Half a century ago, the Gazette reacted quickly to President Kennedy’s assassination.
‘The technical achievements which have made it possible for events to be made known, almost as soon as they take place, to people the world’s length away have, in consequence, made it difficult to consider, still less to appreciate fully, the significance of one event before another and another and still another crowd in to obscure its essential details.’
With these words - twice as many as our current incumbent would allow in a lead sentence - 'The Editor' introduced the December 1963 edition of the Law Society's Gazette. The event under consideration was, of course, the assassination of President Kennedy, 50 years ago this week. The article occupied the front page of Notes of the Month, a quasi news section which went on to discuss the hot issues of undefended divorces and parking tickets. There's a bound copy in the library at Chancery Lane; look in the upper gallery over the librarians' desks.
On finding the piece my first reaction was professional admiration that it made the edition at all. The Gazette was a monthly in those days, which would have required it to go to press halfway through the month before the edition date. (Nowadays, with the wonders of computerised printing technology, most monthlies have earlier deadlines.) I doubt anyone shouted 'Hold the front page!' Hollywood-style, but I bet the article was written with a printer's messenger breathing down The Editor's neck, probably on Monday 25 November when shock at the shootings of Kennedy, and, two days later, Lee Harvey Oswald, was still raw.
I'm just old enough to remember it myself; being called downstairs with my brother and sister, long after our bed time, to the sitting room where my father announced that President Kennedy had been assassinated. Years later, my mother said she had insisted on waking us because she thought the assassination was the overture to a nuclear war in which we would all die.
Something of the apocalyptic mood comes over The Editor's analysis. He - I am almost certain it was a he - opens by condemning instant editorialising, including ‘the comments of of those who attempted to forecast, within a few hours of the president’s death, how the policies of his successor might compare and contrast with his own’.
In the best journalistic tradition, The Editor goes on to do exactly the same thing. He notes that Kennedy’s policies were ‘characteristically liberal and progressive and unmistakably his own', and assures us they will survive the man.
With some prescience, The Editor observes that 'right up to the time of the president’s death, it was increasingly widely noted, by his friends and his opponents alike, that his programme of social reform - in particular the civil rights and tax bills and the medical insurance and school programmes - looked as though it would be thwarted during his first term of office’. With hindsight, we can agree - history suggests that implementing civil rights legislation required the bruising skills of Lyndon Baines Johnson rather than the photogenic, but indecisive and personally flawed, JFK.
And knowing what we now do about Kennedy, not to mention his brother, the attorney general Robert, hindsight can be less kind to another Gazette observation - that 'much of President Kennedy’s brief term of office was spent, in co-operation with other world leaders, in ensuring that international conflicts and differences of outlook were resolved, not at gunpoint, but in accordance with the rule of law'. There's a little here of historian Michael Burleigh's portrayal of Kennedy as ‘a silver screen on which others projected their yearnings’.
But no doubt The Editor got it right when he observed that: 'If any good will ever come out of this terrible affair it may be that both the crime committed by the president’s assassin and the crime committed by he suspected assassin’s assassin will underline the futility of people taking the law into their own hands.’ And on Kennedy in general: 'His influence survives him.’
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor