Thursday, November 02, 2006

Great moments in history: Nora Ephron, JFK and me

Bill Clinton meets President Kennedy in 1963

On KQED's broadcast of City Arts and Lectures last week, Nora Ephron related her only encounter with JFK when she was an intern in the White House in 1961: The president said something unintelligible as he rushed past her to his helicopter. I thought, "I can do better than that. Kennedy never said anything to me the only time I encountered him."

When I was 17 in 1959, my family was living in Santa Maria, California. One day my dad put his newspaper down and said, "Let's go hear Kennedy speak." Kennedy? I wasn't sure who he was referring to. I thought he meant Robert Kennedy, who had been on TV hounding Jimmy Hoffa, head of the Teamsters union, in Congressional hearings. At that time, John Kennedy, the Senator from Massachusetts, actually had a lower public profile than brother Bobby. 

We had to drive about an hour over the mountains to get to Lompoc, where Senator Kennedy was scheduled to speak. We got there with little time to spare. After waiting only a few minutes in the lobby of a school auditorium, Kennedy strode quickly in the front door right past us with a few other men who didn't seem to be security---Kenny O'Donnell and Steve Smith?---trailing behind. As he approached, my dad said, "Get his autograph." 

Autograph? I not only wasn't even sure who he was, I didn't have a pen or a pencil or anything to write on. That was it. No autograph---and no torch-passing handshake/photo-op like Bill Clinton got when, as a high schooler, he met Kennedy in the White House a few years later.

Kennedy made a relatively short speech, but he still managed to charm the small audience, which probably consisted of local Democratic Party loyalists. There was a grass fire burning a few miles away that day in Lompoc, and Kennedy told us he had to make it quick so he could escape before the fire got too close (he flew in on a private plane). 

And he kidded the local media about not giving them a scoop about whether he was going to run for president in 1960. He evidently hadn't made that announcement yet. His speech was light, witty, and completely captivating to someone who knew only a rather ancient and ponderous President Eisenhower as his national leader.

And there was this irony: Six years later I was in the nearby federal prison at Lompoc for refusing to report for military service.

See Kennedy visit still thrill for Lompocans in the Lompoc Record.

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