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Reporting on a president's assassination

On the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, I was in the U.S. Senate press gallery, working as the correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times, when word came that the president had been shot in Dallas. These are my memories of that tragic weekend:

It all started that Friday at midday, when a reporter in the press gallery scanned a United Press International teleprinter and shouted "the president's been shot." We reporters rushed from the press gallery to the floor of the Senate, trying to get statements from the senators present, but the usually loquacious senators were nearly inarticulate.

Shocked, all of us soon learned the president had died half an hour after being rushed to Parkland Hospital. Even the chaplain of the Senate, Frederick Brown Harris, was at a loss for words. We all milled around chaotically, and I found myself unable to take good notes.

(Later, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican, would place a single red rose on the Senate desk that JFK had once used before being elected president.)

A pall fell swiftly over Washington as the biggest story of our time unfolded over the next three days. The president's visit to Dallas had taken place only four days after his triumphant visit to Tampa. But Dallas had been regarded as a politically hostile environment because, only a month before JFK's visit, demonstrators had spat on U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson as he gave a U.N. Day speech in the city.

By dinner time on Nov. 22, I was on a chartered press bus traveling from the White House to Andrews Air Force Base. Every news person aboard was silent except for one incessantly chattering reporter who was adroitly quieted by political columnist Mary McGrory. We arrived to see Jacqueline Kennedy in the doorway of Air Force One, wearing the pink Chanel suit stained with her husband's blood — an image that went round the world. Jackie was stolid, deadpan. Her bloody skirt told the awful story more clearly than tears.

From that moment on, over the ensuing days, the 34-year-old widow displayed incredible stoicism mixed with a sense of theater, that served to sustain a shocked and grieving nation. Three months before, Jackie had already experienced a tragic loss from which she still hadn't fully recovered. It was on Aug. 9 when her infant son, Patrick, died just a few hours after birth. Now she was a widow with two surviving children.

I found myself concentrating on Jackie in the stories I filed, noting "her young face composed beneath the black veil" as she led a procession of high-ranking mourners who walked from the White House to St. Matthew's Cathedral, where Mass was observed. Jackie was joined by the president's brothers, Bobby and Teddy, and his sister, Jean. It was a "walk between multitudes," I wrote in a story for the Times.

I stood on the White House driveway that day watching the towering French President Charles de Gaulle stand next to tiny Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, both in full military regalia, leading foreign dignitaries to the cathedral. They were but two of the 90 world leaders who came to pay homage.

The new resident — Lyndon Baines Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird — also walked in the procession, much to the discomfort of the Secret Service, who feared the possibility of an additional attack on the presidency or possibly on de Gaulle.

It was Jackie who cued her son, John-John, to salute his father's passing coffin the next day — an image that United Press International photographer Stan Stearns captured for eternity. And it was Jackie whose idea was to have an eternal flame, like the one at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, put in place at the Kennedy gravesite, to be ignited at JFK's burial on Monday.

The president's casket first was sent to the East Room in the White House. It was a shiny mahogany coffin that replaced the original case, damaged in the flight from Dallas. It reposed overnight in the East Room where Jackie could grieve privately.

The next day, the Military District of Washington arranged for the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the coffin's trip to the Capitol, where the president would lie in state.

Television dwelled heavily on this solemn spectacle of slowly marching military bands with muffled drums, as well as on Black Jack, the riderless horse that accompanied the caisson bearing the commander in chief's coffin to the Capitol.

Jackie came to the Capitol without her black veil but with her daughter Caroline at her side. (Three-year-old John Jr. was taken outside so as not to interrupt the ceremonies.) She kneeled to kiss the flag-draped mahogany coffin and for the first time, I and hundreds of reporters, saw her tears. For the rest of that day and all night long, thousands of ordinary citizens filed past JFK's coffin in an endless stream. The coffin was kept closed, according to Jackie's wishes. Police estimated 250,000 people filed past the president's coffin — as many people as those who assembled at the Lincoln Memorial three months earlier for the March on Washington.

Just before the official ceremonies began inside the Capitol, news of the death of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (shot dead by strip club owner Jack Ruby in the Dallas police station) quickly spread through the massive crowd of congressmen and other dignitaries.

I saw the Rev. Billy Graham touch the shoulder of press secretary Pierre Salinger. "Oswald is dead," he said. Salinger, who had been recalled stateside while flying to Japan with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and six Cabinet members when Kennedy was shot, only nodded. Graham went on to say: "It's incredible. You don't believe what is happening. It's as if a new set of demons is loose in the country — a satanic force…"

All conversation ceased as the military band struck up Hail to the Chief and a 21-gun salute was fired. Brief eulogies were given by Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, speaker of the House John McCormack and Chief Justice Earl Warren. Their words were barely audible in the vastness of the Rotunda.

The president's coffin, at the center of the Rotunda, had been set down by military pallbearers upon a platform called a catafalque. It was the same one that had held Abraham Lincoln's coffin in 1865. The wooden catafalque emitted a mournful booming sound when JFK's coffin was placed upon it.

By Monday, It seemed like the end of one long hallucinated fantasy when the burial of JFK took place at Arlington National Cemetery. LBJ had proclaimed Monday to be a national day of mourning.

It was bitterly cold. I shivered along with other members of the press who were assigned to bleachers erected near the grave, but thousands of spectators watched from beyond this area.

I clutched a White House press office handout. It was the speech Kennedy was to have given in Dallas. Some of the words never uttered included these: "…for this is a time for courage and a time of challenge … let us not quarrel among ourselves when the nation's future is at stake. ..."

None of us could take our eyes off the flame that flared up at graveside. Few knew or cared that it came from a jury-rigged propane tank and a piece of pipe, covered in greenery. The flickering eternal flame sent the message to the world that Jacqueline Kennedy wanted to send — the president is gone but the country endures.

Jerry Blizin was a St. Petersburg Times reporter for 17½ years, including serving as Washington correspondent from 1963 to 1965. He is retired and lives in Tarpon Springs. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Reporting on a president's assassination 11/14/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 15, 2013 4:21pm]
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