11/22/2014 09:59 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2015

Something Has Indeed Happened in the Motorcade Route

Keystone-France via Getty Images

Friday November 22, 1963 Sam Pate, a reporter for KBOX Radio, Pate was on the Stemmons Freeway in a mobile news cruiser covering President Kennedy's trip to Dallas. Here is his now famous coverage of that fateful day:

The president's car is now turning onto Elm Street and would only be matter of minutes before he arrives at the Trade Mart. I was on Stemmons Freeway earlier and even the freeway was jam packed with spectators waiting their chance to see the president as he made his way toward the Trade Mart. It appears as though something has happened in the motorcade route, something I repeat has happened in the motorcade route!

"It appears something has happened in the motorcade route," these were the famous, infamous, and haunting words that described much more than the tragedy in Dealey Plaza at approximately 12:30 PM CST. Something had indeed happened in the motorcade route. It was much more than a youthful president, full of vigor, struck down in the prime of life -- though those adjectives may be the result of myth more so than reality; it was a severe blow to the nation.

What happened in the motorcade route opened the door to the overt distrust that would continue to permeate America's body politic into the present day. It remains because the notion of Oswald acting alone does not fit the magnitude of the crime.

Historian William Manchester, writing in the New York Times, outlined the fundamental problem in accepting Oswald as the lone assassin:

Those who desperately want to believe that President Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy have my sympathy. I share their yearning. To employ what may seem an odd metaphor, there is an esthetic principle here. If you put six million dead Jews on one side of a scale and on the other side put the Nazi regime -- the greatest gang of criminals ever to seize control of a modern state -- you have a rough balance: greatest crime, greatest criminals. But if you put the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn't balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the President's death with meaning, endowing him with martyrdom. He would have died for something. A conspiracy would, of course, do the job nicely.

Not only did November 22 change the course of history, but also it has limited our ability to only serve the otherwise transformative events of 1963 à la carte.

The years since the assassination have given us more than enough unanswered questions, a plethora of conspiracy theories, the meticulous pouring over the Warren Commission in search of the key evidence not yet revealed, and the accumulated distrust that we've transferred to other events.

Three days after the centennial anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the nation was again torn asunder. It was not severed geographically as it was during Lincoln's day, but it was ripped apart nevertheless by what happened in the motorcade route. Invoking Lincoln's words at Gettysburg, the world would little note nor long remember what was said in Dallas on November 22, 1963, but it can never forget what was done there.

What happened in the motorcade route managed to place a period on what would otherwise be a semi-colon on the amazing metamorphous of John F. Kennedy as president. The young Commander in Chief who had perhaps the worst inaugural foreign policy year of any president in the twentieth century clearly learned from his miscues. He used what he learned from the Bay of Pigs, his unsuccessful summit with Khrushchev, and the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 to then stare down the Soviet leader during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and to sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

In 1960, candidate Kennedy was naive, as was a majority of the nation, about the severity of civil rights as an issue domestically as well as internationally. But the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. along with those on the front lines of the movement in Birmingham and elsewhere, the political ambitions of George Wallace, and the brutality of Bull Connor moved Kennedy from the safe confines of political promises. He went from simplistically offering a "stroke of his pen" to eradicate something the nation had struggled with since its inception if elected in 1960 to declaring on June 11, 1963: "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution." Though the beginning of 1963 might have hosted what appeared to be a failed effort on the part of the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement to get Kennedy to be more vocal in the commemoration of the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, by the middle of 1963, the United States had witnessed the most powerful speech on civil rights by any U.S. president since Lincoln. Those who criticize Kennedy for his seemingly lukewarm approach to civil rights must also praise him for the boldness of the speech that rose above the politics of the moment.

What happened in the motorcade route has caused us to focus almost exclusively on the tragedy that fell upon a 46-year-old man who was at the apex of life. In the age of television, America saw Kennedy grow into the presidency, demonstrating tremendous leadership, home and abroad. In 1963, the presidency and John F. Kennedy fit like hand in glove. No American president in the 20th century experienced a month of meaningful oratory like Kennedy had in June 1963. Over the span of seventeen days, Kennedy humanized the Soviet Union; the next day made civil rights a moral issue; and with a mangled German phrase he fluently spoke to the superiority of freedom to the people of West Berlin.

But that man, if he were alive today -- though it seems doubtful given his documented health challenges -- would have been 97. He has been cryogenically frozen in our minds. His charm, confidence, youth and vitality (at least publicly) have caused us to ignore another group that warrants our commiseration.

The assassination in Dallas began a systematic following of a family who has endured enormous tragedy. In addition to Dallas, we grieved when shots rang out at the Ambassador Hotel. We did likewise roughly a year later when Mary Jo Kopechne drowned at Chappaquiddick Island. Some even believed that the man who was driving when Kopechne died could be president even though he failed to provide Roger Mudd with a cogent response when simply asked, "Senator why do you want to be president?" in 1980.

We remember the image of a young child, barely old enough to comprehend the magnitude of the moment, saluting his father's flag-draped coffin as it passed by. How could that moment not emotionally invade the lymph nodes of our soul? We placed our hopes, no matter how fleeting, in the Kennedy name for more than a generation. Maybe, just maybe, Camelot could make a return performance. Such thoughts were misleading because Camelot was the melancholy longings from a post Dallas creation. But we so desperately wanted to believe it, if only to assuage our own unexamined pain.

The unintended consequence of our grief has led to the inability to examine what November 22 did to us. It was a blow to the nation's solar plexus, leaving us in excruciating pain, but also causing arrested development and acute cynicism.

Dallas made the inconceivable possible. Before J. R. Ewing became a pop culture icon, Dallas was a euphemism for unfathomable shock. That is not to suggest we have not been stunned by subsequent tragic events, but for those living on November 22, 1963, America would never be the same. The decade that began with the Kennedy campaign running on the Frank Sinatra theme of "High Hopes" would later be defined more by Dr. Timothy Leary's nonconforming idiom: "Turn on, tune in, drop out." With brief exceptions, America has been overtly dominated primarily by an "us versus them" ethos that seems unwilling to forgo its suffocating grip on our democracy.

For those who believe that conspiracy theorists are a cabal of crackpots searching for a platform, it is reflective, however, of a 50-year odyssey that continues to leave holes in the official explanation.

But cynicism does not occur overnight. In retrospect, the sleepy stereotypes that were held for the 1950s could not camouflage the obvious: cynicism was already there, lying dormant, waiting for the opportune moment. What led to the Vietnam protests later in the 1960s was created by decades of presidential leadership methodically kicking the can down the road. Vietnam was a mess before Lyndon Johnson was granted the opportunity to add his own tragic decisions to the equation. Civil rights did not begin in 1963, but that was the year it grabbed the nation's attention.

Therefore, 1963, in many ways, served as an incubator for cynicism yet unborn. Whatever cynicism may have dwelled beneath the surface, it was unleashed in Dallas. It immobilized the nation in such a way that it has been unable look back on this year that for 365 days neatly wove hope and hostility into a single garment of possibility and pain.

What happened in the motorcade route changed the people, but elected leaders were slow to catch up, engrossed more in their traditional playbook than what was occurring in the hearts and minds of many Americans. But it was too late. On November 22, 1963, at approximately 12:30 PM CST, the memo went out from Dallas that change was on the horizon and there was no turning back.

Author's Note:

I was just old enough at the time of the assassination to include it in my personal lexicon of important events. Though I was only four-years-old, I remember it like it was yesterday. I was playing in the living room of my aunt's house; she was on the phone talking with a church friend. The game show "Concentration" was on the television. Suddenly, my aunt gave out a loud scream -- an operator had come on the line asking her to clear it because the "president had been shot." My dad came home early from work. Even at four, I knew he came home the same time every day, but on November 22, he was early.

My interest in politics had already begun to take shape. I remembered JFK as president, and I knew Johnson was the new president, and I watched the events of that day and evening right along with my dad. But what I remember more than anything else that day were the tears that rolled down my dad's face as he watched the president's casket return to Washington, D.C., after being taken off Air Force One. It was the first and definitely the most memorable time I saw my father cry. It was at that moment, like Sam Pate, I knew, though I did not have the words to express it, that something had happened in the motorcade route.