Saturday, March 1, 2014

Around Town: JFK Anniversary - Americans were more united then

La Cañadans Joani Bartoli-Porto and Sherry Morton will never forget the events of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. Porto was in her tenth-grade home economics class at the newly opened La Cañada High School

Morton, a freshman at LCHS, was standing in the patio area under the school's former library during a morning break. That's when the announcement came over the loudspeaker: “The president has been shot.”

“Everybody burst into tears,” recalls Morton.

“One of the sewing machines kept going,” remembers Porto, “We were dazed, speechless, heavy-hearted.”

The entire student body was summoned to the athletic field to await the news. Times were different — the students were led in a prayer. But then, the bad news was delivered by a school official. “President Kennedy has been assassinated. The president is dead.”

“Go home,” said the principal. “School is dismissed.”

Everything shut down in La Cañada. Porto, Morton and their families were glued to their TV sets.

Like everyone else in America, La Cañadans sat in front of their TV sets for full four days. They watched the landing of Air Force One. They saw the coffin, Jackie Kennedy, and Lyndon Baines “LBJ” Johnson taking the oath. They watched the state funeral on Monday, Nov. 25, 1963. It was all televised.

Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald and it went out live on national television.

In 1963, there were no cellphones, no Internet. Serious news was covered by newspapers. There were morning and evening editions by the L.A. Herald-Examiner, the L.A. Times and other papers.

Like Porto and Morton, most Americans watched TV nonstop during those four days. We watched Walter Cronkite on CBS or Chet Huntley on NBC. There were no remotes. The broadcasts were primitive by today's standards, in black and white.

Former President Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower came on the air in the afternoon to say, “I share the sense of shock and dismay that the entire nation must feel at the despicable act that took the life of the nation's president.”

Ike, that great Republican father figure, was indignant, but controlled. He spoke extemporaneously, without notes, but was articulate beyond today's standards when he called upon the “citizenry” to support the government.

“Times were different,” notes Porto. “Today, people are so violent and opinionated. They don't talk to one another. Back then, it didn't matter if you were a Republican or a Democrat. There was a united front. We all felt devastated. It was a crushing event.”

It's strange now to look back on those events. JFK was only 46 when he died. LBJ was only 55 when he assumed the presidency. Each looked a decade older. Even Eisenhower, then 73, looked like a man in his mid-80s.

Maybe they looked older because their lives were more difficult. Ike was a veteran of both WWI and WWII. Maybe they looked older because they were truly mature.

The news coverage, mostly by former war correspondents, had that measured and professional disconnect that was the hallmark of the post-war 1950s.

Despite that, Americans connected with the slight quiver in Cronkite's voice. We responded to Ike's quiet anger. We believed in the understated (and brief) remarks from LBJ.

There were no pollsters, no Teleprompters and no vitriol. Our connection to our leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, felt far more real than anything experienced today in our poll- and agenda-driven 24-hour cable news cycle.

Soon, it would all change, but that's how it was in America, exactly 50 years ago this week. And that's the way it went, right here in La Cañada Flintridge.

ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @anitabrenner

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