RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This week we'll be hearing a lot more about presidential legacies involving two important anniversaries. A hundred fifty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln gave the speech he is best known for, the Gettysburg Address, honoring the soldiers who died in a battle that changed the direction of the Civil War. And it was 50 years ago that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
For more on that latter anniversary we turn, as we often do on Mondays, to Cokie Roberts, who has some very specific family memories of November 22, 1963 and its impact. Morning, Renee.
COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: We have lived all these decades with the iconic images of that day. But also many others of JFK's thousand days as president, I mean his moment has become part of popular culture at this point. Tell us what it was that lead to that.
ROBERTS: Well, for a whole generation of Americans, he was really a singular person. You know, you have to remember, he came in after eight very sleepy years of the Eisenhower administration. He was the first president born in the 20th century, so it was like the country went from black and white to color. I was a freshman in college when he was elected. The night before the election, I went to the Boston Garden, where he finally arrived after hours of waiting.
And you've never - I had never seen a crowd like that. I mean, we've now gotten used to it with the excitement around President Obama, but it was really the first time we had seen something like that that was televised and that people were all together so excited. And then he came into office and called young people to service, you know, not only ask not what you can do for your country but what your country can do - I mean what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
But then the Peace Corps, and the domestic Peace Corps. There was a sense that young people had a seat at the table. And not to mention, of course, that he was good looking, smart, funny, with a beautiful 31-year-old wife and precious babies. I mean the sense of possibility was just enormous. And yes, personally, it also meant something to me. He was a friend of my parents. My father was in the congressional leadership.
So there was also a sense of personal loss when the horrible news came that he had been killed.
MONTAGNE: And that day, the day he was assassinated, is one of those moments in American history, those rare moments like September 11 or Pearl Harbor when just about everyone in the country could tell you where they were.
ROBERTS: That's right. And James Reston, who was then the New York Times bureau chief in Washington and a preeminent columnist in America, wrote that day America wept tonight, not alone for its dead young president, but for itself. There was that sense of tremendous loss, but also it was not just the shock of losing this vibrant young president, but also the terror that a bigger plot might be out there, that other attacks might come.
And President Johnson, you know, sworn in right away to try to keep the people from being worried about that. My father, who was majority whip, went out to the plane to meet President Johnson, of course Mrs. Kennedy, as they returned, and then there was a meeting right away in the vice president's office where the president asked the congressional leadership to work together in the transition, even as the funeral preparations were being made.
And you know, the transfer of power had to happen. But still, the country was dealing with the shock of Oswald's murder, the solemnity of the funeral, all juxtaposed, and the country just watched for days. Everything came to a standstill as TV brought people together.
MONTAGNE: And then President Johnson appointed the Warren Commission. Your father was a member. What do you remember about that?
ROBERTS: Well, I was home from Thanksgiving. I remember the phone ringing and the president saying we need to have a blue ribbon commission to study this, and of course they did and came to the conclusion that Oswald was the sole assassin, but America's had a very hard time accepting that conclusion. You know, I think, Renee, that it's just hard to accept that something so momentous was the result of something so small, one off-balanced young man instead of a major plot.
So people keep looking for more meaning in that awful event 50 years later.
MONTAGNE: Cokie Roberts, thanks very much.
ROBERTS: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.