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Of JFK, U2, telephones and security

Posted by on Thursday, August 4, 2011 in August 2011, Editor's Column.

President John F. Kennedy spoke at Vanderbilt Stadium on May 18, 1963. It was a large and appreciative crowd.

U2 played a concert at Vanderbilt Stadium on July 2, 2011. It was also a large and appreciative crowd.

I don’t mean to imply an equivalency between a president and a rock band, but I was struck by a couple of things that point up that things have changed a little in the 48 years between these two big events at the stadium.

At one point during the concert, U2 frontman Bono asked audience members to get out their cell phones, turn them on and hold them aloft, creating the illusion, within the darkened stadium, of a field of stars in the night sky. There were 45,000 people at the concert, and it’s a good bet that there were 40,000 cell phones in the crowd. It was quite an awesome sight, those thousands of points of light.

And that reminded me of a fact I stumbled across a while back while researching an article on JFK’s visit to Vanderbilt. (That article was published as a cover story in the Nashville Scene).

As part of Vanderbilt’s preparation to host the president’s speech, the University worked with the phone company (there was only one then) to run a new phone line out to the platform from which JFK was to speak, which was built in the middle of the football field. This was so that, in case the need arose for the commander-in-chief to instantly communicate by phone, he wouldn’t have to make his way to a nearby office or—picture this—a pay phone between a bathroom and a hot dog stand under the bleachers.

So, to sum up: in 1963, the number of phones inside a filled-to-capacity Vanderbilt stadium: one.

In 2011: 40,000.

I have no idea if this means the world is a better place or a worse place than it was 48 years ago, but, from a point of view of connectivity, it is sure a different place.

And you know what else is strange but true? Security for rock stars in 2011 is probably better than security was for presidents in 1963. (Well, until Nov. 23, 1963, anyway).

The president in 1963 had Secret Service protection, of course, but I think there was still a general belief in the good nature and good sense of most people. That is an assumption that, tragically, we have learned not to make.

Think of it this way. Did you know when the members of U2 arrived in Nashville? Did you know what route they traveled from the hotel (presumably) to the stadium? What the vehicle or vehicles they used to get around looked like? Of course, some people knew this stuff. Maybe a lot of people knew this stuff. But the general public didn’t.

But all that detailed information, and more, was printed in the newspapers about President Kennedy in 1963.


The paper said what time he would arrive at the airport—a big crowd met him there, and he caused consternation among his bodyguards by running over to the rope line and shaking hands.

The papers printed the exact route the motorcade would take from the airport to the stadium (down Murfreesboro Road to downtown, then out West End to Vanderbilt). Big crowds not only lined the route, but people were hanging from the windows of office buildings along the route, looking down at the president as he went by.

There were no metal detectors, pat-downs or searches at the gates of the stadium. Do you want in? Well, come on, citizen, and have a seat!

Most unbelievably, the papers assured everybody that they would get a good look at the president on the motorcade route because he would be riding in an open-top limousine.

It was only the spring of 1963, but it some ways it seems like a million years ago.

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