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John F. Kennedy: The Day a Cheerful Youth Group Presented Him With a Harbinger of His Own Death

The John F. Kennedy Museum in Boston has just released a new batch of digitized photos, adding to the wonderful group of 30,000 still photos in their White House Photographs collection.

The new photos aren’t exactly earth-shattering. No Inaugural Ball glamour here! No, this is Kennedy doing the workaday stuff of a typical presidency. But there’s something just a little creepy hidden in the batch, as we’ll soon see.

Photo by Abbie Rowe, via the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Here’s JFK meeting with members of his Consumer Advisory Council in the Roosevelt Room of the White House (then known as the “Fish Room“) on January 31, 1963. That’s Walter Mondale of Minnesota fourth from right; 21 years later he’d be the Democratic presidential nominee and get trounced by Ronald Reagan in the general elections of 1984. That’s not the creepy part.

Photo by Cecil Stoughton, via the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Here’s President Kennedy meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in his vacation home at Palm Beach, Florida on December 27, 1962. That’s JFK at back center, flanked by Vice President Lyndon Johnson (at Kennedy’s right, our left) and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (at Kennedy’s left hand). Palm Beach also happens to be the home to Mar-a-Lago, the vacation resort of Donald Trump. That’s a coincidence, but not very creepy.

Photo by Abbie Rowe, via the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Here’s President Kennedy greeting a throng of young people from the United States Senate Youth Program, at 9:30 in the morning on February 1, 1963. The USSYP (which still exists) brings student leaders from each state to Washington, D.C. for a week of “experiencing their national government in action.” Now for the creepy part.

Photo by Abbie Rowe, via the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Here it is: one of the youngsters from Texas (sporting a Mondale-style flattop haircut) has brought the president a Stetson hat, as Texans are wont to do. Everyone’s having a good laugh, possibly because of JFK’s well-known aversion to hats. Kennedy “never put on funny hats,” says historian and JFK aide Arthur Schlesinger in his memoir A Thousand Days. Kennedy was even blamed for killing the hat industry single-headedly. (Hat sightings were so rare that the John F. Kennedy Library has a whole page devoted to just that: JFK Wears a Hat.)

Now, where have we seen a white Stetson like that before?

Detective James R. Leavelle, left, glowered as Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald at a police station basement in Dallas on Nov. 24, 1963.

Robert H. Jackson / Dallas Times-Herald

Riiiiight. Perched on the head of detective James Leavelle, handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald while he’s being shot to death by bar owner Jack Ruby. This was on November 24, 1963, two days after Oswald had murdered JFK in Dallas, Texas.

It’s just a little eerie to know that nine months before his death, President Kennedy was being handed the same kind of white Stetson that would be one of the more famous tokens of his death.

Jim Leavelle’s suit and hat on display. From the Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, U.S. Library of Congress.

Detective Leavelle’s outfit was so iconic that he became known as “the man in the white Stetson.” (For a long time: Leavelle died just last year at age 99.) He finally donated his famous white hat and suit to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, where they’re on display today.

White House Photos at the JFK Library »




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