I was in my school assembly on that fateful Friday when our head teacher told us President Kennedy had been assassinated.


The days afterwards introduced me for the first time to the concept of “rolling news”. Schedules on the two TV channels we had in 1963 were ripped up as events in Dallas were relayed to us in fuzzy black and white pictures. American commentators referred to the city’s shopping malls and the Deeley Plaza, features of urban design unknown to me at the time.


By the Saturday, with President Johnson installed, we all wondered how would the TV Show “That Was The Week That Was” deal with this? Normally full of irreverent satire, instead the show’s singer, Millicent Martin, donned a black dress to sing “In the Summer Of His Years”.


The rolling news coverage had further drama on the Sunday when Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself killed by Jack Ruby who was outraged at Oswald’s action.


Whether you believe that last paragraph or join 80% of the American people who now think there was a more sinister explanation of the events in Dallas is up to you. I don’t want to detain you with all the conspiracy theories that have everyone from the CIA and Lyndon Johnson to the military and the mob wanting Kennedy dead. Suffice to say that when the Warren Commission reported in 1964 that Oswald had acted alone, most Americans believed it. The came Vietnam and Watergate which eroded confidence in U.S institutions and allowed the conspiracy theorists to be believed.




My school friends and I were genuinely distressed at the news from Dallas. I suppose it was partly a teenage realisation that bad, violent things were going to happen in our lives just as they had in our parents. It was also because we genuinely admired this cool President and his glamorous wife. The ending of the Presidency of dowdy Dwight Eisenhower and the inauguration of Jack Kennedy with that declaration “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”, seemed to chime with the arrival of the Beatles and the swinging sixties. Our generation had arrived and Jack Kennedy was our champion.


But what if he had lived? It is likely he would have got a second term and left office in 1969. Would his bright progressive image have remained untarnished? Probably not. The big question here is Vietnam. Even during Kennedy’s thousand days, the number of American “advisors” in South Vietnam was growing. The communist regime in North Vietnam had responded. Some believe that Kennedy wanted to get out of Vietnam and would have done so after re-election. But this was a man of the cold War era. He had tried to invade Cuba and then faced down the Soviet Union over the deployment of nuclear weapons on that island.


If he had followed the course of his successor and heavily committed American ground forces, he might have left office with the voices of protest ringing in his ears “Hey, hey JFK (not LBJ) how many kids have you killed today?”


There is also the issue of civil rights. It is a legislative fact that it was Johnson not Kennedy that swept away the last vestiges of segregation in the American South. Kennedy soft peddled on reform believing he needed the support of southern Democrats, many of whom were hostile to desegregation. As it was LBJ faced major race riots in Los Angeles in 1965. Could things have been worse with a second term Kennedy administration unwilling to accede to the demand for black rights?


The events in Dallas fifty years ago prevent us answering these questions.



I share everyone’s disgust at the sight of children dying on our TV screens from the effects of chemical weapons. They were made illegal in 1925. But napalm isn’t illegal. Agent Orange ( used by America in Vietnam) isn’t illegal and nor is the most poisonous and indiscriminate weapon of all, nuclear bombs. The latter is possessed in large number by the United States and France who look most likely to “fire a shot across the bows” of President Assad of Syria sometime soon.


I have always had a problem with rules of war. It makes the whole ghastly business seem like a game. I suppose we need rules on the treatment of captured servicemen but we had better realise that war is bloody where awful things can and will happen. Trying to regulate it is going to be increasingly difficult now that people in the West are heartily sick of kicking over hornets nests in the Middle East.


Britain and France share historic blame for carving up the Middle East in the way we did in 1919. We hadn’t a clue about Sunni and Shia. T.E. Lawrence had a better plan for Greater Arabia. But we are where we are. On the one side Assad who’s very ordinariness personifies the blandness of evil. On the other a mixture of liberals, religious fanatics and terrorists. Removing dictators is problematic. For instance Israel is not seriously threatened by Assad but if Syria is taken over by an Iranian friendly regime a general war could break out from the flashpoint of the Golan Heights.


Russia rather than America offers the slimmest possibility of sorting this out. Will Putin rise to his responsibilities or stick with being a well buffed semi dictator?



We probably have Ed Miliband to thank for stopping David Cameron and President Obama firing “shots across the bow” of President Assad last weekend. But no sooner had Ed got the credit for reflecting public unease on action against Syria than he was facing a big problem back home. The GMB union has cut its affiliation fees to Labour by a million pounds. This follows Miliband’s decision to try and make membership of the Labour Party honest. At the moment it is padded out by trade unionists who are deemed members unless they opt out of the political levy part of their membership fee.


The leader’s move will cause Labour huge financial problems and he is likely to get a cool reception at the Trades Union Congress in Bournemouth next week. But ultimately there is a lot in the idea of getting people either to engage with the party properly or walk away and take the consequences of continued Tory governments.

If Labour is impoverished and the election battle becomes unfair as it tries to fight a well funded Tory Party perhaps pressure will build to limit donations to them too. That would be a good thing for politics, after all much of the money raised is wasted in a poster arms race at election time.



They don’t do dynastic succession in Blackburn. There was a possibility that Jack Straw would retire and hand the seat to his son Will in 2015.Instead Will is taking on neighbouring Rossendale currently marginally held by the Tories. Let’s hope we have the benefit of both generations of Straw speaking up for the North after 2015.



When I interviewed the late Sir David Frost about his book on the Nixon interviews, I asked him if he had reflected on the fact that in the autumn of 1962 while Frost was launching That Was The Week That Was Nixon lost the governorship of California following his Presidential defeat two years earlier. He bitterly remarked to the press “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more”.


However he did come back and they did kick him around over Watergate which provided Frost with his greatest interview. David smiled at me and said no he hadn’t “That is a special Jim thought”. Nice man. We will miss him.