As we reflect on the sixtieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy this month, consumer finance lawyers may take interest in a little-noticed bit of history. The assassination delayed Congressional consideration of the Truth in Lending Act (TILA). A Boston field hearing on TILA that fateful day was abruptly halted upon news of the tragedy. The hearing continued two months later, in early 1964, but momentum for the law, which had been increasing over recent years, began to wane dramatically. As the country reeled and new political realities set in, lawmakers’ focus drifted elsewhere. TILA would have to wait another five years until its eventual passage in 1968.
On the morning of November 22, 1963, while the president traveled to Dallas, a Senate Committee on Banking and Currency subcommittee convened in the president’s home state of Massachusetts, in Boston, for the first of what would have been two days of hearings on S. 750, an early version of the legislation that eventually became TILA. The Boston hearing followed similar field hearings that year in New York, Pittsburgh, and Louisville, as well as several other hearings on the legislation dating back to 1960. Senator Paul H. Douglas (D-IL) chaired the hearing, as he did in the other cities. In Boston, just one other senator, Wallace F. Bennett (R-UT), joined him.
The two heard from several proponents of the legislation during the morning session, which began at 10:00 a.m. eastern time. (The president was in Houston then, preparing to fly to Dallas.) The first witness was the governor of Massachusetts, Endicott Peabody, who expressed support for the bill and welcomed a federal solution to the “incongruous hodgepodge of laws” governing consumer credit in Massachusetts and other states. Other witnesses included the state’s commissioner of banks, three state representatives, and several banking and retail industry representatives.
The hearing adjourned at 1:07 p.m. for lunch, with an announced resumption time of 2:30. The president was now in Dallas, where it was 12:07 p.m. central time. He was seventeen minutes into his motorcade route through the city, on his way to a luncheon at the Dallas Trade Mart. While the senators in Boston began their break, Kennedy may have been shaking hands with a supporter or chatting with a nun during one of two impromptu stops along the way. Twenty-three minutes later, at 12:30, the president was shot.
In Boston, Senators Douglas and Bennett were presumably just sitting down for lunch. All three major TV networks dispensed with their normal programming that afternoon, but it was on CBS where Walter Cronkite delivered the command performance that lives on in popular memory. The network initially cut into its daytime programming to cover the shooting at 1:40 p.m. eastern time, with the first report stating only that the president was shot and wounded. The two senators were no doubt informed immediately and may have watched the unfolding broadcast on CBS or elsewhere. Cronkite relayed wire service updates as they were handed to him, each more grim than the prior, culminating in his enduring proclamation: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official—President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. central standard time, two o’clock eastern standard time, some thirty-eight minutes ago.”
Senator Douglas immediately reconvened the hearing:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States is dead. The country and the world has suffered a great loss. The hearings will be adjourned. Those who wish to submit statements will send them to Washington to be filed. I am going to ask that we all stand and observe a minute of silent prayer and then I am going to ask Father McEwen to lead us in prayer.”
Rev. Robert J. McEwen was chair of the Boston College economics department and slated to testify in support of the bill the next day. After a moment of silence was observed, he recited the Lord’s Prayer, which is noted in the record. According to the hearing transcript, the subcommittee adjourned for good at 2:37 p.m. The slight timing difference between Cronkite’s announcement and the hearing’s adjournment may be explained by out-of-sync clocks, or Senator Douglas may have received some reliable confirmation of Kennedy’s death just prior to the Cronkite report (ABC is said to have broken the news just before CBS). In any event, the hearing adjourned, and the senators returned to Washington.
On January 11, 1964, the hearing resumed in Boston. Senators Douglas and Bennett were joined this time by Senator Milward Simpson (R-WY) Chairing the hearing, Senator Douglas acknowledged “the tragic and terrible assassination” and expressed his desire to complete the aborted hearing. Witnesses in favor (including Father McEwen) and against the legislation alternated throughout the morning and afternoon sessions. When the January hearing concluded, it would be the last TILA hearing for more than three years, a marked break from the increasing drumbeat of hearings that had started in 1960 and gained momentum in the following three years.
The assassination permeated and disrupted every aspect of life in the United States that day. It tinged the course of history in countless ways, large and small, including the development of consumer credit regulation. While the sudden cancellation of the Boston field hearing on TILA on November 22, 1963, is a minor historical footnote to a devastating day in America, it’s also a reminder of the unsparing reach of tragedy.