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Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 1999 /10 Kislev, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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A certain slant of light --

There's a certain slant of light,
Winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the heft
Of cathedral tunes.

November 22nd. In the middle of the car wreck or the plunge down the mountainside or in the mind of the drowning, time slows, then stops -- the way it does for some Americans every year when the page of the calendar is torn away and today's date revealed: November 22nd.

It is always 12:29 Dallas time when the motorcade comes into sight. Nothing ever changes in the immutable past, no matter how much we want it to. Emily Dickinson's certain slant of light is captured forever in the Zapruder film we can't stop watching:

Click: The presidential limousine coming down Houston makes a sharp left onto Elm.

Click: The president is smiling, waving.

Click: Mrs. Kennedy looks at him with concern.

Click: A bystander jerks his head suddenly toward Dealey Plaza.

Click: The limousine is lost behind a street sign.

Click: The president reaches for his throat, slumps toward his wife.

Click: The governor of Texas, John Connally, seated in front of the president, falls forward.

Click: The shattering impact.

Click: Mrs. Kennedy rises.

Click: She is pushed back into the car by a Secret Service agent.

Click: The limousine disappears from view beneath the underpass, heading for Parkland Hospital and history.

The film runs 15 seconds. And an eternity.

None of us will forget where we were when we heard. I was riding a subway to a job interview in Manhattan. A ragged, disheveled man came down the aisle -- nothing unusual in a New York subway -- but he leaned over, whispered something in my ear and moved on to whisper it to the next passenger, and the next, and the next. He wasn't panhandling. He was saying something. It took a while to make meaning of his slurred words, then absorb them:

"They shot Kennedy in Dallas. ... They shot Kennedy in Dallas. ... They shot Kennedy in Dallas. ...''

I could see him enter the next car and do the same. Like the chorus of a Greek tragedy telling the tale. At last he knew something no one else did. For once in his life, he was ahead of everybody else. It was his moment, and he had seized it.

The old editor I was meeting seemed defeated. We didn't talk about the job. Instead, we looked out the office window and watched the flags of New York being lowered to half-staff across the skyline, now one, now another, as the word spread and the afternoon light turned yellow in New York's canyons. He talked about how it had felt the day Roosevelt died.

Certain days stay in the mind.

Three decades later, I would be buying a pen knife and a red floormat in a hardware store in Little Rock when a news bulletin interrupted the football game on television. Yitzhak Rabin had been shot in Tel Aviv and was being rushed to a hospital. I knew. I knew even then what had happened; the name Parkland occurred unbidden. Certain days stay in the mind. Like a film that is unwound and replayed again and again. As much as you'd like to stop it. Each time.

To watch the Zapruder film is to see the destruction of the temple again and again. Nothing ever changes except those who watch. America would never be quite so young again. After that, nothing was to be the same. Events seemed to spin out of control:

Click: The anguish of Vietnam.

Click: Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel at Memphis.

Click: The president's brother Robert, after his victory speech, in a pool of blood in a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles.

Click: A president announces he will not risk running for re-election

Click: Another president, disgraced, resigns before he can be impeached. And the name of a Washington apartment complex, Watergate, comes to mean much more. ...

Looking back, it all seemed to start coming apart at 12:29, Dallas time, November 22, 1963, and it would take years -- decades -- to recover, to rebuild the nation's confidence. Nor is the work complete. One generation of Americans may never be quite so sure -- of anything -- again.

The representatives of 220 nations were there to follow the seven matched grays pulling the caisson and casket, followed by the restless, riderless horse with the stirrups reversed. De Gaulle was there, and Haile Selassie. The Cabinet was there, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- -the whole panoply of all the earthly powers -- and not a one could do a thing to save the young president.

"There is an appointed time for everything,'' the priest intoned at the state funeral, "a time to be born and a time to die ... a time to love and a time to hate ... a time of war and a time of peace. ...'' The old words were instantly new, immediate, as they always are.

There is a time to build up and a time to tear down, and November 22, 1963, marked the beginning of a great tearing down. Never again, one thought at the time, would Americans take their leaders so lightly, their institutions so for granted.

Suddenly, grievously, the country learned to cherish old values anew: continuity and stability, civility and order, duration and legality.

In a culture synonymous with change, we had almost forgotten how important those values are, and how American.

Not just the vulnerability of a president, but of the presidency had been driven home.

Time passes and fortune smiles, and the most blessed of nations finds it easy to forget, and falls into complacency. Hubris is the child of forgetfulness.

Then some new crisis erupts, and people are reminded again of how important and how demanding are the institutions of the Republic -- of any republic. The instruments of democracy are not machines that run by themselves after all, no matter how wondrous or complicated they may seem, or be.

Sometimes, as on every November 22nd, even in the good years, it doesn't take a crisis to remind the nation of the fragility of life and power, but just a date on the calendar ... and a certain slant of light.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, 'tis like the distance
On the look of death.

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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate