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A tragedy that can't be forgotten

A recent survey found that the Nov. 22, 1963 slaying of President John F. Kennedy was television's most memorable broadcast. As a former Times Washington reporter trying to cover the epic drama, I experienced the most shattering story of my reportorial career and I am not over it yet, 27 years afterward. As a regional correspondent I didn't join the White House press corps when it accompanied President Kennedy to Dallas. I was up in the Senate press gallery shortly after noon, listening to some tedious speech-making when the Senate reading clerk, his hands shaking, passed the word that the president had been shot.

Pandemonium broke out on the floor. Staid senators began rushing around aimlessly, while some slumped at their desks. The reporters leaned over the rail and shouted down to the floor with scraps of wire copy in our hands. And, then, spontaneously we all ran to the floor of the Senate _ where reporters are never admitted _ to get a quote, to find out what they knew.

I recall reaching the chaplain of the Senate, Frederick Brown Harris, a spare and elderly man, only to see him looking so stricken and speechless that I wanted to put my arm around him in consolation. The scene was so chaotic that few reporters got any quotes; senators and scribblers alike were sobbing. Within half an hour word came that JFK was dead.

I walked the long path down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, trying to get a grip on my thoughts. With shaky hands I presented my White House pass to a guard at the gate who looked away as he wrote my name in. "I can't believe it, can you?" he said, departing from the impersonal, brisk demeanor of the gatekeeper.

Inside the White House, reporters were milling around, virtually interviewing each other. I spotted a college classmate, Bob Jensen, correspondent for an Albany, N.Y. paper.

"Bob," I said, "words won't come to me. How can I write a story if I can't even think of a lead?"

Jensen took me around the corner to a small restaurant and just started telling Kennedy anecdotes till I calmed down. We knew what hurt _ this president had held our hopes, he was the president of the World War II vets, the other young idealists who had hoped he would make politics responsive and relevant. Suddenly he was gone!

Jensen and I found a TV set. We wanted to get away from the herd of reporters inside the White House. The dreadful assassination scene was repeated time and time again on a grainy, black and white screen; over and over I saw Jackie Kennedy in her pert pillbox hat, trying to climb out of the back of the open convertible; saw Nellie Connally bending low over her wounded husband; and then more frantic scenes at Parkland Hospital.

Then it was nightfall and I was bumping along D.C. streets in a press bus to Andrews Air Force Base, where I saw Mrs. Kennedy framed in the doorway of Air Force One, her pink skirt stained with her husband's blood.

She stood stoically two days later in the Capitol rotunda, with her children, gazing composedly at the flag-draped coffin. I spotted the Rev. Billy Graham lean over and touch Press Secretary Pierre Salinger;s shoulder: "Oswald's dead," he whispered. Salinger only nodded.

Later I asked Graham what he thought: "It's incredible," he said, "you don't believe this is happening. It's as if a new set of demons is loose in the country _ a satanic force!"

And then another day _ Mrs. Kennedy walking from the White House to St. Matthews church, flanked by JFK's brothers _ one of whom would live only five more years before he, too, would be killed. There we stood on the curving White House drive watching the world's leaders follow her _ towering Charles de Gaulle of France next to the tiny Hailie Selassie of Ethiopia.

Finally, on the cold press bleachers at Arlington cemetery I watched the black-veiled widow, still composed, amid the trappings of state, the riderless horse "Black Jack," the first flicker of the eternal flame at the president's grave. For me, as for all citizens glued to their television sets, the pageantry was now beyond tears.

My Washington days had begun in the euphoria of the Kennedy years. Though I remained there 24 more years, the city was never the same again, nor was I.

Jerry Blizin was a Times reporter for 17 years. He is retired and lives in Tarpon Springs.

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