I had looked forward to that Friday because there was a political lunch that day that would be a break from my studies at Georgetown University. The speaker was California Congressman James Roosevelt, and I remember asking him a question, though I cannot remember what the question was. Roosevelt was the son of the last president to die in office, and about the time I was asking that question, the current president was dying of an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. It was November 22, 1963.
After the luncheon I headed to my job as an intern in the office of a congressman from Seattle. As I walked to the Cannon House Office Building, someone yelled from his car that the president had been shot. I thought that was a tasteless joke. At the entrance to the House building there were always two guards; they were not really there for security, but to assist people visiting members of Congress. The look on their faces told me something was really bad.
My boss’s office was on the fourth floor. Walking down the corridor I knew something horrible had happened – from the silence. In those days every congressional office had a bevy of secretaries typing away on electric typewriters, and there was always a clacking buzz in the hallway. Now it was silent. Not a secretary at work.
When I got to my office, the staff was just standing there watching the black and white TV as an announcement came that the president was dead. Using my congressional pass, I went over to the capitol building, and found myself in front of the House Speaker’s office, where an ashen white Speaker John McCormack was talking to the media. There was no security, no secret service. I just walked up and listened, a curious college student. I can’t remember what was said, everyone seemed so numbed. Since America now had no vice president, this 72-year-old while haired gentleman in his 35th year in the House of Representatives was first in line to be President of the United States.
Back with my roommates at Georgetown I did what every other American did that weekend, just sat glued to the television set. No Georgetown parties that weekend. On Sunday night they moved President Kennedy’s body to the capitol rotunda to lie in state, and we saw on TV huge crowds blocks long waiting to pass by his coffin. I thought to myself, I have a congressional pass (and staff license plate on my car). I can bypass all the crowds, so my roommates and I piled into my car and off we went.
We pulled into the capital garage, I flashed my badge and pulled into a member’s only parking place, and took an elevator to the rotunda. Then it really struck me. The rotunda looked small as the capitol police kept the mourners moving on either side of the casket. The catafalque – the one used for President Lincoln – looked very large, covered by a massive American flag where only hours before we watched on TV as Jackie and the children paid their respects. Only a small rope line and the guard of honor separated the public from the dead president. I spotted a Georgetown friend with a camera who had some kind of a press pass, and so I stood for a half hour with him just watching the people pass by, all in silence and obviously greatly moved by what they were seeing. The security guards just kept the people moving and paid no attention to me and my roommates.
We drove back to Georgetown rather quiet and subdued, having stood just feet away from the body of an assassinated American president. It was a weekend to remember.