Friday, November 22, 2013

50 Years Ago Today

I had a friend who refused to date anyone who wasn't old enough to remember when John F Kennedy was shot. If shared experience is the glue that binds relationships, his reasoning was sound. Moments from November 22, 1963 are as clear in my mind as if they occurred yesterday. The President of the United States was assassinated. The world changed, no exaggeration, none.

My route home from school, November 22, 1963
I was a 5th grader at Park View Elementary School in Morton Grove, Illinois. It was an unexpectedly pleasant late November day, not requiring a coat, or even a light jacket as the day wore on. The high in Chicago was 63 degrees with a pleasant southerly breeze
It promised to become a day of fun and freedom for a fidgety adolescent who hated being trapped indoors, because teacher training was scheduled. To accommodate, school let out two and one half hours early at 1:00 pm. I looked forward to picking up my basketball and going over to Mansfield Park to shoot some hoops.

On the way home a classmate called across the street. "The President was shot." she said. "Ha, ha!" I said, "Sure." not believing her, then continued on my way.  I went left down "Muddy" Moody and then right up Davis Street next to the Forest Preserve, bypassing the straight, conventional patrol boy and crossing guard staffed, walk-to-school route that went down Lake Street.

Many say the world changed that day due to the loss of innocence. It was a tragic, unsettling and frightening event. President Kennedy's assassination marked when the tumultuous 1960's era began in earnest -- war, rioting, civil and political unrest and multiple assassinations. Uncertainty and change roiled. We felt suddenly vulnerable. This is all true. 

For myself, however, whatever innocence and sense of invulnerability I had was lost a year previous, during the Cuban missile crisis, when my parents pulled me aside to tell me that Soviet Premier Khrushchev's incursion most likely would result in World War III. The newspapers published graphics showing the range of Cuban launched missiles including the Chicago Metropolitan area. I imagined nuclear mushroom clouds sprouting all about. What unambiguously changed on November 22, 1963, virtually from the moment the President was shot, is that for the first time we experienced saturation television coverage of an event.   

LBJ swearing in on Air Force One.
Assassination images were plastered across TV screens -- the confused and stunned crowd milling around in front of the emergency room at Dallas Parkland Hospital, film of the First Lady and President landing at Love Field that morning and smiling and waving at adoring crowds through the streets of downtown Dallas, and of Lee Harvey Oswald proclaiming "I'm just a patsy" while escorted in police custody. The picture of Lyndon Baines Johnson's impromptu Air Force One swearing in ceremony was flashed across the airwaves in near real time. Ultimately, Oswald's murder was broadcast on live TV.  

Here is how some of the media saw the process.

Until that fall the nightly national newscasts had occupied 15 minute time slots, with a few grainy black and white film clips spliced in. Instead of a news crawl at the bottom of the screen, stationary studio cameras revealed the anchor paging through his script, looking up periodically to feign eye contact. But as the assassination story played out that day, lead news anchors Walter Cronkite (CBS) and Chet Huntley (NBC) were on the TV hour after hour and minute by minute, filtering and reporting news as it came in.
HUNTLEY: In this moment I would assume that the memory of every person listening at this moment would flashback to that day in April 1945 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt… 
RYAN: Excuse me Chet, here is a flash from the Associated Press, Dateline, Dallas. Two priests who were with President Kennedy say he is dead of bullet wounds. There is no further confirmation but this is what we have on a flash basis from the Associated Press. Two priests in Dallas who were with President Kennedy say he is dead of bullet wounds. There is no further confirmation. This is the only word we have indicating that the President may in fact have lost his life, it has just moved on the Associated Press wires from Dallas. The two priests were called to the hospital to administer the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church and it is from them we get the word that the President has died, that the bullets inflicted on him as he rode in a motorcade through Downtown Dallas have been fatal. We remind you there is no official confirmation of this from any source as yet, 
McGEE: Bill, just a moment before you brought the flash, I had word from the hospital that the Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife had just left the hospital, been rushed away into a motorcade and departed. 
RYAN: This Frank might--might be confirmation of the flash. 
HUNTLEY: We must standby for confirmation. As Bill has emphasized this is rather sketchy information. We will stand by, we should have…. 
RYAN: Now, there apparently is word that this AP flash, this report from the two priests that the President has died of bullet wounds is confirmed. We will attempt now to get to station WBAP-TV in Fort Worth, Dallas for confirmation, we go to newsman Tom Murphy. 
TOM MURPHY, reporting: Substantiating this but not confirming it is a report about five minutes ago by the Dallas Police Department to all of its officers that the President had died. Some three to five minutes later the AP flash that two priests at the hospital say the President is dead. Charles Murphy, returning now to NBC in New York.
Young reporters like Robert McNeil, Jim Lehrer, Bob Schieffer, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings made a big splash on the national stage with their assassination reporting.
Jackie Kennedy in blood-stained suit
accompanying coffin off of Air Force One.
CBS Radio/Television was the first to report, unofficially at the time, that Mr. Kennedy had died. "We just have a report from our correspondent Dan Rather in Dallas that he has confirmed that President Kennedy is dead,"Water Cronkite said on air. Rather was Chief of CBS's Southern bureau at the time and was in Dallas covering the event.
By the time Air Force One returned that evening to Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, DC network cameras were set up to give a live view of the chaotic scene of the coffin being unloaded into a food service truck, lowered and transferred to a hearse, accompanied by the grieving widow every step of the way. The First Lady remained dressed in her blood stained pink suit because "I want them to see what they've done to Jack," she said.

When I reached our home at the corner of Austin Avenue and Davis Street the front door was ajar beyond the closed screen door. As I reached for the handle I heard my mother sobbing inside the house. Uh, oh this is real I thought. The television marathon had begun.
"Once people heard this had happened, they were glued to their televisions because this was definitely not something they had experienced in their lifetimes," says Tevi Troy author of "What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Pop Culture in the White House." Within an hour of the shooting, 68 percent of Americans had heard the news; within two hours, 92 percent had heard, and half of them found out from TV or radio, according to a 1964 study in The Public Opinion Quarterly. 
"TV easily eclipsed newspapers that weekend as the main source of information for people as to what was going on," Layzell says. 
Not only did news of Kennedy's death reach Americans quickly via their TV screens, it stayed there for the days to come. "While we didn't see the assassination live, the television show about the assassination was a four-day long drama that played on national television," Thompson says. The infamous Zapruder film of the motorcade was not broadcast publicly until 1975, but the four days immediately after the shooting offered plenty of moments that became landmark television events. Cameras were waiting for Air Force One's 5:59 p.m. touchdown in Washington, D.C., with Kennedy's body and the newly sworn in President Lyndon Johnson on board, and they kept rolling throughout the weekend. The Big Three broadcast much of their assassination coverage without commercials. By Mayo's count, CBS clocked in with 55 total hours, ABC played 60 hours and NBC – airing an all-night vigil from the Capitol Rotunda on Sunday – broadcast 71 hours of coverage that weekend.
 "When we came out the other end of that Monday, there had been a sense that the possibilities and capabilities of live TV news coverage had explored and the parameters had been established in ways that I don't think people knew they were capable of doing," Thompson says. Counting its radio and TV divisions, which were often working in conjunction anyway, CBS used 600 employees over the weekend, ABC 500 and NBC 400, and the total cost of the four-day broadcast on TV and radio has been estimated at $30 million to 35 million, according to Mayo, or more than $225 million today .With many workplaces closed Friday afternoon once the news broke and Monday proclaimed a national day of mourning, Americans were a captive TV audience. According to Nielsen, 93 percent of U.S. homes watched ABC's, NBC's or CBS's coverage of the assassination – more than half of them for 13 or more straight hours. 
It was a communal experience like none before or since..

In later years when I visited Dallas on business, I was struck by how ordinary and nondescript the infamous stretch of Elm Street in front of the Texas School Book Depository. If one were just driving through you wouldn't blink, wouldn't notice a thing.

When we lived in Arlington Virginia we resided about a mile down the street from Arlington National Cemetery's rear entrance. On the other side of the Potomac, for much of my career I could look out my office window and see the Lee Mansion atop Arlington National brightly lit after dark, and the eternal flame of John F Kennedy's grave site flickering below. 

I took the big kids up into Arlington National to view the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns and visit the Kennedy grave site. When Ronald Reagan died I took the family in tow to watch the funeral procession march down Constitution Avenue, with the same horse drawn caisson that carried President Kennedy's casket followed by the riderless horse with reversed boot in stirrup.  When President Gerald Ford's remains lied in state in the US Capitol I waited in line to pay my respects. 

In our daily lives, and occasionally playing tourist, we frequented the processional routes and grand scenes of the Kennedy funeral up to the Capitol, along Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues and across Memorial Bridge linking the Lincoln Memorial (see the video at 29 through 31 minutes) with the entrance to Arlington National. These are sights I first became familiar with on black and white television in those emotionally dark and dreary days in 1963. 

The scenes around our National Capitol are large, majestic and beautiful and all still there. 

May John F Kennedy's eternal peace never be disturbed.  God rest his soul.
Contemporary photograph taken during a morning commute from Arlington, Virginia over Memorial Bridge into the District of Columbia.  Washington National Cathedral is background left, John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is center, and the Watergate complex background right.  Outside of photo range to the left is Arlington National Cemetery; to the right is the Lincoln Memorial.

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