As general counsel for the U.S. Army, Joseph A. Califano Jr. dealt with political, legal and military bombast.
But his most unforgettable task involved sudden solemnity: less than a day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, he had to help pinpoint a proper presidential gravesite.
Shortly after the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy requested that the final resting place for her husband, a Navy veteran, be Arlington National Cemetery. The actual plot would be picked by Robert Kennedy, with the consultation of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
The night of Nov. 22, McNamara phoned Califano, who had just hurriedly returned to the Capitol from West Virginia. McNamara discussed the choice of Arlington.
“You’ve got to go over there tomorrow,” McNamara told Califano. “Mrs. Kennedy wants the president buried at Arlington. And you have to meet his brother there.”
The next morning at Arlington, Califano encountered skies as dark as Robert Kennedy’s mood.
“It was pouring rain,” Califano says. “And he was shattered. Totally shattered. He was like a guy who was only bones.
“He was the saddest person I ever saw in my life.”
They trudged about, scanning the terrain. Kennedy eventually spotted three acres to his liking.
“This is where we’ll bury the president,” Robert Kennedy said somberly.
Robert Kennedy left, and Califano went to work. Plans were moving fast, as the funeral would be Monday. That morning, aSaturday, he had the courthouse opened in Arlington County, Va., so he could oversee a fast title search to ensure the land was available.
Next, he met with the team installing the Eternal Flame, as requested by the president’s widow. They had to lay the line quickly, but safely.
“We made sure high heels wouldn’t spike it during interment,” Califano says.
Califano, who now works in New York City, says he often thinks of that rainy day in 1963.
“It was incredible,” he says. “I’ll never forget Robert Kennedy.”
After his assassination on June 6, 1968, Robert Kennedy was buried near his brother.