Here it is again. Another anniversary of the day the World exploded for so manyof us with the ashes still heavy on our shoulders, the day my generation lost its innocence and all of us were Irish.
It was the late Daniel Patrick Monynihan, who was then an assistant Secretary of Labor in the Kennedy Administration, who said “You can’t be Irish without knowing that someday the World will break your heart.”
It was a slow Friday and Chet Curtis and I, two reporters working for the Washington CBS affiiate WTOP-TV, were sitting in the press’s front row of seats overlooking the U S Senate Chamber. I had joined WTOP two weeks after Kennedy was Inaugurated and on that day in the Senate considered myself a news veteran (Ha, Ha, the arrogance and stupidity of youth).
Senator Edward Kennedy was the Presiding Officer (freshmen Senators pulled that duty when nothing much was going on) and Winston Prouty, Republican Senator from Vermont was droning on about a Library Services bill that was the business before the Chamber.
I can see what happened next as if it were happening before my eyes at this moment.
Suddenly a Senate Democratic aide named Richard Rydell rushed through the cloakroom door and spoke to Florida Senator Spessard Holland who was seated at his desk near the door. I’m sure I wasn’t paying much attention to this; Senate aides routinely came on the floor to talk to Senators. But in this case Holland got up from his chair and approached the podium where Edward Kennedy was seated.
Meanwhile, Rydell moved quickly to speak to Mike Mansfield, the Majority leader, and then to Everett Dirksen, the Minority leader who was seated across the center asile from Mansfield.
Rydell moved along the Republican side and spoke to New Jersey Senator Clifford Case. And about that time, Holland had reached the Podium and whispered to Edward Kennedy.
Kennedy abruptly closed his file notebook and rushed out; Hollard took his place as the Presiding Officer. I got a glimpse of Kennedy’s face and didn’t like what I saw.
Certainly by this time it was clear to anyone watching that something highly unusual was taking place. I did what was certainly not permitted, I leaned over the press row railing and loudly hailed Senator Case.
“Senator Case, what’s going on,” I asked.
He replied “Cannon has been shot (later I’ll elaborate on this)”
I was shocked to hear that Nevade Senator Howard Cannon had been shot and moved quickly out of the Chamber into the adjacent hallway.
The door to the Radio and Television workspace Gallery was across the hall and Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire was just walking in for a routine television interview with someone else. I told him what Case had told me, “Cannon has been shot,” before running down stairs to the cloakroom where Senators were gathered around the wire machines reading the copy.
The first word came from UPI, whose White House Correspondent Merriman Smith grabbed the only phone in the press car and dictated all he knew: “Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas.” It went on the wire as a bulletin.
Within about two or three minutes, the motorcade had reached Parkland Hospital, and Smith ran up to Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent who jumped on the back of the presidential limousine and kept Jackie Kennedy from falling into the street.
“How is he Clint,” asked Smith.
“He’s dead,” replied Hill who had seen the body with its gaping head wound being carried into the Hospital. But Smith knew he could not send out that message without official confirmation.
Smith then dictated that the President had been wounded, ” perhaps seriously (and then he added in a signal many in the cloakroom caught), perhaps fatally.” That was the news the Senators had when I got to the cloakroom and discovered who had actually been shot.
After a considerable, but understandable wait, Malcom Kilduff, Assistant White House press secretary, told the reporters the grim offical news. And UPI sent out a two word Flash (the highest wire service mesage alert): “President Dead.”
The Senate had recessed and Mike Mansfield had come up to the Radio and Television Gallery. He said he would not make any statement until he had confirmation from the White House. I called the White House for him and got Kennedy Assistant Ralph Dungan on the line. Dungan confirmed the news that Kennedy was dead (more about this later).
For me, during these early hours, I was aware of the terrible nature of what had happened, aware and shocked, but was not thinking of a personal reaction. Several times I called in what I learned from the Senate and finally the assignment editor and I decided I should go to Andrews Air Force Base to witness the arrival of the 707 plane numbered 26000, carrying the dead and new presidents.
From outside the fence enclosing the apron where the plane parked (but quite close visually) I watched Robert Kennedy board the plane, then the casket and Jackie Kennedy and Bobby ride down in the moveable ramp that carried the party to the ground.
An ambulance bearing the body quickly departed. I’m sure there must have been police escorts but at the point the ambulance came out of the gate from the apron my only recollection – embedded in my memory – is that of Jackie Kennedy riding in the front passenger seat beside the driver, looking striken as if in a trance. We know she was still wearing the suit with her husband’s blood on it but I didn’t see any of that.
President Lyndon Johnson gave a brief, appropriate television address expressing the anguish the Nation felt and promising to carry on.
I returned to Broadcast House, the name of the building which housed WTOP-AM-FM-TV, and participated in our local “cut ins” within the larger CBS network coverage.
After work we were all exhausted, no one went out for a drink as far as I knew; we just wanted to go home and sleep.
The next morning I woke up and cried.
You have all seen onTelevision or read about the next three days and I have nothing much to add.
The casket to Capitol Hill with the riderless horse, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the Funeral Procession from the White House with Le Grand Charles de Gaulle, President of Franch and other world leaders marching solemly up the street to the Cathedral, little John John saluting his dead father and the burial and taps below Robert E Lee’s home in Arlington Cemetary where the “Eternal Flame” burns brightly to this day.
For me and for so many other Americans it was an event that broke our hearts. One which I’m convinced altered for the worst American and thus World History.
Just as Lincoln’s assasination prevented his plan for generous reconciliation with the South from going into effect, Kenendy’s assasination led to a terrible full fledged plunge into Vietnam rather than a withdrawal that he had told friends he would undertake once re-elected in 1964.
Vietnam is costing us still.
Today, John F Kennedy lives in our memories, forever handsome, forever young. Yes, his flaws eventually exposed, but for me the flaws were overshawdowed by the spirit and optimism he projected into an ageing Country, lifting us for a time into a new and exciting age and by an unfilled promise of greatness.
I saw him both at the White House and elsewhere several times but only as a local reporter on the fringe of the press crowd. I attended a few of his press conferences held in the State Department auditorium but sat in the back and didn’t have the courage to try to ask him a question.
Once, as he was leaving the Rose Garden after some routine ceremony whose purpose I can’t remember (perhaps Teacher of the Year) we exchanged a few words which he initiated. They were really of no importance.
Except to me.
Later I got to know several of Kennedy’s aides quite well, particuarly his press secretary Pierre Salinger and his principal speech writer Ted Sorenson (both now deceased).
I had dealt with them both, particularly Pierre, when they were in the White House and later became good friends with Pierre when some years later he joined ABC News as a senior roving correspondent.
Sorenson wrote Kennedy’s speeches and most of us believe he was the author – first on the campaign trail, then for the Inaurgural address – of the famous line “Ask not what your Country can do for you – Ask what you can do for your Country.” But when he was asked if it was true that he was the true author of that line his reply was always “Ask not.”
Sorenson once told me an interestng story (which he may well have told others) about what happened when the first Kennedy/Nixon debate was over – that was the debate that many believed enabled a calm, articulate Kennedy faceing a sweating Nixon, to win the election.
Sorenson said that when the debate was over Kennedy couldn’t wait to call his father to ask how his father thought he had done. But there was no privacy in the Chicago studio so Kennedy and Sorenson went down to the street and found a pay phone.
However, to get the operator you had to drop a coin in the phone’s change slot and Kennedy, who notoriously never carried any money, didn’t have a coin. Sorenson says he lent Kennedy a quarter.
“Did he pay your back,” I asked Sorenson.
“Nope,” said Ted, “when the call was over he just reached in the return tray and put it in his pocket. I’m still waiting (added Sorenson with a loving grin).”
And now, to add to the two matters on which I promised to elaborate.
First – Case told me “Cannon has been shot.”
That’s what I thought I heard him say and some time later when I ran into Senator Case I confessed to him I had gotten it wrong. I said it must have been that my mind simply just didn’t want to accept the horrible truth.
Case replied, “Oh, I know how the mind can do that. You say you thought I had said “Cannon?” Guess what. That’s what I told you, that’s what I thought Rydell had told me!”
But there’s more.
Much, much later, Senator Proxmire told me that when I had broken the terrible news to him as he was walking to the Radio Television Gallery door he thought I had told him Cannon had been shot.
“Funny how at a time like that the mind plays such tricks,” said Proxmire.
“It certanly is,” I replied but am ashamed to confess, like a coward let it go at that.
Now, as to phoning the White House that day for Mike Mansfield.
When Oliver Stone’s movie JFK was released, I did a lengthy story about it with him for ourABC Magzine program “PrimeTimeLive.” Stone had never visited JFK’s grave so I took him there as well as interveiwing him about his film.
Oliver Stone is a great film maker but in the case of JFK being so good is dangerous in that this film is not factual but if you don’t know that from other sources you can be misled down a path of ignorance.
Stone’s JFK paints a picture of top military officers and, he implies, perhaps Lyndon Johnson conspiring to kill Kennedy. He features the New Orlean’s District Attorney’s effort to discredit the “single bullet” theory of the Warren Commission Report and the DA’s effort to involve a local New Orleans man in the Assasination plot.
It is all brilliantly produced nonsense. And I knew of my own personal knowledge at least one thing that Stone got wrong in dispensing this nonsense.
The move says that as part of that Plot, for one hour after the shots were fired none of the telephones worked in Washington D.C., none of them- Ah Ha!
On camera, I asked Stone whether that was true. He said it was absolutely true.
I then told him that from a land line phone on Capitol Hill (there were no cell phones in that time) I made a dozen calls during that first hour, including one to the White House for Senator Mansfield. The phones worked.
“We tried to check everything,” said Stone, “I’m sorry if we got it wrong.”
Oh, Oiver, remember “close” doesn’t count excapt in horseshoes and handgrenades.
Particularly, when it comes to the Assasination of a President.