November 22, 1963
HANDS UP: Lyndon Baines Johnson becomes our 36th president; Self-described pasty Lee Harvey Oswald becomes our fourth presidential assassin.
“When I was a boy, I was interested in President Lincoln’s assassination. I actually staged a production at Saint Joan of Arc grade school,” says Kuntzler, who looks a little like LSD guru Timothy Leary, but has a taste for finely tailored suits and a delicate, patrician manner. “I built the set, and played John Wilkes Booth. I was interested in why he was shot,” he continues over lunch at his favorite restaurant on Washington, DC’s 8th Street.
He never imagined the same thing could happen to John F. Kennedy, the handsome and charismatic senator for whom he’d campaigned as a teenager in Michigan, the candidate whose “big, very strong hand” he shook at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport in 1960. (“The back of my head appeared in the Detroit News the next day,” Kuntzler says with wry pride.)
Kuntzler first came to Washington, on January 18, 1961, on the Baltimore & Ohio train. He was bound for Kennedy’s presidential inauguration.
Eleven months later — “on Thursday, December 28, 1961” — he would move to Washington, DC. “We lived then in an age of innocence,” Kuntzler says of the closing months in 1963. War and depression notwithstanding, America had spent the previous three decades under great or near-great presidents — Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy — who were decent men. There was a fundamental belief that the American government was essentially good.
“It was inconceivable to anybody that there would be a conspiracy to murder a president of the United States.”
So it was an existential shock for Kuntzler to walk into his office at Structural Clay Products Institute after lunch on a Friday in 1963 to see his co-workers crowded around a large black-and-white TV, to see Walter Cronkite take off his glasses and announce gravely that President Kennedy had died.
He cried, of course. And on Sunday, when the casket lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, he lined up with hundreds of thousands of others at 10 pm, in near-freezing temperatures, and finally paid his respects at 7 am. “It was like a death in the family,” Kuntzler says. It took me a year to get over it.”
Like the rest of the country, Kuntzler also watched in deadened silence as the peripheral dramas unfolded on TV in the days after. “I saw Oswald on television,” he says. “I didn’t see him get shot, live on NBC, but I saw when he said, ‘I’m just a patsy.’ But it never crossed my mind that the government wasn’t telling the American people the truth.”
The sum of all theories
Reading about the Kennedy assassination is like sliding down a rabbit hole, or wandering drunk through a hall of mirrors. Everywhere you turn, there’s another face in a rogue’s gallery of con-men and G-men, small-time hoods and heads of federal agencies, oil men and mob guys, Communists and anti-Communists. There’s so much evidence, so many potential players, so many pieces to the puzzle, and so many ways they could all fit together.