22 Days of JFK

11.11.13

Michael Daly: My Last Day With JFK

As the 50-year anniversary of JFK’s assassination nears, a former White House junior host recalls his last moments with the president.

The date was November 13, 1963, and my younger brother, Douglas, was about to begin his first day as a White House junior host.

I was then 12 and had already served in that capacity at several events, an honor due to our Irish-born father, Chuck Daly, who had made a remarkable ascension from overseeing a fleet of industrial molasses trucks to serving as a special assistant to President Kennedy.

I had on my own first day managed to spill a sterling silver serving bowl of spaghetti sauce on the rug of the Red Room, narrowly missing the Dolly Madison sofa that the First Lady had just reupholstered with gold-edged silk.

Douglas was now three days shy of his 10th birthday and had been deemed of an age to join me. He possessed a seemingly innate sense of what is truly important and asserted as we arrived at the White House that he was not going to let himself be overly impressed by a guy simply because he was the president.

“I’m going to say, ‘Hiya, Prez,’” Douglas insisted.

As I have previously written in another account, our father led us down the colonnade that runs past the Oval Office. A tall figure in a dark suit appeared and our father made the introductions.

President Kennedy smiled without a hint of condescension and extended a hand to Douglas that was at once firm and remarkably soft. Douglas was able to utter not a syllable.

Kennedy proceeded on, having rendered Douglas mute as a result not of his position, but of his person. Kennedy did not seem to be a great man because he was the president. He seemed to be the president because he was a great man. Douglas and I each affixed junior host nametags to our left breast feeling part of something important. 

Our task was to help greet 1,700 youngsters from childcare agencies who had been invited to hear the pipes and drums of the Black Watch Royal Highland Regiment of Scotland. We had to do little more than to point them toward an enormous supply of cookies. They devoured 10,000 in what had to be world record time.

At 4 p.m., the Black Watch filed out onto the South Lawn.  They stood at attention in their tartan kilts, white leggings and bearskin hats as a Marine band struck up “Hail to the Chief.” The President strode out with the First Lady at his side. He seemed very much a chief and the spectators all rose unbidden.

“It is a great pleasure for Mrs. Kennedy and myself to welcome the Black Watch to the White House,” he said.

He noted that the Black Watch was a Scottish regiment, from a “green and misty country” that had fascinated him since he was a boy because it was a seemingly lost cause that had triumphed. 

“The United States and in fact all of us love...lost causes,” he said. 

The Black Watch major in command presented him with an officer's dirk.  Kennedy asked the regiment’s motto and then addressed the spectators.

"The major just said that the motto of the Black Watch is 'Nobody wounds us with impunity,'" Kennedy reported. "I think that is a very good motto for some of the rest of us.”

A photograph from the day shows the President and the First Lady then striding past their newest junior host. Douglas appears to be standing at attention and gazing fixedly ahead, but his eyes were on the Back Watch. Douglas had recovered his composure and stayed true to his sense of priorities. He figured he would have ample opportunity to see Kennedy in the future. He did not imagine he would hear these skirling pipers again.

"To me what was fixed was the President," Douglas would recall. "The momentary was the bagpipes.”

The First Family watched from the lower balcony. Caroline and John Jr. took great interest in the gleaming dirk. The pipes and drums then commenced to play “The Barren Rocks of Aden.” Caroline stood by her seated father’s shoulder. John, Jr. climbed into his mother’s lap. They all seemed as enthralled as Douglas.

"I don't know when I have seen the President enjoy himself more," the First Lady wrote afterward.

Three days later, the Daly family celebrated Douglas' 10th birthday. He and I assumed there would be several more years of serving together as junior hosts.

We were walking home from school six days later when a kid on a bicycle gave a ghoulishly happy shout.

"Hey, did you hear? Somebody killed Kennedy!”

Douglas would remember later stepping outside the Daly home and gazing about.

"Everything looked the same, but it didn't look the same," he would recall. 

A photograph from that day captured our father walking in sorrowful silhouette past the Oval Office on that same colonnade where Douglas had been so dazzled.

"The saddest picture I ever saw," Douglas would say.

Two days later, our father took us into the East Room, where an honor guard stood before a flag-covered coffin that seemed impossibly small for such a monumental figure. Douglas and I were among those who stood on the steps of the North Portico at 1 p.m. and watched the coffin being borne in to a horse drawn gun carriage.

The sounds of the horse hooves starting toward the Capitol was joined by the muttering of people around us that the man who had murdered the President had himself been shot dead in Dallas just a half hour before. We did not yet understand that for people to speak these names “Oswald” and “Ruby” in the same breath as “Kennedy” was exactly what the killers were seeking. 

Along with much of the rest of the world, Douglas and I watched the funeral the next day on television. Jacqueline Kennedy had invited the Black Watch to join the procession and nine of the pipers Douglas feared he might never hear again marched three by three, at precisely 100 paces a minute. They played a version of “The Barren Rocks of Aden” gone mournful for the President nobody would ever see again because of a 23-year-old loser who sought to elevate himself from anonymity with a rifle.

As the Vice President, Lyndon Johnson had once made an offer to our mother, Mary, which had prompted her to alight from his limousine in mid-route.

"You and Chuck go home and make a baby and name it Lyndon and I'll give you a heifer," Johnson had said. 

Now that he was president, Johnson hoped to retain what Kennedy staffers he could, perhaps because they were smart, perhaps also because he sensed how little they thought of him and he hoped to win them over. He suggested to my father that his two sons might want to take a ride on Air Force One as it made a shakedown run to Los Angeles and back. My father was not inclined to stay on, but he thought we might get a kick out of it.

Besides the crew, Douglas and I were the only ones aboard, flying across country like two little princes, testing the bounciness of the Presidential bed and drinking a seemingly endless supply of Coca-Cola.

Upon landing in Los Angeles, we were prepared to return home in similar style. A Marine officer then announced that he would be taking us to the bus station. Our father did not want us getting too used to privilege and we were to return unescorted aboard via Greyhound. We were given two tickets and the address of a bar in New York where our father would be meeting us in three day’s time. 

As we journeyed east we acquired a full sense of just how big a distance there is from sea to shining sea. We saw some mountain majesties and few fruited plains, but mostly we observed that bus stops are almost always in the worst part of town. Several characters accosted us with intentions even former White House junior hosts could recognize as suspect. I let Douglas sleep across the seats and I took the floor, with the unhappy result of awaking to find the side of my head stuck to a big wad of chewing gum.  The only solution was to hack away my hair.  But other than my new bald patch, we arrived at Toots Shor’s bar in New York unscathed.

Not long after my hair grew back, our father left the White House. He eventually became director of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, an institution filled with memories of the magnificence that had once rendered Douglas speechless. That very magnificence remains a measure of what a single gun can destroy.

The Daly family will be celebrating Douglas’s 60th birthday this week. That innate sense of what is truly important led him to became a botanist, explaining to our father that without plants, there would be no human life at all. He scoured the Amazon jungles for cures for cancers such as killed our mother much too young and inventoried endangered rain forests and discovered several new species. His lifelong work with the New York Botanical Garden is a testament to the good that someone with the right priorities can accomplish. His son, Aidan, is a Rhodes Scholar poised to provide further proof as a computer scientist.

Six days after Douglas’ birthday, we will come to the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, which was committed by someone whose sole priority was his own deluded self, someone who was possessed with what his widow would describe to the Warren Commission as, “his fantasy, which was quite unfounded, as to the fact that he was an outstanding man.” 

Those who have insisted the assassination was a conspiracy despite all the evidence to the contrary have done us a grave disservice by obscuring what we should learn from the murder.

The lesson begins with the reality that the assassination was the work of one mope with a gun, to be specific, a mail order 6.5-mm Mannlicher-Carcano purchased for $21.43 with a discount coupon from American Rifleman magazine. We should not have been looking for conspirators but at ourselves, as the deaths by firearm in this country mounted to more than one million in this last half century, including the murdered president’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

The carnage wrought by gunmen who feel they can not only wound, but also kill with impunity is disturbing enough when considered from a big picture overview where individual victims are no more distinct than they would be from 30,000 feet on Air Force One.  The number gains its full horror when translated to actual human beings such as can be viewed at street level from a bus or walking along a sidewalk. Watch youngsters pour out of an elementary school and think of the 20 kids gunned down at Sandy Hook. Look at a baby in a stroller and consider that just the other day a 1-year-old in Brooklyn was killed by a stray round as he sat in his stroller.

It is often said that all of us who were alive at the time remember where we were when we learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated. You can bet that everybody who has lost a loved one to gun violence remembers with even more excruciating clarity where they where when they learned of the death.  You can be sure the mother of the murdered 1-year-old does and that she is no less grief-struck than was the Kennedy family.

There are also the wounded. Shots suddenly rang at the crowded Bryant Park skating rink in midtown Manhattan on Saturday night. The skaters scattered in a panic and then there was only the form of a 14-year-old sprawled on the empty ice. He had been delighting in zooming about just moments before. He was now saying he could not rise and was unable to move his legs. That occurred in a city that has the strictest gun laws in the country and goes aggressively after illegal firearms, but cannot stop the unending flow from states with laxer laws. 

When Douglas met President Kennedy that November day in 1963, he was rendered speechless by what seemed to be the incandescent embodiment of the best of our country. The assassination nine days later showed us the worst and that demonstration is repeated with every gun murder.

All these years later, the carnage continues and many of us have despaired at ever ending it. 

But maybe the best way to honor President Kennedy’s memory is to love a lost cause.