Greeting the President

Photograph Source: Cecil W. Stoughton – Public Domain

It’s remarkable how some events have a hold on masses of people even decades after a cataclysmic event. This was particularly true in the account of a former Secret Service agent, Paul Landis, who rode on the running board of the car just in back of the presidential limousine as John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. People remember exactly where they were and what they were doing at the moment they learned of the assassination. Mr. Landis’ account of the events of that day brings a new issue to it after so many decades (“J.F.K. Assassination Witness Breaks His Silence and Raises New Questions,” New York Times, September 9, 2023). The major issue former agent Paul Landis raises involves a bullet he found lodged in the back of the limousine seat where the president and Mrs. Kennedy sat. The history of that bullet at Parkland Hospital also raises many questions.

But this is not a recounting of those events, or the conspiracy theories that have swirled around the horrific events of that day and the days and decades that followed.

My high school best friend Paul and I drove to a parking spot beside Airport Road in Warwick, Rhode Island that bordered two old airport terminals at T.F. Green Airport. It was September 28, 1964, a Monday, and we were at the airport to see Lyndon Johnson arrive and watch him head up in a motorcade about 10-15 miles north to College Hill in Providence where he would address the bicentennial celebration at Brown University and give the keynote speech there at the bicentennial’s convocation.

We were excited as the president remarkably walked just behind the rear bumper of his limousine and waved to those gathered  to greet him on his trip to the state. I knew this was significant, as Paul and I were no more than 10-15 feet away from Johnson as he passed by. Here it was just 10 months after Kennedy’s assassination and the president was only feet away from us during the same election cycle in which Kennedy was murdered.

Paul and I returned to school about an hour after seeing the president and were given three days of after-school detention for our foray into history and a hall pass that gave us the right to enter chemistry class that day. I think that it was years later that the lesson from that day, in addition to seeing the president, was that a price had to be paid for doing something unsanctioned and out of the ordinary. Given the tenor of the times, our principal, Mr. Kelly, would never have gone on the school’s intercom and announced that the school community welcomed back two stalwart students who had witnessed an important historical event just a few miles away. These were staid times and limits of behavior were well-defined. A few months later when we symbolically flexed our muscles in our French class by not wearing socks beneath our penny loafers, our teacher, Miss Davis, who graduated from the women’s college at Brown, Pembroke College, lectured us about how our collective action of milquetoast protest would bode poorly for the demands of maturity soon to be part of our roles as college students. I had much admiration for Miss Davis, since she had visited France and knew its literature and language.

But more significant events were taking place and we were hardly aware of them. The Congress had passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution just a month before the president’s trip to Rhode Island, which gave Lyndon Johnson a blank check for waging war in Southeast Asia, primarily in Vietnam at that time, and those events would change our lives forever and the history of the US and larger world in ways impossible to predict. In March 1965, Johnson would cash in on his blank check and begin the gruesome and unbelievably violent air war against Vietnam known as Operation Rolling Thunder. That action, along with massive troop deployments to Vietnam, would have direct implications on millions of us, as the military draft became an all-consuming presence in our lives. The Vietnam War cleaved the staid nature of the society, and the politics of the world and an entire generation coming of age changed in ways we could not possibly have seen as we waited to greet the president in 1964.

My friend Paul went on to work in the Pentagon during the war. When we climbed a mountain together in New Hampshire sometime in the 1970s, it was apparent that we had become very different people from that day we went to see the president.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).