“It took seconds” – Growing up in a post-Kennedy world

Friday, November 22, 1963.

US President John F. Kennedy is on a short tour of Texas.

Having delivered a breakfast speech at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, the President, accompanied by his wife Jackie, is making a short 15 minute flight to Dallas, where he is due to give a luncheon speech at the city’s Trade Mart.

The visit to Dallas will include a motorcade tour through the city. Discussions take place as to whether the President’s limousine should be open top. Kennedy prefers open top motorcades whenever possible, but the weather forecast is for rain. By late morning, however, the weather has cleared up. The temperature in Dallas is around 67F, with a slight breeze. The decision is taken to go without the roof.

US media interest in the trip is high. Television cameras will capture some of the motorcade route and the President’s speech at the Trade Mart will also be broadcast.

Meanwhile, over on the other side of the Atlantic, The Beatles, currently riding high at the top of the British singles chart with She Loves You, have released their second long player, With The Beatles. Newspaper front pages are dominated by Labour Party candidate Peter Doig’s comfortable win in the Dundee by-election and the crisis at the British Overseas Airways Corporation, which reportedly has debts of over £80 million. An ongoing court case involving a film producer and James Bond author Ian Fleming is also generating column inches. That morning’s Daily Express has a feature on American Republican nominee hopeful Barry Goldwater, under the headline “The man who’s gunning for Kennedy”. Later on in the day, news will break of the death of the author C. S. Lewis.

The UK is six hours ahead of Dallas and 20 degrees colder. The country is beginning to slide into winter and the annual advertising boom in cold and flu remedies is well under way.

At 5.00pm, the final rush hour of the week begins as the nation’s workers start to make their way home. For most, it is just another Friday evening in November.

At 12:30pm Dallas time, 6:30pm UK time, gunshots are heard in Dallas’s Dealey Plaza.

People drop to the ground. The presidential limousine, at that moment travelling slowly along Elm Street on the northern side of the plaza, accelerates and disappears under a bridge. Through the confusion it very quickly becomes clear that those present have just witnessed an attempt on the President’s life. Witnesses closest to the president’s limousine say that Kennedy has been hit.

The world is about to have what is probably its biggest collective “what the fuck” moment of the 20th century. And the full power of television news is also about to be unleashed. Welcome to the last four decades of the 20th century.

old television

In the U.S., CBS was the first of the big television networks to broadcast news of the shooting of the 35th President. Its daily soap opera, As The World Turns, began as usual, at 12:30pm Dallas time (1:30pm Eastern Time), broadcasting live from its studios in Manhattan. This particular episode of the slow moving drama serial centred on arrangements for Thanksgiving day. At around 12:40pm, 10 minutes after the shooting, the CBS news bulletin card suddenly appeared on the screen. CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite, broadcasting from a radio booth, informed viewers of the grave news.

“Here is a bulletin from CBS News: in Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting. More details just arrived. These details about the same as previously: President Kennedy shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed Mr. Kennedy, she called “Oh, no!” The motorcade sped on. United Press says that the wounds for President Kennedy perhaps could be fatal. Repeating, a bulletin from CBS News, President Kennedy has been shot by a would-be assassin in Dallas, Texas. Stay tuned to CBS News for further details.”

CBS cut to an advertisement and station identification. It then cut back to a second audio news bulletin. This time viewers were graphically told that blood had been seen spurting from the President’s head.

A further live scene from As The World Turns was then broadcast, the actors in the studio continuing as usual, unaware of the historical events now unfolding.

Following a third interruption, the CBS news bulletin card remained on screen for an extended period, with Cronkite reporting on the still sketchy details as they came in. CBS were not geared up to broadcast television news at a moment’s notice. That changed after November 22, 1963. Back then television cameras took a while to warm up and could not be used immediately. Cronkite eventually came into vision at his desk 20 minutes after the first bulletin announcement.

Although the CBS broadcast is now the most remembered, at the time rival network NBC’s news coverage usually had a bigger audience share. NBC had a dedicated “emergency” news studio in New York, but like CBS they had no camera ready to go at a moment’s notice. They did, however, manage to get their cameras up and running more quickly than CBS, with newscasters Bill Ryan, Chet Huntley and Frank McGhee coming into vision three or four minutes before Cronkite. Viewed today, NBC’s coverage is admirably assured and professional, even with all the obvious technical difficulties. The emergency studio did not have the ability to air live telephone calls, so for much of the time Frank McGhee relayed, word for word, reports sent in from Robert MacNeil at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital. Perhaps that is why the NBC footage has been overshadowed by its rival. At the moment the President’s death is announced, Cronkite stares directly at his audience, whilst McGhee is interacting with the phone and the others in the studio.

The third American television network, ABC, was the least prepared. ABC had neither an emergency news studio, nor the ability to broadcast live from its news office. Furthermore, its main newscaster, Ron Cochran, was at lunch. Although interrupting their affiliate stations’ local programming with audio reports read out by Ed Zimmerman, ABC did not begin continuous broadcasting of the breaking news until 1:00pm Central/2:00pm Eastern, several minutes after their rivals. Footage of ABC’s coverage shows Cochran and fellow newscaster Don Goddard struggling to relay the latest developments whilst an impromptu studio set is built around them. It’s a bit of a mess.

ABC, however, should be given credit for the local coverage provided by their Dallas affiliate station, WFAA. The station’s studios were only a couple of blocks away from Dealey Plaza and program manager Jay Watson and station announcer Jerry Haynes both heard the shots being fired as they stood on Main Street. Watson was quick witted enough to seek out eyewitnesses and, just minutes after the shooting, interviewed the Newman family live on air. The Newmans had been among the closest spectators to the President’s limousine at the moment the bullets hit. Jerry Haynes was well known in the Dallas area for playing the role of children’s entertainer Mr Peppermint, and an air of surrealism is at times lent to the WFAA footage as Watson occasionally refers to his colleague using his nom de plume.

In Britain, the regional broadcaster Granada was the first to break the story to their viewers in the North West of England. In those days, Britain’s second television network, Independent Television (ITV), consisted of separate franchises, each with their own scheduling for much of the day. Unlike the other ITV franchises, which tended to broadcast their weekday news bulletins at 6:00pm, Granada’s bulletin went out half an hour later, meaning that they were on air when reports of the shooting first made their way across the transatlantic newswires. After taking a call from the Press Association, editor Terry Dobson relayed the information to newsreader Mike Scott, who immediately informed his viewers that shots had been fired at the President.

Whilst ABC had to rush their main newscaster back from lunch, the BBC had the bigger problem that almost all of their news team had donned their bowties and dinner jackets and were attending annual Guild of Television Producers and Directors’ Ball at London’s Dorchester Hotel. This prestigious event, which later became the BAFTA Television Awards, was also scheduled to be broadcast later in the evening.

BBC viewers remained unaware of the shooting until shortly after 7:00pm. The BBC’s single television channel cut to a special news report at 7:05pm. With the usual newsreaders down at the Dorchester enjoying a glass of champagne or two, the job of informing the nation fell to one John Roberts, about whom, it seems, very little is known. Following the initial announcement of the shooting, BBC television returned to its usual schedule with the live current affairs show, Tonight, hosted by Cliff Michelmore. Twenty minutes in, the BBC cut back to the newsroom where John Roberts updated viewers with the grave news that the President’s condition was critical.

During the on-air announcement, Roberts was given the news that Kennedy had died.

According to those who witnessed the broadcast, Roberts simply said the following: “We regret to announce that President Kennedy is dead.” He then bowed his head and said no more. A recording of the broadcast does not appear to exist.

Undoubtedly, the short, sharp style of the announcement added to the shock. There was no softening of the facts, no euphemism used for death, such as “passed away”. The word used was “dead”. Cold, hard, definite. Dead.

It was the same on BBC Radio, which at the time operated three stations: the Home Service, the Light Programme and the Third Programme (now Radios 4, 2 and 3, respectively). News of the shooting was read out on all three stations at 7:00pm. This coincided with the start of the Light Programme’s daily news round-up, Newsreel, which then took a live call from one of the BBC’s Washington correspondents, Leonard Parkin, later a newsreader for rival network, ITN. A further two calls were broadcast before the bulletin’s natural conclusion at 7:30pm. During the third and final call, Parkin paused during his update as additional news was passed to him and then said simply: “President Kennedy is dead.”

Once Kennedy’s death had been confirmed, the networks in Britain, well away from the epicentre of the tragedy, could do little else. After showing station ident cards or playing sombre music, both BBC Television and eventually ITV opted to return to their scheduled programming, which in the BBC’s case was a light-hearted comedy show starring Harry Worth. I’m guessing the BBC might have received one or two letters regarding that decision.

JFK stamp

I wasn’t around at the time, not entering the world until five years later, but I entered a world where the Kennedy assassination was the defining news story of the age.

When I had my first jobs in the late 1980s and mixed with a wide selection of older people for the first time, the shooting of JFK would crop up in conversation fairly regularly.

“I don’t remember what I was doing last night, let alone last week,” someone would say, “but I know exactly where I was when I heard that Kennedy had been shot.”

The conversation would immediately switch with everyone over the age of 35 eagerly telling the tale once again of where they were on that Friday evening. One was on a bus. Another was doing the evening shift at a Royal Mail sorting office when they heard the newsflash on the radio. Somebody else, a kid at the time, was lying on the living room floor, a comic splayed out in front of him, when the unexpected return to the newsroom took place. All recalled their tales as though they had a personal involvement in the event. I suppose, in a way, and even though they were thousands of miles away from Dallas, they did.

Here in the 21st century, far away from the initial trauma and shock, the Kennedy assassination still intrigues us. Although parts of the motorcade were broadcast on local stations, there were no TV cameras in Dealey Plaza, where the shooting took place, so the images we have come mostly from people who, in their lunch break, grabbed their camera and headed out to try and get a memento or two of the day the President drove through their city. Home movie cameras, known as cine cameras, were popular at the time and the grainy, silent sequences shot by Abraham Zapruder, Mary Muchmore, Orville Nix and others offer the best records we have. But the technology available back then only allowed for so much detail. The people in Dealey Plaza that day crop up in various sources, captured forever from various angles, but often they are just blurred ghosts. We cannot truly see their faces. They appear like the figures in Georges Seurat’s painting, A Sunny Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. You know the one. The one with the people standing by the river.

We know who most of these people were. The couple who instinctively fell to the ground to protect their children were Bill and Gayle Newman – the same Newmans who were interviewed by Jay Watson just a few minutes later. The lady in the red coat was Jean Hill. Standing next to her was Mary Moorman, who snapped a photo of the President’s car a fraction of a second after the fatal head shot. The two people standing on the concrete block were Abraham Zapruder and his assistant, Marilyn Sitzman. Zapruder had a good vantage point from which to capture the motorcade on his cine camera. His 26.6 seconds of footage is now perhaps the most watched home movie of all time.

Millions upon millions of people have now watched the 35th President of the USA being shot to death, footage of a real murder of a real human being. Plenty of other fatal shootings have been filmed, such as US politician Budd Dwyer, who in 1987 shot himself in the head at the end of a televised press conference. Videos of such events can be viewed online easily enough and they usually come with a warning. You are told to watch at your own discretion. Video contains graphic content. Please be advised. Not so the Kennedy assassination. The Zapruder film captures the fatal head shot. JFK’s head literally explodes on camera. But the film is often presented without any such warning. Why? Is it because we are now watching an event that has passed into legend and is bigger than just murder? The shooting of a President rather than a person.

That weekend in November 1963 had another shock in store. The culprit, Lee Harvey Oswald, was picked up quickly, less than 90 minutes after the assassination. In between the assassination and the arrest, a second murder took place, that of Dallas police officer J. D. Tippitt. Oswald was initially arrested for Tippitt’s murder, then charged with murdering the President.

On the morning of Sunday, November 24, Lee Harvey Oswald himself was murdered as he was being transferred from the police headquarters building to the county jail. Surrounded by police officers and journalists, local nightclub owner, Jack Ruby, stepped forward in the basement of the police HQ and shot Oswald at point blank range. Another murder captured by cameras, this time actually broadcast on live TV.

It would be hard to come up with a movie script anywhere near as horrifically compelling as the real-deal. Ruby’s reasons for shooting Oswald have been debated and disected just as much as Oswald’s reasons for shooting Kennedy.

When people went back to work on Monday, November 25, the global narrative, under which ordinary lives unfold, was different to what it had been the previous Friday afternoon. The world, having been travelling, albeit perhaps unsteadily, along a signed highway, was suddenly nudged down an unmarked side road. The landscape was the same, but the view was now from a different angle, the supposed destination now unknown. Certain features in the landscape, previously perhaps a little out of focus, were now seen more clearly, whilst others once in the foreground fell into shadow.

There aren’t too many moments like that. The narrative of Kennedy’s death didn’t begin with the assassination itself of course. A complex series of events led up to that moment. But the portentous pattern created by those events went unnoticed by the vast majority. Until. Dallas. Dealy Plaza. November 22, 1963. 12:30pm. Bang.

The world gasped and said “that wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Here in the UK, the assassination came at a point when unflinching deference towards the status quo was on the wane.

In 1963, irreverent political satire was all the rage, with even the boring old BBC joining in by airing the controversial TV show, That Was The Week That Was. For the first time in a very long time, people in power were being openly mocked. And in Britain, those people in power were, crucially, older.

Rightly or wrongly, John F. Kennedy was viewed by many as being different to the presidents who had gone before. Here was a new President for a new era. Although aged 46 and hiding some serious health issues, Kennedy appeared to be youthful. At his inaugural address in 1961, he had spoken of a torch being passed to a new generation. For many young people in the UK, surrounded by stuffy institutions no longer in step, it felt as though, for the first time, one of their own was in power. When Kennedy spoke, he spoke of their views and their fears and their hopes. And when Kennedy was assassinated, it felt to some as if one of their own had been killed.

The next episode of That Was The Week That Was went out on the night after the assassination. In place of the usual mockery and laughter, the programme consisted of an emotional and heartfelt tribute to JFK, whose murder was, in the words of host David Frost, “the most unexpected news one could possibly imagine.” The show was broadcast in the US by NBC the following day.

Political satire was soon eclipsed as “the next big thing” by something else, but that something else turned out to be even less deferential to the status quo. By the mid 1960s, the counter-culture was in full swing. Like most cities, London has always had its Bohemian element, but in the second half of the sixties, London’s bohemians came out from their usual shadowy haunts and dared to dance in the streets in daylight. The epicentre of the counter-culture was small, very small, but for a while it became the zeitgeist. It defined the age. It tainted everything. And the Kennedy assassination was one of the triggers. If they could get the guy at the top, they could get you too.

This was the world I was born into. A world of mistrust, conspiracy and beautiful, kaleidoscopic rebellion. The cool kids against “The Man”, whatever that was. A world where authority was poked and pricked and belittled at every opportunity. The establishment was attacked on film, on stage, in books, in music, on TV, even on kids’ shows. The psychedelically dressed Hair Bear Bunch, for example, may have lived in a cage, but they always got the better of Mr Peebly the zookeeper.

The TV cops of the day did not spend their time doing mundane day-to-day police work. Most were more like spies, ostensibly working for secret organisations, but more often than not the truth was that they were alone in the world. Who could you trust? No one. The Prisoner probably did it the best, with its protagonist trapped in a seemingly idyllic location and raging against an unseen, nameless authority. When realism crept back into the TV cop world in the early 70s, the cops nevertheless remained rebellious, always undermining their boss and never doing things by the book. Never.

War films ditched the stiff-upper lip and the black and white good versus evil plot lines and became more ambiguous. MASH is the classic counter-culture war movie perhaps, but it’s telling that even in the more conventional Kelly’s Heroes, the soldiers are no longer just doing their duty for God and country, they’re primarily looking after themselves in a chaotic world. Kelly’s Heroes is certainly truer to the age in which it was made than the era it depicts. It’s even got a hippy in it called Oddball (“Why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves?”).

And then of course there was the music. It was wild, raucous, animalistic and it had me hooked from the very first moment I heard it. By the age of five, I was buying my own records and I usually went for just about the loudest thing I could find in the charts. I was too young for The Beatles, The Who or Led Zeppelin, but I was infatuated by glam rock and its explosive riffs and gender-bending performers. Here was a world that was crazy and colourful and I loved it.

But life wasn’t just one big rock’n’roll party for the early version me. Alongside all this colour and noise was the conventional world of church on Sundays, tea in china cups and silence for the Queen’s Speech at Christmas. We spent a lot of time visiting my older relatives and they seemed to me to be very grey people inhabiting a very grey world. There were many more women than men in the generation above my mum and dad. Women tend to live longer, of course, but World War II was responsible for more than one lonely widow in my family. Their houses were all the same. They were always deathly quiet. Items were displayed, but rarely used. Books went unread, televisions went unwatched, dinner services went unused. Even furniture was only used sparingly. These houses were like museums and I hated them, hated the solemn ticking of the clock in the background, hated the humourless conversations that were had in these places.

I hated those visits and I hated being dragged to church each Sunday into what was then an equally grey environment. I preferred the riot of colour I saw on television, the loud records I bought and played over and over and over, the rude jokes I heard from my dad and my older cousins and the fantastically coloured and fantastically loud beach buggy that our cool next-door neighbour suddenly bought one summer and ruined everyone’s peaceful Sunday mornings with by revving it up. Good on yer!

I was aware of a big difference between the generations. I was aware that a lot of what I liked was looked down upon. I was aware that the records I bought, the TV shows I watched were disliked by most of my older relatives. I therefore liked those records and TV shows even more.

I was born into a world where a murder in Dallas had sent the world swerving down a side road and now culture and rebellion were joined at the hip. Over time, that side road grew into a freeway and what was once marginalised became mainstream.

And then 38 years later we suddenly veered off that freeway I was born on and the defining question of the age changed from being “where were you when Kennedy was shot?” to being “where were you on 9/11?”

And since then I’ve probably felt a lot like my older relatives must have felt when I was a kid. I feel like I’m in the wrong car heading in the wrong direction.

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