Eleven days before his death, John F. Kennedy gave a speech at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While at Arlington National Cemetery, he and Jackie took a walk and discovered a vantage point with a beautiful view overlooking Washington, D.C., and its monuments.
“He told Jackie, ‘I could stay here forever.’ And she made sure that was the place he was buried,” recalled Bruce Herschensohn, Senior Fellow at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy.
The 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination was remembered by Pepperdine last Friday with a special screening of Herschensohn’s award-winning 1964 documentary “John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums.” Playing to a packed house of over a hundred people, the presentation played amid the library’s John Mazza Collection of Classic Surfboards.
The film was written, directed and scored by Herschensohn, who was director of motion pictures and television for the United States Information Agency (USIA) back in the sixties. He’s also been a KABC television and radio political commentator, a deputy special assistant to President Nixon, and a member of the Reagan Transition Team. In 1992, Herschensohn ran as the Republican nominee for United States Senate in California against Barbara Boxer. Now 81, he has taught at Pepperdine since 2006.
Considering that Kennedy held office for less than three years, the documentary was a timely reminder of the number of important events and achievements that were crammed into that short period of time: He launched the Peace Corps, resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis, presided over the first eight U.S. manned space flights, announced his goal to send Americans to the moon before the end of the decade, began the Alliance for Progress to establish economic cooperation between the U.S. and Latin America, signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, gave his famous speech in Berlin after the wall went up, and drafted the original Civil Rights Act (which became law under President Johnson in 1964).
Herschensohn’s film includes footage that is seldom seen elsewhere, since he was able to pull whatever he needed from the USIA’s stockpiles. What’s more, it doesn’t just document the official Kennedy; it also catches unscripted moments of Kennedy charm and humor as well as wife Jackie and the two young children who roamed the White House.
After the film screening, Herschensohn conducted an audience Q&A in which he expressed his reverence for the former president.
“This is a picture for and about President Kennedy,” he explained. “I wanted to do it the way he would’ve liked it to be.”
In the opinion of Herschensohn and others, the Kennedy presidency and its terrible ending marked a turning point in direction of the country towards a kind of fatalism. He described the assassination as being like “a death in the family – jarring, tragic, and terrible.”
“[Kennedy] was a good looking guy, had a beautiful wife and family, was intelligent, wealthy and held the world’s most powerful position, and suddenly he was dead,” Herschensohn recalled. “The young people went from being the ‘everything generation’ to the ‘now generation’ – do everything now because you might die tomorrow.”
Faith in the government, patriotism and national institutions suffered as a result, Herschensohn said.
“I’m convinced that the assassination changed the U.S... I thought it would maybe change it for a generation, but I was wrong— it’s been two generations,” he said. “Before the assassination, the country was different—very different. After November 22, if you wore a green beret (in the military), you were a sucker.”
He went on to claim that societal ills like teenage pregnancies, drugs and “saying something obscene in front of a woman” also didn’t exist in this country until after Kennedy was shot.
On the morning of Kennedy’s assassination, Herschensohn said Kennedy woke up in his hotel in Fort Worth, Texas. An assistant told him it was the 95th birthday of John Nance Garner IV, who served as vice president under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Kennedy called and wished him a happy birthday.
“Garner went on to live four more years,” Herschensohn said, “and the President lived for four more hours.”
Bruce Herschensohn’s Papers, which include correspondence, memorabilia and photos, are held by Pepperdine University’s Special Collections and University Archive and are available for research. A portion of the collection is also available online in Pepperdine Digital Collections, which includes items he collected as a White House staff member for Nixon and Reagan and as a political commentator.
The “John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums” documentary was recently restored by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with funding from Warner Bros., the Academy and HBO. The DVD is available from Warner Home Video and can also be viewed on-line on C-span Video or YouTube.