Boomers Watched the Kennedy Inauguration

Every four years, on January 20, we inaugurate the President and Vice President at a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. Harry Truman was president when the first boomers were born. In 1949, he was the first president to give his inaugural address to a televised audience. However, seeing as the first boomers were three years old, it wouldn’t be until 1953 that early-era boomers could watch the inaugural address of the next president, Dwight Eisenhower.

Nonetheless, for many of us mid-era boomers, it was the inauguration of John Kennedy in 1961 that we most likely remember. The Kennedy inauguration was memorable on several levels. His address, after all, gave us the much-quoted speech where the newly-minted president said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy was at that time the youngest person ever to hold the office, and the first Catholic ever elected president.

Long before Kennedy’s inauguration, it had become traditional for the president to wear a top hat as part of his ceremonial garb. The top hat, once a must-have in formal wear, had fallen out of fashion since the 1920s, but presidents upheld the tradition until Dwight Eisenhower chose to wear his everyday Homburg hat instead. Boomers certainly recall that men wore hats on a daily basis in the 1940s and ’50s. Kennedy, however, was known more for not wearing a hat on the campaign trial. That prompted one part of the population to appeal to the incoming president to return to the top hat tradition. Kennedy’s tailor agreed, and it was decided that Kennedy would wear a top hat and formalwear that had the traditional day stripe up the side of each leg.

Kennedy is pictured riding in a convertible car in the traditional parade up to the Capitol with his top hat, but he mostly used it to wave to the crowd. Then, in a controversial move, Kennedy chose not to wear the hat at his swearing in ceremony and inaugural address. Ever since that day, there has been a contingent of people who say the president hastened the demise of men’s hats. However, subsequent scholarship has noted that hat wearing was already on the decline among college students in the1920s, and there was a sharp decline in men wearing hats after the War. The Boomer Era was a break from the old ways, including hat wearing. John Kennedy was not the catalyst for the end of daily hat wearing, but merely among the growing group of men who broke the tradition in their own lives for personal choice.

Galas and balls were a part of inaugurations since the first one was held for George Washington. During the Great Depression, presidents Herbert Hoover, then Franklin Roosevelt, held balls as charity fundraisers in a time when people were in deep need of assistance. Harry Truman brought them back after the War, and the number of balls increased in the 1950s and ’60s. Eisenhower had two inaugural balls for his first term, and four for his second. John Kennedy had five.

Kennedy’s ties with Hollywood performers paid off for his pre-inaugural gala. Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford put together a star-studded event the night before the inauguration, funded by John Kennedy’s father, Joseph. On the bill was Sinatra, Lawrence Olivier, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Gene Kelly, Milton Berle, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, and Bette Davis. The band leader was Leonard Bernstein. Held at the National Armory on the evening of January 19, a raging snowstorm kept some from attending, while Ethel Merman performed in the clothes she wore at the dress rehearsal since she could not risk a trip to her hotel and back.

Since the Kennedy inauguration, traditions and inaugural balls varied in size and scope. Jimmy Carter chose to reduce the formality of the inauguration, and asked only $25 per ticket for his inaugural ball. Ronald Reagan expanded the number of inaugural balls (and held the most lavish and expensive ball), but George Bush cut them back. Bill Clinton had fourteen at his inauguration.

Despite the pomp and circumstances surrounding the inauguration, boomers have born witness to our shared history, and will do so once again this week. Joe Biden will represent the 14th president inaugurated since the dawn of the Boomer Era.

What inaugurations come to mind for you, boomers? What is the first inauguration you recall watching on TV?

Boomers Watched the Events Surrounding the Assassination of JFK

By now the entire country is aware that this week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. TV reports, newspapers, magazines and Internet articles are all looking back on the historic events of November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. It is an especially poignant anniversary for those of us born in the first half of the Baby Boomer Generation, as we recall the events as they unfolded.

Mister Boomer’s connection to JFK began the year before the president was assassinated. Every year Mister B’s family would embark on a summer vacation, and every year it was a camping trip that included his cousins, aunts and uncles. In 1962, Mister B’s father wanted to “see the U.S.A.” and decided to treat the family to an educational trip to Washington, D.C.

The family toured all the sights in Washington, and stood in line with other tourists for a White House tour. John Kennedy was president, and Mister B’s mom was very excited to see the place where Jack and Jackie lived, even though she knew their private quarters were strictly off-limits. As the family waited in line, buzz circulated that Mrs. Kennedy had been known to come out on occasion to greet visitors who were waiting for the tour. This news made Mister B’s mom even more excited, but it was not to be. Mrs. Kennedy did not appear at the line, nor on the inside visit. Nonetheless the family thoroughly enjoyed the tour, in which the tour guide pointed out the changes that Mrs. Kennedy had made to the decor and furnishings. The family later heard that the Kennedys were not even in Washington on that day.

Mister Boomer visits the White House in 1962
Mister B waiting in line to visit the White House with his mother, Brother Boomer and Sister Boomer in the summer of 1962.

Just under a year and a half later, Mister B — a grade school student in the Midwest — was at school like every other boomer his age when news filtered out about the happenings in Dallas. Mister B attended a Catholic school where most of the teachers were nuns. They had a particular affection for the president since, aside from being a young, handsome man in their estimation, he was the first Catholic to be elected president. Kennedy’s womanizing was not public knowledge at the time, as the press took a gingerly approach to the president’s private affairs. So it was completely understandable to Mister B and his classmates that their teacher would start crying when another nun entered the room and, in what was more of a stage whisper that all could hear, told her the president had been shot.

It was probably less than a half an hour later when the principal got on the PA system and, sobbing, announced that Kennedy was dead. It was the afternoon when the announcement came, and we were dismissed for the day.

Mister Boomer was too young to comprehend the politics of the day or understand why someone would want to kill another human being, let alone the President of the United States. But he knew the entire country seemed to be in mourning, including his own parents.

Young boomers like Mister B watched on TV as Lee Harvey Oswald was captured as a suspect in the murder of a Dallas police officer on the same day Kennedy was killed. Oswald was subsequently shot dead by Jack Ruby two days later as he was being moved for an arraignment. It was, to young boomers, surreal imagery appearing on black & white television screens. A couple of days later we watched as President Kennedy’s flag-draped coffin was marched through Washington to his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery. Mister B especially recalls the time in the parade as shown on TV when John-John, Kennedy’s son, saluted his father’s casket as the horse and carriage passed the Kennedy family. TV newsmen remarked on the incident and it became a story within the story. Life magazine later published a picture of the young son saluting his father as an iconic image from the historical events.

In the summer of 1963, Mister Boomer’s father decided the family would vacation at Niagara Falls. The family visited all the pertinent sights on the Canadian side, and included Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Mister B recalls how Brother Boomer was infatuated with the life-like replica of Elizabeth Taylor, dressed as Cleopatra. A photo was taken of Brother Boomer standing alongside the wax statue since the museum was set up to allow visitors to walk among the statues. For Mister B, however, the exhibit that was forever etched into his mind was the recreation of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. The museum had staged the entire incident with life-size replicas of everyone on the scene, as it had been recorded in the Life magazine photo. There was Lee Harvey Oswald clutching his stomach with his handcuffed hands, with Jack Ruby still pointing his gun just three feet away. It was like walking into the famous photo, only now it was in three dimensions, and in color.

The assassination of President Kennedy was one of many historical events that occurred during the young years of the Baby Boomer Generation. There has been much speculation as to what might have been if Kennedy had lived and served a second term. One thing is for certain, however, and that is, things were never the same. Whether it was Kennedy’s election, as some suggest, or his death that ignited the cultural revolution that followed, it marked the end of boomer innocence. The times were definitely changing.

What do you recall about November 22, 1963, boomers?