In just under two weeks – on a Friday, as the workings of the calendar would have it – will fall the fiftieth anniversary of an event that took place early on a Friday afternoon in Dallas, Texas, which marked one of American history’s most profound tragedies. November 22, 1963 is a day which, alongside December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001, evokes the most solemn and searing memories in the collective American consciousness – and all the more so because, unlike Pearl Harbor, which was preceded by two years of world war, and 9/11, which was presaged by a series of terrorist actions against Americans abroad, the assassination of President Kennedy came utterly out of the blue.
A few days after the death of the President, his remains, in a caisson pulled by a riderless horse named Black Jack, went through the streets of Washington, followed by a procession of dignitaries that included three Presidents – Lyndon Johnson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Harry S. Truman.
It is not a very common occurence for three Presidents to be in Washington on the same day, and it is an extremely unusual event for three Presidents – current, former, or future – to be in the same city unless a political convention or a Presidential funeral is underway. But on the morning of November 22, 1963, three Presidents were in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, within thirty miles of each other.
In Fort Worth that day, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson awoke in the Hotel Texas and prepared to board the plane that would take him on the brief flight to Love Field in Dallas, and from there to the motorcade that would enter Dealey Plaza just before 12:30 Central Standard Time.
And in Dallas that morning, Richard Nixon awoke in the Baker Hotel. There was a policeman stationed in the hallway outside his door, but the officer was there not so much to protect the former Vice President as to deter jewel thieves or autograph seekers from bothering movie star Joan Crawford who was a few doors down from RN.
Both the Hollywood legend and the future President were in town for the same reason – to attend the annual convention of the American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages. Both were there on behalf of the Pepsi-Cola corporation – Miss Crawford as a member of its board of directors (she was the widow of its chairman), and RN in his capacity as an attorney working on Pepsi’s behalf.
After meeting various bottling-plant executives the previous day, RN had spoken to reporters that night, delivering a vigorous critique of the Kennedy White House’s policies in his capacity as Republican elder statesman.
In the morning, RN proceeded to Love Field, and boarded a plane which departed a little more than an hour before Kennedy and Johnson’s arrival.
For the rest of the story – plus a very vivid account of the sixteen-year friendship of RN and JFK – I’m happy to recommend this article from the Dallas Morning News by Alan Peppard. For nearly a half-century now, conspiracy theorists have read all manner of sinister meanings into the fact that Richard Nixon was in Dallas the morning of the assassination, and Mr. Peppard’s article, part of the News’ thoroughly well-researched and well-written coverage of the 11/22/63 events this month, tells the real story, minus all the smoke and mirrors so often attached to it, and tells it well.
The article’s conclusion, describing how RN concluded the day, gives a good indication of its overall quality, of a kind increasingly rare in the journalism of today. (It’s worth adding that the letters referred to below can be seen at the Nixon Library.)
Nixon entered the cocoon of his 10-room apartment overlooking Central Park. The long hallway was hung with Chinese paintings, a gift from Madame Chiang Kai-shek. The living room featured light colored drapery and large Oriental jardinières.
His private library was furnished with comfortable, upholstered easy chairs and sofas. On the mantel was his extensive collection of elephants made from teak, ivory, crystal, stone and plastic.
“That night, I sat up late in my library,” Nixon remembered. He thought of his brothers Arthur and Harold, dead at ages 7 and 23, both from tuberculosis. He thought of Kennedy and the close-knit Kennedy family. From father Joe down to youngest child, Ted, Nixon knew all of the Kennedys. And he thought of Jackie, who had once interviewed him as part of her job as the “Inquiring Photographer” for the Washington Times-Herald.
While Jackie waited out the autopsy and embalming of her husband at Bethesda Naval Hospital, the fire in Nixon’s library burned itself out.
Before the dawn of Nov. 23, he put pen to paper.
Nixon began, “Dear Jackie, While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents, I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947.”
Several weeks later, he received a letter written in her precise, feminine script: “You two young men — colleagues in Congress, adversaries in 1960 — and now look what has happened.”
Jackie foresaw Nixon’s election as president. “Just one thought I would say to you,” she wrote. “If it doesn’t work out as you have hoped for so long, please be consoled by what you already have — your life and your family.”