The Great Debate

JFK: Of Camelot and conspiracy

Within an hour after President John F. Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963, Washington became a ghost town.

It was still early on a Friday afternoon but, except in hidden security centers, no one in this power-centric, workaholic town had any idea what to do. The phones overloaded and stopped working periodically. Almost all government stopped working, too.

I was a 26-year-old rookie reporter from Seattle. Two of the country’s most powerful senators came from my state, including Senator Henry M. Jackson, who had been Robert F. Kennedy’s choice over Lyndon B. Johnson to be his brother’s running mate in 1960.

So it was natural that I would be drawn to the Old Senate Office Building — the Old S.O.B, we called it, for the acronym and the pun but mainly because it housed the expansive empires of the senior senators of the day. Usually bustling with power-brokers, lobbyists and favor-seekers, the hallways were empty except for a cluster of staffers in front of Jackson’s office.

By the time I got to the Capitol, the Senate and House of Representatives had adjourned and most senators and congressmen had closed their offices and gone home. Jackson, however, remained. His wife, Helen, was out of town, and he dreaded going alone to their Washington apartment. So his staff stayed with him in the Old S.O.B., talking in clutches outside in the marble hallway. For me, two moments resonate as clearly today as they did in 1963.

King’s legacy in the Age of Obama

When President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, he will inevitably be compared to Martin Luther King Jr., whose oration that day framed the moral purpose of the civil rights movement.

But there are huge differences between the prophetic icon and the political prodigy that reveal the competing and, at times, conflicting demands of the vocations they embraced. If we fail to understand the difference between the two, we will never appreciate the arc of their social aspiration — or fairly measure King and Obama’s achievements.

Forty-five years after he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, King has become a global icon rivaled by few Americans. His outsized legend eclipsed the life he lived and overcame his enemies’ efforts to erase him from memory. King made a comeback in death from the bitter defeats near the end of his life, as the challenge of black militants made him seem increasingly out of touch. He has now leapfrogged virtually every other contender to be viewed as the greatest black American. Only Obama has come close to King’s popularity. But the preacher’s bloodstained sacrifice lifts him above the historic pull of presidential swagger.