At the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death last year, The Henry Ford honored his legacy with the help of news legend Dan Rather, best-selling author James L. Swanson, former Secret Service agent Clint Hill, and two sold-out crowds determined to remember 1,000 brilliant days, 20,000 days on.
On November 18, Rather sat with Swanson mere feet from the Kennedy Presidential Limousine, housed at The Henry Ford since 1978. One of the first to break news of President Kennedy’s death, Rather noted how three years before, Senator Kennedy won over those who saw him as too young, too rich and too Catholic with articulate idealism, self-deprecating wit, and an unprecedented understanding of politics-as-theatre.
But JFK had an additional asset – his wife. Young and chic, with a shrewd intellect and a romantic understanding of America’s past, Jacqueline Kennedy was an immensely popular first lady. The front and back covers of Swanson’s new book on JFK’s assassination shows Mrs. Kennedy wearing the shocking pink and stark black in which pop artist Andy Warhol would immortalize her image.
It was Swanson who noted the irony of Jacqueline Kennedy’s pervasive aesthetic influence, citing an essay the future style icon wrote as a college senior, in which she expressed an interest in being an “overall Art Director of the Twentieth Century”.
On November 19, it was Mrs. Kennedy’s Secret Service agent, Clint Hill, who left the museum in silence. Also standing feet from the presidential limo, Hill recalled for journalist Lisa McCubbin the friendly crowds that met President and Mrs. Kennedy in San Antonio and Houston on their first day in Texas, the unexpectedly warm welcome shown them in Dallas, and his lingering guilt over not getting to the president in time to save his life.
But Hill took no credit for potentially saving the first lady’s life, in her last moments as first lady. Hill saw Mrs. Kennedy crawl onto the trunk of the Lincoln, reaching for a piece of her husband’s skull, just before the car’s hand-built, 350-horsepower, 430 cubic inch V8 deployed it with full force toward Parkland Hospital. It’s Hill seen in the now sadly familiar images, racing forward, jumping aboard, and shielding Mrs. Kennedy from the unknown with his own body.
Touchingly, Hill also revealed many of the small, human moments Swanson alluded to the prior evening – details sadly overshadowed by decades of myth and conjecture: of a father promising a child he’d be home in just a few days; of a husband taking his wife’s hand in a jostling crowd; of a wife clinging protectively to a husband she already knew belonged to history.
By inviting Rather, Swanson and Hill to share these stories and these moments, The Henry Ford did what museums do best – ensure that nothing is lost to time as one generation fades into the next. For those whose lives were changed forever a half-century ago, it was a lovely remembrance. For President Kennedy, whose life was shaped by the heroes and glories of the past, there could be no more fitting tribute.
Justin Mularski is a writer based in Detroit. He occasionally forsakes his laptop to read of times long past, cheer for the Tigers, or make lists of home improvement projects he’ll never actually complete.
When tragic death strikes a president, memorials help us to understand and cope with such an unthinkable event.
As an elementary schoolgirl, I vividly recall hearing the news of President Kennedy's death and the shock of seeing my parents cry. I also recall my surprise that my dad turned on the television set for the entire long weekend. But I only cried while watching the funeral coverage, when I realized that Caroline and John-John Kennedy had lost their dad.
The memorial that helped me deal with this personal feeling of sadness was the illustrated children's book that I later found in my school library, Six White Horses. A poem written by an Ann Arbor, Michigan, teenage girl and illustrated by a local artist, it is from the viewpoint of John-John during President Kennedy's funeral. As a child, this memorial book connected me to a child directly touched by this tragedy.
This children's book is part of a gift to the museum from the estate of Dr. and Mrs. Martin A. Glynn and their daughter, Kathleen Glynn Seymour, of materials related to President Kennedy — his life, accomplishments, and legacy. The Glynns, a second-generation Irish-American Catholic family, felt a deep affinity for President Kennedy and his family.
They gathered and carefully preserved dozens of memorials surrounding President Kennedy's life and death. Kathy Glynn, then a high school student, gave her hard-earned savings to the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in honor of the president. She received a thank-you card from Jacqueline Kennedy and carefully kept the card and the envelope. In addition to feeling many strong emotions about receiving this card, she recalls being astonished that the U.S. Postal Service accepted Mrs. Kennedy's engraved signature in place of a postage stamp. These small pieces of paper held much personal meaning for Kathy.
Kathy's dad, Marty, a long-time dentist, subscribed to many newspapers and magazines for his office waiting room and his home. Reading the many accounts of the President's assassination, the orderly succession of Lyndon Johnson to the presidency and the lengthy investigation probably helped him come to grips with this tragedy.
Kathy's mother, Georgia, preserved these ephemeral publications, rereading many of the articles. Her children also reread the articles and were drawn to the colorful magazine photographs. She judiciously allowed a few clippings for school projects of a baseball player and an astronaut, but not of President Kennedy. In addition to these magazines and newspapers, she kept mementos including a memorial card from services held the day of the president's funeral, a book of quotations and photos and a color memorial portrait. She had also saved some magazines from the President's inauguration in 1961. She may have gathered and kept these items to help her remember both the happy and the sad memories about President Kennedy.
Leslie Seymour Mio, granddaughter of Marty and Georgia and daughter of Kathy, aided us in acquiring this material to honor the memory of President Kennedy. She told us, "I think my grandparents connected to the Kennedys not only because they were Irish and Catholic, but also because my grandfather was a World War II veteran, they had young children, and had suffered the loss of a baby. I think they saw themselves in the most powerful couple in the world and they felt proud."
The materials preserved by the Glynn family are only a handful of what was available to Americans during Kennedy's presidency and during this national tragedy. I have had the privilege of being part of The Henry Ford's curatorial team to research and acquire objects in remembrance of President John F. Kennedy. It has not been an easy task to set aside personal emotions while selecting these Kennedy-related items. I believe the team has succeeded in taking a longer view of history and making strategic choices for our object collections. Our selections help to convey President Kennedy's legacy as an American leader and the national mourning following his untimely death, and to place our presidential limousine within the context of the President's time.
At this moment of remembrance, my emotions run much deeper than what I felt 50 years ago as a child. In 1963, I witnessed my parents' shock but only felt personal sadness when viewing the Kennedy children on television. Today, I am fully aware of the magnitude of the tragedy and the huge impact it has had on our national history. For my present emotional and intellectual understanding, I am truly thankful.
By Cynthia Read Miller, Curator of Photographs and Prints. Cynthia was 11 years old when President Kennedy was assassinated. She would like to thank Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life, Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts, and Leslie S. Mio, Assistant Registrar, for their assistance in writing this blog post.
How one day in history transformed presidential travel from an open-air exchange into a defensive exercise
November 22, 1963, was a warm, sunny day in Dallas, Texas. President John F. Kennedy was in town as part of his early re-election campaign.As his motorcade passed through downtown, the president and first lady Jackie Kennedy waved to the crowds from their open-top Lincoln convertible. Though the Secret Service was alert, agents didn’t perceive any special threat.
In the following car was Clint Hill, one of two Secret Service agents assigned to protect Mrs. Kennedy. “We knew that Dallas was a somewhat conservative area and that President Kennedy might not be as popular there as he was other places, but it didn’t seem to be a bigger problem than going anywhere else,” said Hill.
The crowds were large, and Hill was busy making sure that he remained close to the first lady as the president’s car negotiated the streets — especially when the crowds came close or when the car stopped so the president could shake hands with bystanders.
“The situation was always the same,” said Hill. “Big crowds, open windows, people on balconies and rooftops. It was standard procedure.”
Then, at 12:30 p.m., the first shot rang out, and Hill rushed toward the president’s car. His memories of the next few moments are vivid nearly 50 years later.
“I heard these noises that came from the rear of the motorcade, and I started to look toward that noise. But I only got as far as the back of the car when I saw the president react when the bullet hit him in the neck. When he grabbed his throat, I knew he was in trouble, and I jumped and I ran. My objective was to get up on the top of the car and lie there between the president and Mrs. Kennedy and anybody who was trying to do them harm. Unfortunately, by the time I got to the car, the third shot had been fired and hit the president in the head. It was too late to do anything except protect Mrs. Kennedy and the other occupants of the car.”
President Kennedy was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital four miles away and declared dead at 1 p.m.
“All the advantages went to the shooter,” recounted Hill. “We didn’t have any. I did everything I could do, but it wasn’t enough.”
Then and Now
Hill’s firsthand recollection of that tragic day in Dallas is also seared in the American collective memory. We talk of turning points, but this truly was one for the United States. Even the immediate aftermath showed how unfathomable such an event was as the Secret Service scrambled to get the vice president, President Kennedy’s body and the first lady back to Washington, D.C., as quickly as possible.
“We really didn’t know how elaborate the situation was,” said Hill. “We didn’t know if it was a lone gunman or a coup d’etat.”
With 2013 marking a new presidential term and the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, how things have changed is obvious if you just conduct a simple comparison of presidential cars then and now.
Consider, for example, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Sunshine Special. The first “official” presidential limo, this Lincoln got its nickname in the 1930s because, when President Roosevelt was in it, the top was almost always down. In similar fashion, Kennedy’s 1961 Lincoln Continental X-100 was a large luxury convertible modified for a longer wheelbase. It wasn’t bulletproof. It had a removable plexiglass top. In addition, a metal rail gave the president the ability to securely stand upright and be exposed when the vehicle was moving. Plus, the rear seat could be raised hydraulically for better visibility.
In today’s lexicon, such accessibility to a world leader — in an uncontrolled, open environment — is both shocking and would even be considered by some as point-blank reckless. But, at that time in history, there was logic and a certain naivete behind it. From Roosevelt to Kennedy, an important duty of the president was to be seen by — be accessible to — the people who elected him.
The current presidential limousine, affectionately called “the Beast” by the Secret Service, fails miserably in the accessibility department. A tank-like machine with leather upholstery, the Beast has armor-glass windows that make it difficult to get even a small glimpse of the president from within.
Neither the Secret Service nor General Motors will comment on the Beast’s presidential specs for security reasons, but Mark Burton, CEO of International Armoring Corp. in Utah, which turns luxury cars into armored vehicles, said that GM took technology to the point of “overkill” with this vehicle. The Beast can not only withstand armor-piercing bullets but gas, explosives, fire, bioweapons and just about any other threat to national security you can think of.
Common sense tells us the Beast’s technological overload is still in direct response to what happened in Dallas a half century ago. According to Hill, the X-100 also got its own bit of technological excess when it was decided that the vehicle should be rebuilt rather than retired after the assassination. “The car was sent back, redone completely and didn’t return until 1964,” noted Hill. “It was armored and bulletproof glass installed and was used then on a limited basis by President Johnson.”
The Secret Service also received a total overhaul after November 22, 1963. “The organization was completely reorganized from that point on,” said Hill. “The entire headquarters staff was revamped. A great many things were done and changed completely.”
Symbols of the Presidency
Since then, security around the president has been airtight, and all presidential limousines have followed the example of the revamped X-100, which is now on display in Henry Ford Museum, along with four other presidential rides (see sidebar at right).
Unfortunately, the Beast and future presidential vehicles will never be seen in a museum collection or elsewhere for that matter. Although the government once leased the cars for a nominal fee and returned them at lease end, it now purchases each vehicle outright and keeps them, but not as historical artifacts. Instead, the Secret Service, looking to keep the secrets of these high-tech cars confidential, uses the retired vehicles for security tests, which end with the vehicles’ destruction.
Hard to feel sorry for a machine, but the demise of these presidential wheels is tinged with a little regret, according to Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford. Anderson sees these vehicles as symbols of the American people’s relationship with the automobile and of the presidency itself.
“They tie in beautifully with the automobile in American life,” said Anderson. “They’ve become a symbol of the presidency. Most people don’t see the president in the White House; they see him when he comes to visit their town in his armored limousine. It’s a connection between the people and the president himself.”
The security measures now in place after Kennedy’s assassination equate to a safer president when en route, but they also signify an impenetrable distance between a leader and those he serves.
To see more of The Henry Ford's presidential limousines, take a look at this expert set from our online collections.
By David Szondy. The story originally appeared in the June-December 2013 edition of The Henry Ford magazine.
This month, we mark the 50th anniversary of one of the most dramatic – and traumatic – turning points in American history: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. In that single instant, the perceived calm of the postwar era was shattered and “The Sixties” – civil rights legislation, Vietnam, the counterculture – began. Few artifacts from that day are as burned into public memory as the 1961 Lincoln Continental that carried President Kennedy through Dallas.
The car, code named X-100, started life as a stock Lincoln convertible at Ford Motor Company’s Wixom, Michigan, assembly plant. Hess & Eisenhardt, of Cincinnati, Ohio, stretched the car by 3½ feet and added steps for Secret Service agents, a siren, flashing lights and other accessories. Removable clear plastic roof panels protected the president from inclement weather while maintaining his visibility. The car was not armored, and the roof panels were not bulletproof. The modified limo cost nearly $200,000 (the equivalent of $1.5 million today), but Ford leased it to the White House for a nominal $500 a year.
It was a perfect marriage between car and passenger. The Lincoln’s clean, modern lines broke away from the showy chrome and tail fins of the pervious decade, and they seemed to mirror the young president’s turn toward a “New Frontier.” Kennedy used the limo many times during his thousand days in office, and it became tied to him in the public consciousness even before the tragedy in Dallas.
After the assassination, officials from the Secret Service and the FBI examined the car and removed any potential evidence, and then ordered that it be rebuilt and returned to duty. While this decision is astonishing in retrospect, it was one of simple practicality. The president needed a parade car, and it was much faster to modify the X-100 than to build an entirely new vehicle. The $500,000 project (some $3.8 million today), dubbed the “Quick Fix,” produced a true armored car. Titanium plating reinforced the doors, body panels and floor. Filters in the heating and cooling systems protected against poison gas. The now-permanent roof, fitted with bullet-resistant glass, provided a compromise between safety and visibility. In a final change, the car’s deep blue paint was replaced with a more somber black.
The rebuilt car served Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter before being retired in 1977. By then it was 16 years old and outdated in both appearance and equipment. It returned to Ford Motor Company, which in turn donated it to The Henry Ford in 1978. The limousine quickly became one of the most important pieces in the museum’s collection.
Fifty years after the assassination, the car has lost none of its power as an icon of American change. Visitors still pause to reflect on the limousine, whether they are older adults who lived through those painful November days, or young children whose parents weren’t even born when the car came to The Henry Ford.