How the Capitol Turned the Day JFK Died

Nov. 22 falls on the Friday before Thanksgiving this year, just as it did 50 years ago. And that extraordinary day in 1963 began on the Hill in ways that would seem familiar to the congressional denizens of today.

The House was done for the week, having pushed through spending bills for public works, arms control and military construction in plenty of time to allow a cluster of Texas Democrats to get home for a high-profile political photo op.

The Senate convened for general speech-making and preliminary debate on the bills set for consideration after the weekend: restricting wheat sales to Soviet bloc nations and delivering federal funds for local library construction. As was the custom, then as now, the chore of acting as presiding officer had been parceled out to several of the freshmen with the lunchtime slot assigned to the youngest in the class, 31-year-old Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

He was in the chair when his brother was killed.

And from that instant, the scene at the Capitol unfolded in ways that may be difficult to comprehend in today’s congressional culture of commuting lawmakers, hyper-partisanship, legislative stasis, saturation live coverage and social-media press relations.

Almost 20 minutes elapsed between when the shots were fired at John F. Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas and when a messenger delivered the first ominous alert to the president’s youngest sibling, who hustled off the rostrum and called the White House to learn more.

“Will the senator from Vermont yield for an emergency?” Democrat Wayne Morse of Oregon asked, interrupting a speech by Republican William Prouty to propose a quorum call while the horrific explanation for the young Kennedy’s departure swept through the chamber.

Read More on Roll Call: How the Capitol Turned the Day JFK Died

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