50-November
22, 2013-Remembering

Below is the prologue to the book I am
currently writing with my co-author Marianne Ehrlich. The book is about the
similarities between the forces causing the crisis of leadership in government
in Washington, DC and the identical causes of the crisis of leading and
governing MD Anderson. The book, tentatively titled “Red Kool-Aid, Blue
Kool-Aid”,  focuses on the period
2008-2009 when ObamaCare was born. I served on the US Senate staff then; and,
simultaneously, MD Anderson went through a terrible period of financial
uncertainty.

The prologue explains why I chose to go to
Washington at all at the age of 60. Its relevance to this week is obvious.  This will be the only post until next week.

Prologue

November 22-Why I Really Went to
Washington

            For our parents, it is December 7, 1941. For our
children, it is September 11, 2001. For my generation it will always be
November 22, 1963. We all know where we were when we first heard he had been
shot.

            French class, sophomore year of high school in North
Bellmore, Long Island, New York. Much like the days I was experiencing now in
Washington forty-five years later, it was grey, cold and windy. The flags that
morning in front of Wellington C. Mepham High School stood straight out. It was
the Friday before Thanksgiving. Christmas vacation was not far away, but that
meant neither were final exams.

           

            In the middle of French class, the classroom door opened.
The tall, lanky Spanish teacher, Senor LaBarre, walked in and whispered in the
ear of my short, crew cut French teacher, M. Desjardins.

            “Should we tell them?” Desjardins asked his colleague.

            “Yes”.

            “The President has been shot”.

            I turned to the girl behind me who began to weep. Class
finished and as we passed to our final period, the flag in front of the high
school was still unfurled but it had been lowered to half staff.

            My last class was Choir. We sang the Lord’s Prayer and
went home.

            Two days later my parents, my sister and I were preparing
to go to our synagogue as all religious denominations were holding memorial
services for the President that Sunday. The phone rang and my mother screamed
down the stairs in our modest split-level house:

            “Turn on the television”.

            We watched the first replay of the televised
assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald. My parents were in fear that the government
was collapsing and that there was a right-wing plot to capture control of the
United States. It was less than twenty years after WWII and the atrocities of
the Holocaust were fresh in the mind of every Jew. Was this the “knock on the
door” my mother had always warned me about?

           

            Since that day, an entire generation has been shell
shocked by a series of tumultuous and catastrophic events that were seemingly
set into motion on November 22, 1963. We collectively careened from Vietnam, to
the Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King killings in 1968, to Watergate, Iran
contra, Monica, 9/11, Iraq and the Arab Spring. These events built one upon the
other to convince my generation that the world is insane, bad things happen
with some degree of frequency, and our leadership and government seem
irretrievably corrupt. We still don’t trust anyone over thirty, thus we don’t
trust each other all that much. Perhaps that is what is killing the Congress.
After the Wall Street collapse and Bernie Madoff, once again we baby boomers
are left with a great feeling of emptiness. What happened to that country we
thought we knew from January 20, 1961 until November 22, 1963? Or was it all a
dream?

            Many years later, I attended a black tie banquet for the
Board of Visitors of The MD Anderson Cancer Center at the Four Seasons Hotel in
Houston. The Board is the boosters club for Anderson. It is populated by many
prominent and powerful people from around Texas and the rest of the country
with fond affiliations with MD Anderson and thick wallets.

           

            My wife Genie and I were seated at a table with John and
Ann Connally, the son and daughter-in-law of the late Governor of Texas who had
been wounded that day in Dallas many years before. Their mother Nellie, a great
supporter of MD Anderson for whom the Breast Cancer Clinic is named, was there
as well. Young John was recalling the day when he found out his father had been
shot, but was going to survive, unlike President Kennedy.

            After a while, having listened to many stories about that
day, I screwed up my courage and asked Nellie Connally,

            “Ma’am, may I ask you a question?”

            “Three shots from behind” came back at me like the rifle
shots themselves, for she had been asked the question many times before and had
come to terms with her answer.

            And there it was. The question on my mind for over forty
years answered by the only living person who was there in that car on November
22, 1963. 

            Several years after, following my return to Houston from
Washington, I traveled to Dallas on a day trip and visited the 6th
Floor Museum in the Texas Book Depository from which the fatal shots were
supposed to have come. After buying tickets on the street level of the
building, one is lifted to the 6th floor by elevator. The doors open
and you are greeted with many large photos about the era. Wandering though the
exhibit might be only mildly interesting to a young person. But for me, I was
seeing my life pass before me. 

            As you move through the exhibits you do so with a sense
of excitement and dread for you know, sooner or later, you will arrive at the
spot where something truly awful that is stuck in your soul and which changed
your life forever occurred. And then you do.

            About halfway through the exhibit are cardboard boxes
scattered along the floor much as they had been that day. The window from which
the shots actually came is closed, but the one next to it looks down upon the
same view of Dealey Plaza that Lee Harvey Oswald had that day. The sharp turn
from Houston to Elm of greater than 90 degrees and slightly downhill meant that
the limousine would have slowed to a crawl. To make sure that visitors to the 6th
Floor Museum knew where the events of that day had occurred there are two white
X’s on the street marking the spots where the fatal shots found their target.
There was only one thought in my mind as I looked out upon this quiet, green
space.

            Easy shot.

            The trees would have been far less leafed that day in
November than the day I visited in May. This square that was the place from
which Dallas emanated caused me to feel the way I feel whenever I go to a
cemetery. My mother always said she hated to go to the place on Staten Island
where her family is buried. This included her parents who I never met. She
always said the same thing.

            “This is an awful place”.

            Dealey Plaza too was an awful place. The Zapruder film
was shot from above the grassy knoll to the right of the building and was much
farther from the two X’s on the street where the limousine had been than was
the window I was peering out of a mere 100 feet or so above when the car
passed. After all of those years, after hearing Mrs. Connally and seeing the
spot, I actually believed that Lee Harvey Oswald may have killed the president
all by himself despite the speculations of Oliver Stone and the many conspiracy
theorists. It’s not that it couldn’t have been a multidirectional ambush. It’s
just that it didn’t need to be to be plausible.

            As with so many assassinations in history and
particularly those in the 20th century, one person, one very
seemingly insignificant person, can change history and set an entire country on
a course of events from which it is still recovering and from which those of us
who were sentient on November 22, 1963, will never recover. 

            I
went to Washington in August of 2008 because my life allowed me to and because
from January 20, 1961 to November 22, 1963, between those impressionable ages
of 12 and 15, I believed that anything was possible in government and the
world.

            I believed what Jodie Foster’s character Dr. Elizabeth
Arroway believed in the Robert Zameckis film of the Carl Sagan book Contact
when in response to the Tom Skeritt character Dr. David Drumlin saying:

            “I wish the world was a place where fair was the bottom
line…we don’t live in that world”.

            Dr. Arroway said:

            “Funny, I always believed the world is what we make of
it”.

            For 50 years I believed “the world is what we make of it”
and I was finally going to try to make it better in Washington, DC. Wrong
again!

Leonard Zwelling