On Friday, our country will mark the 50th anniversary of one of its most tragic events: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Like the attack on Pearl Harbor before it and 9/11 after it, Nov. 22, 1963, is one of a handful of dates in history where those of us old enough to remember it will never forget where we were and what we were doing.
What many Kentuckians may not know about that day, however, is that it was a future resident of our state who broke the news of President Kennedy’s death to the world. Malcolm Kilduff, who moved to Breathitt County in the 1970s, was given that task as the assistant press secretary travelling with President Kennedy during his swing through Texas. In the famous photo of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as president on Air Force One, Malcolm can be seen in the bottom left corner.
Kentucky’s connections to the aftermath of the assassination did not end there. A week after it occurred, President Johnson named our own U.S. Senator John Sherman Cooper to what informally became known as the Warren Commission, which was asked to determine who was responsible.
Senator Cooper, a close friend of President Kennedy’s when they were in the Senate, was one of seven appointed to the commission; the others included Earl Warren, the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice at the time, and future President Gerald Ford.
In the mid-1970s, another person who would call Kentucky home, Bob Morrison of Bowling Green, also played an investigative role as the director of security for the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Assassinations. That responsibility included oversight of a wide array of classified material tied to the deaths of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and it put him on the front line in listening to the ever-growing number of conspiracy theories.
Although President Kennedy did not carry Kentucky in the 1960 election, he did make several stops to the commonwealth as a senator, candidate and president. He campaigned in Owensboro for Adlai Stevenson’s presidential run in 1956, for example, and swung through Louisville, Lexington and Bowling Green as a candidate himself four years later.
In other Kentucky connections, it was President Kennedy who, 50 years ago this summer, designated Land Between the Lakes a national recreation area. Louisville, meanwhile, was almost certainly the first community to name a major structure in the president’s honor following his death, when Governor Bert Combs announced just four days after the assassination that the city’s new Ohio River bridge would bear the president’s name.
While the main focus this week may be on President Kennedy, it is also worth pointing out that this time also figures prominently in the life of another president whose life was taken far too soon: our own Abraham Lincoln, who gave perhaps his most famous speech – the Gettysburg Address – 150 years ago on Tuesday, Nov. 19th.
Although no Kentucky regiment fought in that Pennsylvania battle, we do have a monument on its grounds, since we are the birthplace of both Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The monument is close to the location where Lincoln is believed to have given the speech.
From a historical perspective, few presidents loom larger in our country’s consciousness than Lincoln and Kennedy. Hundreds of books have been written about how they lived and died, but the one thing that history cannot tell us is what more they might have done if they only had had the chance. That’s something to consider as we recall their many contributions this week.