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Bill Mauldin’s JFK sketch captured our grief

Bill Mauldin's legendary cartowas printed Nov. 23 1963 day after Kennedy assassination.

Bill Mauldin's legendary cartoon was printed Nov. 23, 1963, the day after the Kennedy assassination.

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Updated: December 23, 2013 2:56PM



‘The death of a President enters the house and becomes a death in the family,” E.B. White wrote in the Nov. 30, 1963, New Yorker, and when people talk and write about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, as they’ve done continually for the half century since it occurred, 50 years ago Friday, it is as a staggering blow of shock and sorrow — similar to what one might feel when an admired, loved and successful son, or brother, or father is cruelly plucked away forever. Where were you when you heard the news?

Or in terms of conspiracy theories: what happened? The idea of a loser with a mail-order rifle destroying the dream of American Camelot seemed ludicrous and many rejected it. The event, so publicized, generated an ocean of data that could be picked over and theorized by those searching for a truth they found more palatable than the obvious. We’d do it again after 9/11, and will do it eternally as long as people mistake hazy speculation for insight and wisdom.

Though if you’ve ever been to Dealey Plaza, it’s so small, the shot so direct, you go from wondering how Oswald could possibly hit Kennedy to how he could miss.

I don’t remember the assassination. I was 3. To me, the rifle crack is the break between the black-and-white 1950s and the color contemporary world, the Kodachrome Zapruder film ushering in Vietnam and Nixon and everything that followed. It is an invitation to speculate on what might have been instead of understand what was, a bog that many wander into and never leave.

There are countless stories. Since I’m in the juxtaposition business — the challenge of taking a news event and trying to immediately reflect it in a way that resonates ­— and since I knew him, briefly, I want to tell you about Bill Mauldin, our paper’s two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist.

On Nov. 22, 1963 — also a Friday — he left his office on the fourth floor of the Sun-Times Building, 401 N. Wabash, and went over to the Palmer House hotel, for a Council on Foreign Relations luncheon.

Shortly before 1 p.m., a woman called for attention and said the president had been shot. Someone at Mauldin’s table suggested they all go home and have a drink. Mauldin certainly liked his drink, but instead went back to the office. The Sun-Times didn’t run his cartoon on Saturdays and, anyway, the usual 1 p.m. deadline was past.

But this wasn’t a usual day.

Mauldin’s thought process, as he later described it, went like this: Kennedy was Catholic. He considered Catholic religious sculptures — maybe tears streaming down the face of a Virgin Mary statue.

No. Religious drawings got him in trouble. People are touchy. He then reflected on Lincoln, another famously martyred president.

The two thoughts, statuary and Lincoln, fused in his mind.

He asked an editor how long he had. An hour. He grabbed a file photo of the Lincoln Memorial and began to sketch.

The Sun-Times editors cleared sports off the back page and ran his drawing over it. News vendors sold the paper back-page up, to display Mauldin’s work, which summed up the moment perfectly. A half million people requested reprints, including Jackie Kennedy. Mauldin had already given the original to the publisher. He took it back, whited over his dedication to Marshall Field IV and inscribed it to her. The cartoon, conceived and completed in an hour, hangs in the Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.

John F. Kennedy was admired because he was articulate and daring, and he would expect that those who remember him, those who revere his memory, be no less daring and no less articulate in the doing of it, and in the conducting of their lives as Americans.

Email: nsteinberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @NeilSteinberg



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