OP-ED: Ghost-writing: A half-century tribute to John F. Kennedy

  • By Philip A. Yaffe 

If you were there at the time, you will find it hard to realize that the 50th anniversary of the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy just recently passed. The iconic 35th President of the United States was elected in a close-run contest against then Vice President Richard Nixon on Nov. 8, 1960, and was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1961.

If you were there, you will also find it hard to realize that the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death on Nov. 22, 1963 is now rapidly approaching.


I was there. At the time of his election, I was just entering university. At the time of his death, I was Political Editor of the UCLA Daily Bruin, the daily student newspaper of the University of California at Los Angeles.


Historians will debate JFK’s effectiveness as president for a long time to come. But there can be no debate about the profound influence he had on the American psyche. You can get a hint of this from the passion that surrounded the election of  Barack Obama, who is frequently compared to JFK.


As a professional writer, I have long argued that the basic principles of good writing are few and easy to understand, but applying them is hard work. Producing a good piece of writing always requires at least two drafts, and usually three, four, or more. However, there are exceptions.


For me, the exception occurred the day JFK died. I sat down at my typewriter and just started writing. When I finished, I hardly changed a word. I felt as if I had been typing in a trance, as if someone else had actually been doing the work.


The article won a number of awards, which I was pleased to receive. However, in all honesty I cannot take credit for it. Now, nearly 50 years later, I still feel as if someone else wrote it and I was simply the vessel used to strike the keys.


The article is presented below. It has been slightly modified to clarify or delete references to particular aspects of the UCLA campus. However overall it is essentially the same. It generated significant reaction when it was first published; it is for you to decide if it has stood the test of time.


As the Javelin Hit the Ground


By Philip Yaffe


For the first time in my life last Friday I wished I had been born a girl, so I could have cried unashamedly. Unfortunately, being a stoic male, I had to take solace in the tears of others.


Immediately after hearing that the President had been shot, I rushed out of Moore Hall to the Daily Bruin office, and from there to the Student Union building. Students were standing around the SU Information Desk, listening to reports coming over the public address system. There were few tears then. The shock was great, but the President was not yet dead.


I went to the first floor. Again the halls were lined with stunned students. They were listening in disbelief to newscaster Chet Huntley describing the President’s worsening condition.


Farther down the crowded halls, I stepped into perhaps the only place on earth not affected by the tragedy. Students in the recreation areas were still bowling, playing ping pong, or shooting pool.


Down on Trotter Field, some students were still half-heartedly working on homecoming floats. Others were gathered around car radios, apparently feeling as guilty about not working on the floats as those still working felt guilty about not gathering around car radios.


Somewhere in the middle of the field, an athlete hurled a javelin. The President was dead when it hit the ground.


The radios played the National Anthem. One person self-consciously stood up. The rest remained seated. He sat down again.


After the anthem, I returned to the Daily Bruin office. I went through the Student Union, but avoided the bowling alley and the pool room. Once was enough.


Back in the Daily Bruin office, some were crying, some were just standing around. A few of the editors were already working on a special edition.


One of the girls told me that she had earlier seen a boy slumped up against the wall bordering the office. She asked him if he needed help.


“No,” he replied. “I am praying.”


At that moment, I realized I too was praying. I had been ever since that first moment in Moore Hall.


* * *


Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California with a degree in mathematics and physics.


He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974.


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