Although John F. Kennedy served a mere 1,036 days in office, many of his inspiring quotations are well-known to Americans and peoples throughout the world. “The torch has been passed… ,” “Ask not what your country can do for you… ,” “… ich bin ein Berliner,” etc.
Our 35th President’s iconic rhetoric has led many to wonder what final words were spoken by him during the closing moments of his life on November 22, 1963. Ear-witness accounts are conflicting. From Love Field airport to downtown Dallas, a ride of approximately forty minutes for Kennedy’s slow-moving motorcade, countless spectators remember his lips forming the words, “thank you.” Inside the presidential limousine, Governor and Mrs. John Connally overheard JFK say to his wife, “Take off your glasses, Jackie,” as Jacqueline Kennedy twice attempted to don dark glasses to shade her eyes from the glare of the bright Texas sun. A seasoned campaigner, the president understood the political benefits that came with permitting Dallasites an opportunity to see the First Lady’s attractive features.
During the last minute of Kennedy’s life, just after his Secret Service driver turned the vehicle into Dealey Plaza, Nellie Connally glanced over her right shoulder and cheerfully said, “Mr. President, you certainly can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you!” He acknowledged her remark with a broad smile but said nothing in reply.
Riding in the front passenger seat of the blue, specially-built Lincoln Continental was Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman, who testified before the Warren Commission having heard Kennedy say, “My God, I’m hit,” immediately after the first of three shots rang out. But the Connallys, both of whom were seated closer to JFK than Kellerman, attested in numerous interviews and articles that neither heard President Kennedy make any audible sound after the shooting began.
One might assume that the closest person to President Kennedy inside the limo that day was Jacqueline Kennedy. In actuality, it was John Connally, whose jump seat directly in front of the president was only inches from JFK’s knees. Connally’s recollections must therefore be regarded as the most reliable with respect to Kennedy’s last words. According to him, the final words spoken by the president were, “Jackie, take off your glasses.” No great historical utterance – simply a routine behest from husband to wife. Jackie evidently complied with Jack’s request as all the film and still photographs of her countenance that tragic day in Dealey Plaza depict it free of the shades.
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The subject of President’s Kennedy’s final thoughts just prior to being killed outright by a third and final bullet, is speculative. One is, however, able to ascertain what was most likely on his mind during the moments immediately prior to his graphic demise.
With the first shot apparently missing JFK’s limousine, the president, like his wife, may have interpreted the sound as a backfire from one of the police escort motorcycles. But there was sufficient time between the second shot, which hit both Kennedy and Governor Connally — perhaps as long as seven seconds – and the final, fatal shot that struck him in the head, for the president to determine that he had been wounded.
The second bullet fired struck Kennedy’s upper right shoulder, exited his throat just below the Adams Apple, going on to burrow through Connally’s back, chest, wrist and thigh. At that moment four events took place which would have occupied JFK’s senses: 1) the pain he experienced, the extent of which we will never know, from the bullet that traversed his neck; 2) the touch of his wife’s left, white-gloved hand on his raised left forearm; 3) his awareness of the limousine’s temporary reduction in speed as the Secret Service driver slowed the vehicle; and 4) the sound of Governor Connally’s alarming shriek, “No, no, no! They’re going to kill us all!”
It is possible that a wave of cogitations were rushing through President Kennedy’s mind in those final seconds of his life. Jacqueline Kennedy later described the expression on her husband’s face as “quizzical.” Nellie Connally, who briefly glanced at the president, said there was a “surprised” look in his eyes. JFK may have been shocked, as was President William McKinley when he was shot in 1901, by the immediate realization that someone was attempting to assassinate him. Or was his concern solely for Jackie’s safety?
But if the immediacy of such a perilous moment means anything, it was the urgency of Governor Connally’s scream, “They’re going to kill us all!” that likely dominated that instant and in all probability preoccupied the president. Even as Jackie’s left hand cradled her husband’s arm, enlarged frames from the Zapruder film definitively depict her looking at Connally as he cried out in agony. The president, seated merely inches behind the governor, also had no choice but to observe Connally and hear his high-pitched blare of trepidation. John F. Kennedy was known to be a man of valor. He wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about courage; and his own successful wartime efforts in saving the majority of his crew when PT-109 was cut in two by a Japanese destroyer twenty years earlier, was indicative of his inherent bravery. JFK also endured immense physical pain throughout his life – serious back and stomach ailments, including Addison’s disease — with little complaint. It is therefore doubtful that, even if Kennedy could have uttered an articulate word with a bullet hole in his throat, he would have joined Connally in bellowing a similar warning.
On that fateful day in history, the president and the governor happened to be the same age – 46. Both were World War II Naval veterans and each aspired to high public office. Otherwise, the men were quite different in temperament. Is it possible that John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s last conscious thought was, “Why is Connally making such a spectacle of himself?”
We will never know.