Nov. 22, 1963: The day 'things would never ever be the same'

Sometimes you find yourself a reluctant witness of history, and get glimpses of people and events that show the strength of our traditions, our government and those who lead us during crises. For me, one such day was Nov. 22, 1963, at the Senate.

I was a young staff assistant for Sen. Clair Engle (D-Calif.) in the Old Senate Office Building. My boss was in the hospital. No one on his staff knew that he had brain cancer. 

As I entered the Engle office after lunch that day, a secretary was on the phone with her mother, who said she had just heard on the radio that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. A friend from a nearby office dropped by to see what was happening. He and I quickly went downstairs to take the subway to the Capitol, where the Senate was in session. While riding in the open subway car, we saw Sen. Ted Kennedy, expressionless, looking straight ahead, riding in the front seat of a subway car coming toward us on the other subway track. He was coming from the Senate session, where he had been the presiding officer, when he heard the news that his brother had been shot. 

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At the Capitol, we took the elevator to the Senate floor level, and I went to the Senate doorway. I stepped inside onto the floor. The Senate was gathering in a quorum call, awaiting enough members to resume business, so I left, and my friend and I took the elevator up to the press gallery. We sat down in the first row of seats, about 15 feet above the Senate floor. 

The Senate roll was being called. After a few minutes, the presiding officer announced that a quorum was present and introduced Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, of Montana.

“After discussing the tragic situation which now confronts the nation and the free world,” he said, “the distinguished minority leader and I feel that it is only appropriate and proper, in view of the tragic circumstances which have arisen and the extreme danger that confronts a good, a decent, and kindly man, that it would not be inappropriate for the chaplain of the Senate to deliver a prayer at this time.”

Chaplain Frederick Brown Harris began his prayer by asking everyone to stand for a moment of silence. Then he said:

“Our Father, Thou knows that this sudden, almost unbelievable, news has stunned our minds and hearts. We gaze at a vacant place against the sky, as the president of the Republic, like a giant cedar green with boughs, goes down with a great shout upon the hills, and leaves a lonesome place against the sky. We pray that in Thy will his life may still be spared. In this hour we cry out the words that were uttered in another hour of deep loss and bereavement: God lives! And the government at Washington still stands.”

There was a pause as Chaplain Harris ended his prayer. As I looked down on the Senate floor toward the doorway, I could hear the words and see the faces of the senators as they passed the terrible message from senator to senator: “UPI says he is dead.” “Merriman Smith says he is dead.” One face turned almost scarlet; others looked stunned; other senators bowed their heads. Sen. Wayne Morse, from Oregon, my home state, had been leading the debate on the Library Services Act that day. Months later, I spoke with him and others about what happened on the floor. Later, I learned Chaplin Harris’s prayer came from a poem by Edwin Markham about how it felt the day President Lincoln died.

After the prayer, Mansfield spoke a few words and then discussed the Senate schedule. The Senate would adjourn until Monday, Nov. 25. Minority Leader Everett Dirksen spoke a few words, and the Senate adjourned.

Then Dirksen came up to the gallery where a very few reporters were gathered. He sat cross-legged on a table, not far from a black and white television set. We could see Walter Cronkite speaking, but we could not hear his words. Cronkite was visibly shaken. 

Dirksen spoke slowly, with his deep, baritone voice quietly resonating through the room. His voice was like no other I ever heard. It was his signature. He was “Mr. Conservative,” the leader of the minority, the voice of the loyal opposition. It was apparent he had genuine respect and personal affection for President Kennedy. He had come to the gallery to calm the press and console the country, to let us consider the tragedy of the president’s death as something we could bear, something somehow to be accepted in our grief, because the United States and the Senate must and would continue to do the nation’s work. 

Dirksen spoke about the strength of our country, the “stability of the Republic.” He said each of us would face death some day, that he personally had very high blood pressure reaching dangerous levels without proper medication, but that the unfinished work of the country and work of the Senate would continue. Even with tragedy, the work of the Senate, the nation’s work, must continue, even during these times. The Library Services Act would be back on the Senate agenda for debate when the Senate reconvened the following week.

Even hard-boiled reporters had tears in their eyes. We all did. No one spoke. As I reflect now on Dirksen’s message to the press, I think he, the senator from Illinois, Lincoln’s home, must have felt the resonance of the prayer we had heard about Lincoln’s death an hour before, words that had been “uttered in that other hour of bereavement: ‘God lives! And the government in Washington still stands!’ ”

There was almost no security on Capitol Hill in those days. We had never been told of a “red alert,” but that’s what they called it that day. A friend in the State Department told me that sliding barriers he had never seen before crossed shut across the hallways. Guards with automatic weapons stood in doorways. We didn’t know if this was the beginning of a surprise Soviet attack. In October the year before, I had been on Army Reserve active duty at a unit at Fort Meade, Md., during the Cuban missile crisis. It had looked to us like Fort Meade, the communications center, would be among the first targeted with nuclear bombs. I had phoned my mother believing I might never speak to her again. I knew how close we had come to nuclear war, and Kennedy had taken us through that near disaster. 

When I went back to my office, all the phones were jammed. You could not receive calls or call out. Several secretaries were weeping. As I walked to my car, the only thing I felt that I really knew about on Nov. 22 was what most of America knew: Things would never ever be the same. 

President Lyndon Johnson declared a 30-day mourning period. That weekend, I watched the parade with horses pulling the caisson bearing the president’s casket cloaked with the American flag. A riderless black horse was led by a soldier in formal dress blue uniform. In the stirrups were high-top cavalry boots turned, facing backward. Ranks of Army drummers marched quietly. The drumheads, muffled with black cloth, sounded soft. 

What was transpiring the weekend of the president’s burial was almost too much for me, so I drove to Dulles Airport. The tarmac was filled with scores and scores of foreign aircraft that had brought heads of state from all over the world to pay their respects to Kennedy — and to America. 

Gustafson spent more than 40 years as a career government employee working at the U.S. Treasury Department, Environmental Protection Agency and elsewhere. He retired in 2005, as executive director of the 16-agency U.S. National Response Team headquartered at the EPA in Washington, D.C.