TRAVERSE CITY — French President Charles De Gaulle, in a plain khaki uniform, and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, in a dark uniform emblazed with gold, stood shoulder-to-shoulder a half century ago in the front row of a cluster of world leaders at Arlington National Cemetery.
They both saluted. Gen. De Gaulle wiped a tear from his eye. And then, President John F. Kennedy was buried, Nov. 25, 1963, on the green slope where the eternal flame blazes, surrounded by war dead, within view from the Lincoln Memorial across the Potomac River.
I stood nearby at that moving moment as part of the United Press International coverage of that extraordinary day— the most memorable I experienced in decades of political coverage.
Before the flag-draped coffin was carried across the Potomac River to Arlington there were poignant moments that day in Washington, especially as JFK’s two young children, both wearing light blue coats hanging to their knees, participated in the activities.
John-John’s salute to his father, prompted by a whisper from his veiled, black-clad mother, is a searing memory.
(Daughter Caroline, now 56, presented her credentials Tuesday as U.S. ambassador to Japan.)
Michigan, and its politicians, had special links to the beginning and end of the Kennedy presidency.
It was on the steps of the University Michigan student union that candidate Kennedy proposed creation of the Peace Corps. I subsequently flew to Ethiopia with what was then the largest airlift of Peace Corps volunteers, and then visited volunteers in Liberia, led by Michiganian Tom Quimby.
Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams gave a critical, timely boost when he endorsed candidate Kennedy on June 2, 1960, when JFK visited Mackinac Island and the Governors’ Summer Residence after a photo op on the Mackinac Bridge.
Williams crusaded on the campaign trail for him, but when Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic National Convention announced Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas as his choice for running mate, Williams stood on a chair and shouted “No, No.” Johnson was too conservative for Soapy’s taste.
Nonetheless, after the November election, Kennedy called reporters to the front steps of his Georgetown home for what he said would be his first major appointment. He announced Williams as assistant secretary of state for African affairs with a grandiloquent declaration that it was a job “second to none” in importance. Not quite.
Subsequently, after becoming president, Johnson retained Williams at the State Department and later named him U.S ambassador to the Philippines.
Williams was instrumental in the early days of Kennedy’s march to the presidency, but ex-President Gerald R. Ford, a former Grand Rapids congressman and vice-president, was a member of the Warren Commission, which examined the Kennedy assassination. It came to the controversial conclusion that those shots 50 years ago were solely those of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Ford said he was convinced that that the commission’s conclusions “were correct.”