It happened 50 years ago this fall. November 22, 1963. I was sitting in High School English class taking a spelling test when the school nurse came into our room and whispered something to Mr. Gilphilin, the English teacher. I was struck by the event because I had never seen anyone come into a classroom and interrupt it. This was a first. We didn’t know what she said to him but he reacted with a startled looked. It must have been something important. They stared at each other a brief moment then she left. The spelling test continued.
My classmates and I were all excited because this was the last class of the day, and it was a Friday. Mr. Gilphilin took the papers, put them into his brief case and called for quiet. He announced to us that the reason the nurse was there was to tell him that John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States, had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas an hour earlier.
While I knew that the killing of a US President was a big deal, I had no idea at that moment what a catastrophic event it really was. The news stations were alive with reports, including one that the plane carrying half of the President’s cabinet, then on its way to a trade mission in Japan and half way over the Pacific turned around immediately. Was it that big a deal that they would turn the plane around, I remember thinking. I was young and didn’t get it yet.
When class let out I walked to my after-school job at George’s Loan Office in the ghetto of Chester, PA. I had been working there a year already; every day after school, weekends, holidays and summers. When I walked into the pawnshop that Friday all of the TVs were on and tuned to the news. It was only then that I realized what a monumental event the assassination had been, because in the pawnshop we would never leave a TV running. They were all second-hand sets and not necessarily in good condition. Leaving them run too long might be the end of them. But, if the pawnshop had the TVs running, then the assassination of a US President was truly a big deal.
All of this has come to life again for me as I read Robert Caro’s 4th book about Lyndon Johnson, “The Passage of Power” which covers the time from when Johnson was nominated to be Vice President, through the assassination and into his decision not to run again for president in 2008.
5 days after becoming President, Lyndon Johnson was to address a joint session of Congress. Because of TV coverage it may have been the single most watched Presidential address in our history. He put a lot of thought into what he was going to say, and how he was going to say it. He was aware that the past criticism of his speaking style was that he spoke too fast and allowed his arms to flail wildly as he spoke. He seemed to always hurry through his speeches often times with a loud, pitched voice, made even harder to understand by his strong southern accent.
After the final draft of the speech was done, he had the speech transcribed to typed pages using a large font (this was before Teleprompters). He broke his thoughts into individual sentences rather than paragraphs and put a large amount of space between each sentence to slow himself up. If the sentence he spoke was particularly important, he wrote in long hand in the space below the line PAUSE. Sometimes he would write PAUSE PAUSE.
Then on November 27, a somber President Johnson was announced and walked to the podium. He did not shake hands or acknowledge any of the congressmen as he entered the assembly from the rear. He took his place behind the large podium to standing applause. As he was introduced by the Speaker of the House in the characteristic way Presidents are introduced (Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and personal honor…) he slowly opened his 3 ring binder that held the speech and removed his glasses from his vest pocket.
Johnson began his remarks, also with the characteristic salutations (Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, members of the House, members of the Senate, my fellow Americans…)
Then he stopped and looked around briefly. The whole world was now waiting to hear what he was going to say. He slowly delivered his opening line. “All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today.” He launched his speech.
He spoke for about 40 minutes, often interrupted by vigorous applause. He closed his speech by asking everyone in Congress and the country to work together to achieve JFK’s goal. He closed by reciting “America. America. God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” When it was over he acknowledged the resounding applause. The country and world now knew it had a new and very competent leader.
There are many presentation lessons from that speech. He was on stage even before he arrived at the podium. He was on stage from the moment he walked through the rear doors. Every presentation starts when you are announced, not when you take your place in front of the group. Walking to the front is a perfect opportunity to set expectations.
He paused a number of times, particularly in the beginning which locked everyone’s attention on him. He reacted to the past criticism and changed his whole style of presenting. It was slower and less awkward looking.
He had a magnificent opening line referencing both the slain president and his new role and responsibility. He closed his speech by asking all to share in that responsibility along with him. A good close echoes the beginning and asks for action. That he did.
I can remember all of this as if it happened yesterday.