanksgiving Day that followed, arranging to ship the hundreds of gifts we received to Jacqueline Kennedy. The next day, one week after the assassination, the 50 or so people working in our offices gathered to watch a film of President Kennedy’s funeral that had been flown express from Washington. Again tears fell as we watched the president’s 2-year-old son salute as his father’s coffin passed.
In his inaugural address President Kennedy stated, “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” I was of that generation. It was never the same after that awful week in November 1963.
Carroll R. McKibbin is a retired Cal Poly political science professor who taught a course on the American presidency for 40 years.