Become obligatory on and around Nov. 22nds to...

IT HAS

November 22, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

IT HAS become obligatory on and around Nov. 22nds to recall what one was doing and thinking on the one of 1963. It is a ritual of regret for most of us -- and for many an excuse to indulge in paranoia.

The former believe life would have been different -- better -- had Oswald not shot Kennedy. The latter believe the CIA shot him.

Some people think recollections of the day are helpful. The current New Yorker has collected the memories of celebrities such as Ava Gardner, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, Mel Torme, Willie Nelson, Joan Collins, Liberace and Shelley Winter. Why? Because: "As is well known, no one feels emotion as deeply as the stars. They laugh for us; they cry for us; they live for us. . . . These authentic excerpts from show biz memoirs may help us finally understand the events of that dark day."

Frankly, I would rather hear Angie Dickinson reminisce about Jack Kennedy alive. Or anybody else who enjoyed his company before Nov. 22, 1963. That is because it seems to me that Kennedy's life is in danger of becoming overshadowed by his death -- in the hearts and minds of both the might-have-been set and the conspiracy theorists.

I remember Nov. 22, 1963, in detail. I won't bore you with my recollections. I also remember Oct. 11, 1961. I'll bore you with that. I was a reporter in Washington and that was the date of my first Kennedy press conference. I was wowed! He knew everything and he answered questions with superb confidence,

style and wit.

One reason journalists are softies for Kennedy is that he elevated us as a group to somewhat higher status -- or at least to greater visibility. He did this with those press conferences. His predecessors did not hold live televised press conferences. Conventional wisdom was that a president of the United States could not afford to make a mis-statement in full view of the world. Kennedy risked it -- and mastered it.

In the process he won over not only the press corps (except for the old insiders who now had to share the president with a horde of reporters) but also the watching public. A 1961 poll showed 90 percent of Americans had seen at least one Kennedy press conference on television -- and television wasn't nearly as ubiquitous then as it is now.

Journalists were, of course, just extras and bit-part players in the show, but Kennedy chose to make a few stars -- for example, May Craig, known for her eye-catching hats, accusatory questions and severe, Maine Yankee, school-teacherish demeanor. He often commented on journalism, and displayed a warmth he probably did not always feel for his inquisitors. Asked at a 1962 press conference what he thought of newspaper coverage, Kennedy replied, to laughter, "Well, I am reading more and enjoying it less."

Kennedy held 64 regularly scheduled public press conferences in a little over 33 months. In a real sense they defined his presidency both to insiders and the general public in a way no other chronicle can.

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