Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Trump sprinkles political attacks into Scout Jamboree speech

    GLEN JEAN, W.Va. — Ahead of President Donald Trump's appearance Monday at the National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, the troops were offered some advice on the gathering's official blog: Fully hydrate. Be "courteous" and "kind." And avoid the kind of divisive chants heard during the 2016 campaign such as "build …

    President Donald Trump addresses the Boy Scouts of America's 2017 National Scout Jamboree at the Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve in Glen Jean, W.Va., July 24, 2017. [New York Times]
  2. Trump, seething about attorney general, speculates about firing Sessions, sources say

    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has spoken with advisers about firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as he continues to rage against Sessions' decision to recuse himself from all matters related to the Russia investigation.

  3. John McCain to return to Senate for health care vote

    WASHINGTON — The Senate plans to vote Tuesday to try to advance a sweeping rewrite of the nation's health-care laws with the last-minute arrival of Sen. John McCain — but tough talk from President Donald Trump won no new public support from skeptical GOP senators for the flagging effort that all but …

  4. Last orca calf born in captivity at a SeaWorld park dies

    Tourism

    ORLANDO — The last killer whale born in captivity under SeaWorld's former orca-breeding program died Monday at the company's San Antonio, Texas, park, SeaWorld said.

    Thet orca Takara helps guide her newborn, Kyara, to the water's surface at SeaWorld San Antonio in San Antonio, Texas, in April. Kyara was the final killer whale born under SeaWorld's former orca-breeding program. The Orlando-based company says 3-month-old Kyara died Monday. [Chris Gotshall/SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment via AP]
  5. Blake Snell steps up, but Rays lose to Orioles anyway (w/video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Blake Snell stepped up when he had to Monday and delivered an impressive career-high seven-plus innings for the Rays. That it wasn't enough in what ended up a 5-0 loss to the Orioles that was their season-high fifth straight is symptomatic of the mess they are in right now.

    Tim Beckham stands hands on hips after being doubled off first.