Kennedy’s funeral was impeccably organised and brilliantly regulated. What an aura the man had.
Watching the funeral services held for President George H.W. Bush earlier this week in Washington and Houston, I was reminded of the funeral of President John F Kennedy in November 1963, President Charles de Gaulle in December 1970 and that of President Ronald Regan in 2004.
I attended all three. On 22 November 1963, I was driving to the United Nations from my apartment at 404 East 66th Street. I had the car radio on. Abruptly the music stopped. The announcement that followed was so unexpected that it took me a few seconds to take it in. President John F. Kennedy had been shot in the head in Dallas. Within a few minutes I reached the UN, rushed to inform Smt Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit of the radio announcement. She was having lunch in the Delegates dining room. She had already heard the news, asking me to keep her informed of the President’s condition. Within an hour he was declared dead. Manhattan, the busiest and mobile piece of real estate on earth, almost came to halt. A frightening, feeling settled on the city. In September, the President had addressed the UN General Assembly. That was the only time I saw him. What an aura the man had. Handsome, six feet tall, stylish. The General Assembly hall was full. The delegates so accustomed to hear inane, platitudinous speeches were spellbound. Like Jawaharlal Nehru, Kennedy was a lover of words and phrases. Nehru wrote his own speeches. Kennedy had brilliant speech writers.
The question arose: who should represent India at the President’s funeral? Jawaharlal Nehru was not well. Vijayalakshmi Pandit would represent India. The funeral was scheduled for 25 November.
Shrimati Pandit arrived in Washington on 24 November. I accompanied her. The funeral was attended by Emperors, Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Vice-Presidents and Foreign Ministers from over 120 countries. It was impeccably organised and brilliantly regulated. It was a rainy day. The tall figure of President Charles de Gaulle outshone all other representatives. The burial took place at Arlington cemetery on a green sloping hill. The most moving sight was to see the President’s brother, Robert Kennedy hand over Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy the US flag that was spread over the coffin. It was folded to the appropriate size.
In the evening, Mrs Kennedy hosted a reception at the White House. General de Gaulle, spotting Smt. Pandit, walked over to her, asking, “How is your brother?” She replied, “He is having his problems.” De Gaulle, “Tell him, I am having mine.”
President Charles de Gaulle died on 9 November 1970. He had left instructions: “I want my funeral to take place at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises (his home in Lorraine, an hour’s drive from Paris). If I die elsewhere, my body must be brought home, without any public ceremony.
“My grave will be the one in which my daughter Anne lies and where one day my wife too will lie. Inscription. Charles de Gaulle 1890…”
He was too great a man to be allowed a private funeral according to his wishes. Which were rightly ignored.
His death was not made public till 10 November. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi arrived in Paris on 11 November to participate in the funeral ceremony the next day. I accompanied her. The memorial service was organised at the historic Notre-Dame cathedral. The attendance was as impressive as that for John F. Kennedy. A reception was held by President George Pompidou at the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the Presidents of France. Mrs Gandhi, Ambassador Chatterjee and I were at the reception.
In 2004, I, as External Affairs Minister, represented India at President Ronald Reagan’s funeral service, held at the Cathedral in Washington.