Posts Tagged ‘John F. Kennedy’

The Way It Was

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

By Jeffrey Page

Walter Cronkite took a lot of heat over the years for what amounted to his 10 seconds of dead air. It was, of course, in the Kennedy story.

Did you tune in to CBS on Channel 2 in New York 50 years ago today? There was Cronkite in shirtsleeves, a dark tie in his button-down collar, and a pair of heavy black eyeglasses. CBS, like the other networks, had taken over the airwaves to announce that someone had fired on President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas and that the president was thought to have been hit.

For a few wretched minutes Cronkite could only report rumor and unconfirmed accounts of what had happened. He switched to a local reporter who was supposed to cover a luncheon where Kennedy would have spoken. Cronkite repeated several times that reports of the president’s death were rumors and that there was no official word yet. Then he said that Dan Rather, CBS’s White House correspondent at the time, was reporting that Kennedy was dead. But Cronkite was loath to report this as fact until officially confirmed.

And then it came. Someone handed Cronkite a sheet of paper. On went the glasses. Down went the voice. “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time….

Glasses off.

“ … 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”

Thus began about 10 seconds of dead air as Cronkite seemed to gasp for breath. Once or twice he pursed his lips tightly, perhaps trying to establish control over his mien. He looked away from the camera for a moment, then inhaled deeply, and finally continued his report, noting that Vice President Johnson would be taking the oath of office as the 36th president. As he spoke these words, his voice thickened and he sounded like a man speaking underwater.

Critics have railed for 50 years that Cronkite lost his objectivity in that report. But I think this has been just a bunch of words spoken by people who have no idea in the world how they would have reacted if they were at a news desk when the story broke.

In watching tapes of Cronkite’s report on You Tube this week, I saw an American shaken to his very core by the loss of his nation’s president – his president. You didn’t have to be a Democrat to feel the loss of John Kennedy. You didn’t even have to like him. You just had to have a soul and a concern about your country.

I remember the waiting in 1963, hoping Kennedy would be all right and somehow knowing that we had lost him, just as I remember the waiting in 1981, hoping Reagan would be all right after he was shot, and being relieved when word came that he was alive.

Are you supposed to be objective when some 35-cent Marxist like Oswald kills your president? Or when some lovelorn loser like Hinckley tries to prove his devotion to a movie actress and nearly kills another president?

I watched that footage of Cronkite again and saw him as a reporter in a flawed news medium I would never be part of. And I saw him as E.E. Cummings might have described him: a “human merely being.”

How the News Arrived (1)

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

By Geoffrey Howard

Part 1: I was a 20-year old Peace Corps volunteer, newly arrived and just settling in to Kaolack, Senegal’s second-largest city and the generally acknowledged fly capital of the world. My job – I’m not making this up – was to be one of the national wrestling coaches of this 2-year old West African country.

We were four volunteers living together in one house, three English teachers and me. About 8 o’clock, just as we were finishing dinner, there was a timid knock at the door and this African kid, maybe 9 or 10, was standing there. We looked at him, he looked at us. No one spoke until he said in half French, half Wolof, “Le chef defa dey” The chief is dead.

None of us reacted because we had no idea what he was talking about. Then someone figured it out. Since the Senegalese thought all toubabs (whites) were French, the ex-colonial power that was still very present, there was an obvious explanation: “He must mean De Gaulle.”

The kid spoke no English, but he got the De Gaulle part and his response was emphatic: “Didit! [No!] Votre chef, Kennedy!”

Of course that made no sense – a kid we didn’t even know, how could he possibly be the bearer of such impossible news? Anyway, because none of us had a short wave radio, I was delegated to get on my motorbike and go to the nearby Senegalese army base to see if I could find out anything “official.” That turned out to be a very easy task. The sentry guards confirmed it: “Votre president, il est mort, assassine.” And that’s how I got the news. 

Part 2: I went back to the house and shared the sad news with Ralph, Pat, and Barbara. I don’t recall if we cried or continued with our that-just-can’t-be-true denial, but we all got on our motorbikes and went down to the single French-run hotel in town where we knew they had a big short wave set and that the patronne, a formidable colonial era hanger-on who had been there for decades, and who, the one time Ralph and I had stopped in for a biere, had made it clear that she had little use for Americans.

Well, the four of us walked into the standing-room-only bar – wall-to-wall French – and everyone was listening, transfixed to that radio. Heads swiveled as we entered and before we could even say a word or ask a single question, Madame shooed four regulars off their bar stools and made it clear that we were to sit at the bar near the radio. Then, again without our asking, four beers appeared and someone switched the radio to the Voice of America. We had many beers that night, all on the house. And that’s how the tragedy sank in.

Part 3: The next morning, a truck pulled up from the Lycee de Kaolack, where we all worked. The Directeur got out, accompanied by a work crew that began unloading and setting up chairs in our small courtyard, maybe 30 in all. While that was going on, the Directeur explained to us what would happen. He was dressed in a dark suit and told us to change into “appropriate” clothes. We did.

Very shortly thereafter, people began drifting in, mostly men, but some women as well. The men were dressed in their grand boubous – long, elegant robes – that signified an important occasion. (The Senegalese are famously tall and slender; their second president Abdou Diouf, at 6’10” was the only head of state in the world who could dunk.)

We knew none of these people and yet they came up to us, silently shook hands with each of us as we stood in a line, and then took seats. There was no talking. They would stay for maybe two or three minutes, then rise silently and leave. Not a word, just respect.

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After his two years in the Peace Corps, Geoff Howard had a 35-year career as a management consultant and trainer. Now retired and living in Warwick, he is the chair of Sustainable Warwick and treasurer of Community 2000. 


How the News Arrived (2)

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

By Glenn Doty

I was a young sportswriter at The Times Herald Record in 1963. Politics, to which the late editor Al Romm introduced me a few years later, really didn’t mean a whole lot to me then.

Sure, I voted. That’s something several college classes suggested was important, and I voted for Dwight Eisenhower when I turned 21. The General – that’s how I thought of him – just seemed like the right person. After all, he was a pretty successful military man.

And then 1960 arrived and a Navy man, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a PT boat commander, wound up with the Democratic nomination, not that the party meant much to me, although my mom and her dad were both Democrats.

Funny, it really didn’t sink in that Kennedy was from a very rich and influential Massachusetts family. I do remember stories that his time as a U.S. senator was less than auspicious. But he was Catholic, and that’s how I was raised. If elected he’d be this country’s first Catholic president, and I think that meant more to me than his political party affiliation.

It also meant that my kids, if they decided on a political life (and none did), could aspire to the White House.

So, sports aside, I followed Kennedy’s march to Election Day 1960 and I couldn’t wait to vote for him. Wow! He won a tight race.

Funny, down through the years since, inaugural speeches haven’t been that important to me, although after Jimmy Carter I really wanted to hear what Ronald Reagan had to say.

But the Kennedy speech in 1961 was important. And he started the day the right way – with Robert Frost, who was my favorite poet, delivering a prophecy that everyone, I think, hoped would be true.

As for Kennedy’s inaugural speech, it probably ranks right up there, but it’s his forever-to-be-quoted conclusion that has stayed with me: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

I seem to remember a little moisture around the eyes then. And every time I hear or read those words, that moisture returns.

There were mistakes during his short term. The Cuba invasion fiasco was one, but he did get Russia’s missiles out of there.

But there was Jackie, and then they had Caroline and then John Jr. And despite some of his problems, including getting us deeper into the Vietnam war, he looked like he might well be the Democrats’ nominee for a second term, which is what led him to Texas in November of 1963.

The great never-to-be-answered JFK question: Would he have continued our Vietnam involvement?

I don’t remember much more about Nov. 22. It was one of those days when I went to the office early – probably there were basketball games scheduled for that night. But then, a little after noon, the United Press International wire machine bells sounded and I had to see what was up. The bulletin: The president’s been shot! My God, the anger I felt: Who in hell would do that? And then, a few minutes later: The president is dead.

Tears? There weren’t many of us in the newsroom that early in the afternoon, but there were tears – and disbelief. And anger. Who would do that?

It’s been 50 years. We’ve learned a lot about JFK, and not all has been good. But he was a hero to many of us and the memory of that afternoon? It still produces tears.


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Glenn Doty is a former managing editor of The Times Herald-Record and former editor of the Legislative Gazette.