As the world knows, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago this week, which, together with his burial, triggered a display of national mourning unprecedented in our history. Granted, Kennedy was a charismatic leader, which greatly contributed to the outpouring of grief, as did his leaving behind a beautiful wife and two lovely children.
The suddenness of his death — cut down in his prime — also contributed to the nation’s shock, as did the fact that initially no one knew anything about his assassin, including why he pulled the trigger. Kennedy’s assassination had all the makings of a “murder mystery.” In fact, it was a murder mystery.
But the biggest contributor to our grief was this: Kennedy was the first (and only) president assassinated in the television age. That was the game-changer.
Television, in part, had made Kennedy president. Although most Americans who heard radio broadcasts of the presidential debates between Kennedy and his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, thought Nixon had won, those who saw the debates on television declared the handsome, confident Kennedy the winner. And once he was in the White House, television quickly made him and his family familiar public figures in ways no other president or family had been.
And as it was in life, so it would be in death, only more so. From the time he was shot to his burial in Arlington National Cemetery, the (back then) three major television networks cancelled all regular programming and advertising, and broadcast nonstop the particulars of Kennedy’s death and funeral. And Americans followed the coverage obsessively. The Nielsen Company, which determined television ratings, estimated that 166 million Americans in 51 million homes watched some of the coverage (at the time the U.S. population was around 188 million), and in many of those 51 million homes the television was on eight hours a day.
And television, by its very nature, makes its subjects more personal. While radio could merely describe the action, television offered live pictures of the tragedy, including the heartbreaking sight of Kennedy’s two-year-old son, John Jr., saluting his father’s casket as it went by.
So television made possible the nation’s shared grief, but it also made possible the nation’s shared uncertainty. During the ’round-the-clock coverage, Americans were subjected to constant speculation about whether Oswald had acted alone or was part of a conspiracy, and, if the latter, were the Soviets behind it? And, if so, what retribution might be exacted in an age of nuclear weapons and superpower rivalries? And who was this Lyndon Johnson, the new president, and what would he do?
A presidential historian called Kennedy’s assassination “the most traumatic moment in American political history.” Give television much of the credit.