This was when downtown Phoenix was the center of commerce and power in the Southwest and the Westward Ho was a swanky hotel. When Carl Hayden, as president pro tem of the U.S. Senate, was third in the line of presidential succession.
Hayden looked old. He had been in Congress since statehood and was the single most important figure in the legislative fight for the Central Arizona Project. But, according to his biographer Jack August Jr., Hayden was as formidable as ever. The joke that Ol' Carl was embalmed and aide Roy Elson raised his hand on votes was just a joke.
Back to JFK. I was in my mother's office on the sixth floor of the Greater Arizona Savings Building (nee Heard Building), where the Arizona Interstate Stream Commission was headquartered. I joined the lawyers and engineers at the window to watch the presidential motorcade come up Central.
As I recall, the crowd on the street was fairly sparse and lethargic. This was Goldwater Country. But Kennedy gamely waved and smiled from the open-top limousine that would later become so infamous.
And then a lawyer mimed a rifle with his hands, pointed it down to the motorcade, and said, in a conversational voice, "pow." Dark conservative laughter followed.
If Dallas was "nut country," as Kennedy called it moments before his assassination fifty years ago, Phoenix was not far behind.
The problem with assessing John F. Kennedy even half a century after his death is plowing aside all the hagiography about his presidency and the conspiracy theories about his death.
No magisterial biography has yet been produced. William Manchester was tightly censored by the Kennedy family. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a friend and JFK worshipper. The two best works I can recommend are Richard Reeves' President Kennedy: Profile of Power and the latest volume of Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson masterwork.
Much of the things "we know" about JFK aren't true or are highly debatable, and I'm not talking about the swordsmanship covered up by the press.
The man known for bringing "vigor" to the office was in fact very ill with Addison's disease. He was in almost constant pain. His situation was not made better by the vast number of medications his doctors gave him.
JFK is famous for saying, "Life isn't fair," the rich man's flip-off. In fact, the full quote is poignant given his ailments: "Life is unfair. Some people are sick and others are well."
That he served in the Navy in combat, unlike today's leaders, is all the more remarkable. He was a profile in courage. He was also the first genuine intellectual in the office since Theodore Roosevelt (we can argue about Professor Woodrow Wilson).
The man known as the great liberal hope was mostly a "bystander" to the civil rights movement, as documented in a devastating book of the same name by Nick Bryant.
Kennedy's Democrats were burdened by Southern segregationists, an essential power block since the New Deal and before. Martin Luther King Sr. was a Nixon man in the 1960 election.
Fifty years ago, America still had two mass political parties, each containing liberals, conservatives and "moderates."
It is impossible to say whether JFK would have avoided the Vietnam debacle had he lived. He was a "long twilight struggle" Cold Warrior. This was not rhetoric. Although he mistrusted the brass hats, he lavished money on the Pentagon.
This also distanced himself from his father's infatuation with the Nazis and desire to keep America out of World War II. Like most American conservatives of the era, Joe Kennedy was an isolationist.
Kennedy's legislation was mostly bottled up in a Democratic-controlled Congress, where the "Old Bull" committee chairman did not much cotton to the facade of Camelot.
Sam Rayburn, the legendary House Speaker, was unimpressed by The Best and the Brightest Kennedy appointees. "I wish one of them had been elected dog catcher or something," he said.
JFK was also worried about Barry Goldwater in 1964. Kennedy had few domestic accomplishments and had made terrible blunders with the Bay of Pigs and Khrushchev doing a beat-down on the young president in Vienna. Khrushchev, who had survived Stalin and World War II, saw JFK as callow and weak.
Goldwater, meanwhile, was young and vigorous (for real), capturing a new muscular conservatism, attracting much of white America's discomfort with civil rights and the Warren Court, and threatening the old Democratic lock on most of the South and much of the West. Barry was not yet the caricature he would become in 1964 against LBJ.
Kennedy's one unassailable achievement had been avoiding nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis. But even here, the public didn't know that JFK agreed to secretly remove U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey as a quid pro quo. Kennedy's cool handling of the crisis has been overstated and Jack and Bobby's blunders were significant.
Nor did the public know that Jack and Bobby had been trying to kill Castro, and had, at the least, looked the other way as lethal coups were carried out against President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam and Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
"The Kennedy brothers have been running a goddamned Murder Incorporated out of the Oval Office," Lyndon Johnson told a congressman after he became president. (Of course, Ike and the Dulles brothers did the same in Iran, with lasting consequences).
Kennedy also gave unforgettable inspiration to the space program, setting a goal to land men on the moon within the decade, even though NASA was formed by President Eisenhower and Project Apollo was realized thanks to the Johnson and Nixon administrations.
None of this is to take away from the hope that JFK embodied for millions of people. Letting go of that enough to see the man in full and his times is tough.
As far as the assassination, your guess is as good as mine. A new book looks at how the botched investigation has fueled conspiracy theories. Whatever happened that November day in Dallas, it marks a Before and After for generations still living.
Did it also mean the death of liberalism? Probably not. That came when Robert Kennedy, who became a very different man from the "hater" who served Joe McCarthy and later approved phone taps on Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in 1968.
The Vietnam War killed liberalism. Bobby might have avoided that fate.
John Kennedy's martyrdom ensured that the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts would pass — with essential support from a very different Republican Party — and that the Great Society would be enacted into law.