The Day Kennedy Died

COMMENTARY Political Process

The Day Kennedy Died

Nov 27, 2017 4 min read

Former Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought

Lee Edwards is a leading historian of American conservatism and the author or editor of 25 books.
The funeral service was held for the President at St. Matthew's Cathedral. KEYSTONE Pictures USA/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom

The following piece is adapted from Edwards's memoir Just Right: A Life in Pursuit of Liberty.

I was having a mai tai in Trader Vic’s in the Statler Hilton Hotel with an old friend when a waiter came running through the restaurant crying, “The President’s been shot! The President’s been shot! In Dallas!”

I looked at my watch: it was 1:40 p.m. I was up the stairs and out of the hotel in less than a minute. All around me, people were walking fast, almost running, as if they did not want to be caught out in the open. I turned right at Farragut Square, headed up Connecticut Avenue and turned in at 1025. Across the small lobby and alongside the curtained French doors was a small brass plaque that read, “National Draft Goldwater Committee.”

I entered a large work room with faded yellow walls, a scuffed wooden floor, half a dozen second-hand metal desks, and unforgiving fluorescent light. Along the walls were piles of pamphlets and stacks of paperbacks—mostly The Conscience of a Conservative and You Can Trust the Communists (to be Communists).

We “kids,” as Clif White called us, had been left to answer the phones and take messages on what should have been a lazy fall day. The traffic was light and the lunches were long as they always were when the President was out of town.

But the city was jolted into a frenzy by the bulletin from Dallas—“Kennedy Shot!”—and we were drawn into the vortex. Nearly everyone, including me, thought that someone on our side, a Bircher, a Minuteman, a follower of General Walker, had pulled the trigger.

At 2:33 p.m., EST, an out-of-breath Malcolm Kilduff, an assistant to press secretary Pierre Salinger, stepped before an impatient pack of reporters. Slowly, reluctantly, he said, ”President John F. Kennedy died at approximately one o’clock Central Standard Time today here in Dallas.” The AP and UPI reporters ran from the room to find a telephone. “He died of a gunshot wound in the brain. I have no other details regarding the assassination of the President. Mrs. Kennedy was not hit. Governor Connally was hit. The Vice President was not hit.”

I murmured three Hail Marys for the repose of the President’s soul. I couldn’t help thinking: Were we dead too? Someone pounded on our door so hard the windowpanes rattled and the shades shook as if in a strong wind. “Murderers!” someone cried. I walked over and locked the doors.

Judy picked up a phone and turned white. “He says there’s a bomb.”

We called 911, and when two police officers arrived within a few minutes the lobby was empty and there was no sign of a bomb. They looked behind the pamphlets and books and under a few desks. They looked at us, pale and dazed, and suggested we go home.

None of us wanted to go home and sit alone waiting to learn who had killed the President. So we stood before the small TV in the dim light of an old brass desk lamp and watched the networks try to bury Barry Goldwater and his campaign.

“President Kennedy was in Dallas, the heart of Goldwaterland,” NBC’s Chet Huntley said, “seeking to repair political fences.”

“The ultra-right John Birch Society has become increasingly active in Dallas,” one network reported. “Last month they made it clear they did not want UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson in their city.” There were pictures of angry middle-aged white men and women crowding and jostling Stevenson.

The anti-Goldwater rhetoric crested when Walter Cronkite said: “Senator Goldwater is giving a political speech in Indiana and is not expected to attend President Kennedy’s wake and funeral.”

I was furious. Anyone covering Goldwater, and that included CBS, knew he was in Muncie, Indiana, with Mrs. Goldwater for her mother’s funeral and burial. And every political reporter in Washington was aware that Goldwater and Kennedy were good friends although philosophically as different as Hayek and Keynes. I called the Washington bureau of CBS News, but all the lines were busy.


At 4:15 p.m., EST, NBC announced that a suspect in the Kennedy assassination had been arrested. His name was Lee Harvey Oswald. I had never heard of him. All over America conservatives were checking their membership and donor lists. Then a reporter said, quoting the Associated Press, that Oswald was a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.

“The Fair Play for Cuba Committee is pro-Castro and pro-communist.

Oswald isn’t one of ours—he’s one of theirs.”

I learned later that Ed Butler of the Information Council of the Americas in New Orleans had provided the information about Oswald’s ultra-left background. Ed had debated Oswald on a New Orleans radio station in August. Following the debate he put out a press release giving Oswald’s personal history including his defection to the Soviet Union and his public admission, “I am a Marxist.”

I refrained from thinking about what the media would have done to us if Oswald had been the New Orleans secretary of the John Birch Society. Even so, Kennedy’s death was almost certainly a fatal blow to our chances to win the presidency. I accepted the political calculus—Americans wouldn’t want three presidents in one year.

But capturing the Republican nomination was different. Clif had been on the road for months, visiting state after state, traveling thousands of miles, lining up convention delegates who were as committed to Goldwater as they were to their church. With a little bit of luck and a couple of primary victories, we could win the nomination. And that would be a giant step toward establishing the conservative movement—and the anti-communist cause—as a viable political movement in America.

Goldwater versus Kennedy would have been a hard-fought but fair fight with no rabbit punches and no head butts. Goldwater versus Johnson would be no-holds-barred with LBJ doing whatever was necessary to win. No matter. The Senator had a duty to raise the conservative banner, to lead the nation down the road to liberty, to keep faith with those who had urged him and expected him to run. And if we didn’t prevail in November, well, sometimes you win by losing.

This piece originally appeared in Town Hall