Friday, November 22, 1963 was a quiet news day in the Nation's Capitol. President John F. Kennedy was in Texas where he was hoping to mend some fences within the Democratic Party. Some members of the President's cabinet were also out of the city. In short, not much was happening in Washington.
Geneva and I had a bank account on "K" Street across the street from the news bureau and Friday was payday. At lunchtime, I strolled out to cash my check. It was a pretty day and I continued my stroll down the block passing, along the way, an open telephone company manhole. The workman was listening to the radio and it was turned up fairly loud.
Out of the ground came an urgent announcer saying, "... earlier in the day the President's limousine had the bubbletop (bullet proof) cover installed. But at the last minute, it had been removed .... "
"My God," I thought, "why is he talking about the bubbletop. Something is wrong." And I took off running back to the office. As I entered the studio, I heard the voice of Sid Davis, our White House correspondent on the phone from Dallas. He was filing his first report on the shooting of Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connolly. In his excitement, Sid signed off, "This is Sid Dallas reporting from Davis, Texas." After repairing the sign-off, we fed the report to our stations.
We didn't maintain a 24-hour network in those days so while a secretary transmitted Sid's report by phone to the seven Group W stations, I was busy with AT&T ordering up a fulltime line. It was just about noon in Washington. We didn't know, yet, whether the President was dead but it didn't sound good. Clearly, it was going to be a long day ... four days and nights non-stop, as it turned out. Within an hour or so, doctors in Dallas confirmed that President Kennedy had died of his wounds at the hand of a sniper in downtown Dallas. Events were now moving at breakneck speed.
Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, who had been traveling with Kennedy, would soon be sworn in as the new President. A federal judge named Sarah Hughes was rounded up to administer the oath of office. The swearing-in took place on board Air Force One on the runway at Love Field in Dallas. Crammed into the plane were a few reporters including Sid Davis. He had been selected as the "pool" reporter for the radio and TV networks. He covered the details and shared them with all of his colleagues.
In 1963, our little bureau had not expanded much yet. So, we began to figure out how to cover the biggest story of the decade. By 2 in the afternoon, the president of Westinghouse had told Jim Snyder that money was no object. "Jim," he said, " I want us to have the best radio coverage on the air." Snyder began calling our stations in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cleveland, and one in Canada. Their best reporters were dispatched to Washington in a hurry. A friend of mine owned a recording studio with four top engineers ... I called the owner, Ed Greene, and hired his entire staff round-the-clock for as long as we needed them. And we had an engineer flown in from our headquarters in New York.
By 6 or 7 in the evening, Group W people began to show up from around the country. Our network was now open and we were feeding live reports as fast as we could get them.
We would need solemn music to put on the network line when we weren't transmitting news. I called your Grandmother Geneva at our home in Potomac and had her bring a box full of classical music from our own record collection.
One of those recording studio engineers had arrived to man our control room. I called our electronic equipment supplier. They had closed for the day but they sent a salesman back to the store and he provided the additional microphones, earphones, cable, portable TV sets and the other items we would need to set up several remote broadcasting locations in the coming days.
And, finally, the phone company mobilized installers to put broadcasting lines and telephones in the places where we would be reporting ... the Capitol, St. Matthew's Cathedral, Arlington Cemetery, and places along the funeral parade route.
By the time Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, we had a reporter there who described the awful scene as the President's casket was taken from the plane and Mrs. Kennedy and President Johnson stepped out.
Jackie Kennedy was still wearing the clothes she wore 12 hours before when she and her husband stepped from their plane in Dallas. But now, her stylish pink outfit was splattered with blood.
Friday had been a sunny day in Washington. Saturday was not. A heavy rainstorm had moved in. The slain President's coffin was on view in the White House. People, by the thousands, waited outside in the rain for their turn to file past the catafalque in the East Room. One of our microphones was located in a position outside the West Wing. As we listened in the control room to that line, you could hear the relentless sound of the rain splashing in nearby puddles.
By now, our staff was full strength and we were originating live non-stop coverage. Most of us were living on coffee and cigarettes. In those days, I was a heavy smoker and I would be for a long time to come.
While we covered the Saturday story, we also had to plan for Sunday. The casket would be transferred to the rotunda of the Capitol building for a memorial service.
The assassination story, of course, still was unfolding in Dallas. Police had arrested and charged a man named Lee Harvey Oswald as the assassin. His arrest and the display of evidence was almost a circus. A good defense attorney could have argued that Oswald could never get a fair trial because of all the publicity.
But it wasn't going to make any difference. Just when it seemed the story couldn't get any more bizarre, it did.
Sunday morning I was the broadcast director. Moments before the ceremony was to begin in the Capitol Rotunda, I saw on TV a stunning development and cued all our people about it. As Oswald was being escorted out of the Dallas jailhouse through a basement corridor, a guy stepped forward, pulled out a gun and shot Oswald to death. Right in front of the cops who were supposed to guard him. I could hardly believe my eyes ... but it happened.
And so we had two stories unfolding at once ... a solemn ceremony in the Capitol --- bedlam in the Dallas jailhouse.
More coffee and more cigarettes.
The burial site for the President is on a bluff at Arlington National Cemetery overlooking the Lincoln Memorial and the city of Washington. He would be buried on Monday. Sunday night, an engineer named Ed Greene and I, went to the Cemetery to set up our broadcast equipment. By floodlight, army engineers were digging the grave. As they worked, technicians made their preparations for the coming day.
It was nearly midnight on Sunday. The rainstorm was gone and a real chill had settled over the city. It was late November and it felt like it. The rain had left the air crystal clear. As Ed and I finished our work, I stood and looked at the scene below. The Lincoln Memorial was gleaming white. The city lights twinkled. You could see the Washington Monument and the White House and the Capitol reflected in the water of the Potomac River. They were the symbols of our country's government and history. I remarked to Ed that "Jackie had chosen a good place for her husband's resting place."
Monday brought a cortege from the Capitol to St. Matthew's Cathedral, a funeral mass, little John-John Kennedy offering his famous salute to his dead father, and finally the procession to Arlington. Late in the day, there were more words, a military jet fly-over, "Taps" and the coffin slowly descending into the grave.
It was Monday night and it was over.
Jim Snyder had anchored our coverage. He had done it with style. We all had done it with the highest level of professionalism we could muster. The Westinghouse president wanted the "best radio coverage on the air." I think he got it.
When Jim signed off, I got up from my chair in the control room, thanked the engineer working with me, and walked across the hall to the men's room. It was empty. And I was glad for that. Because I began to cry. I don't cry a lot but that night, I started sobbing and I couldn't stop for a long time.
The Kennedy years were called "Camelot". Since then, historians have found some tarnish on JFK's Camelot. I suppose there was. But, on balance, Jack Kennedy elevated idealism in America to a height it has never reached again. And after all, that is what the legend of Camelot is all about.