When John F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago this month I’d been a full-time reporter at the Washington Post a little more than a year. But I quickly found myself involved in one of the biggest stories in our nation’s history — and in my eventual professional career.
In 1963, official Washington was a far simpler place than it is now. A president could move almost unremarked through the city, with only a handful of Secret Service guards.
The Washington Post of that time also had an informality and coziness it has long since lost. With its news staff a fraction that of today it was possible in the early 1960s for a callow young reporter to come to work in the late afternoon and learn he’d be covering the president of the United States, or his brother the attorney general, at some public event that evening.
So, on Nov. 22, 1963, as a very junior reporter covering suburban Arlington County, it seemed to me only a normal part of my beat to head for the nearby McLean, Va., home of Robert Kennedy when a major story involving him broke. I assumed, rightly, that I’d have no problems getting to the house of a man with whom I had little more than a nodding acquaintance, on the day his brother was shot and killed — even though one of them was the nation’s attorney general and the other the slain president. During those tragic days I was deeply involved in the coverage, both because of my familiarity with the terrain of Arlington and Northern Virginia and because I happened to be listening to the radio when the initial bulletin came from Dallas.
At the Post, I’d covered President Kennedy attending a drill ceremony at the Marine Corps Barracks, speaking at a testimonial banquet for Democratic Party Chairman Matt McCloskey, meeting with Appalachian state governors at the White House — events too puny to take up the time of the Post’s White House correspondents.
I’d met Robert Kennedy in 1961 when I wrote a feature article about him and his family attending the Washington International Horse Show to watch son Joe, 9, and daughter Kathleen, 10, compete on their pony, Atlas. I covered him occasionally as attorney general, and accepted a ride back to the Post in his limousine one day after covering a speech he gave.
I lived, at the time, with two college friends who were well plugged into the administration’s party machinery: Paul Pendergast, head of the Democratic National Committee’s speakers bureau, and Bob Resnick, a speechwriter for Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Our tiny row house in Georgetown had a steady stream of visitors our age whose jobs — and very lives, it often seemed — were wrapped up in the Kennedy magic.
What follows are excerpts, with some explanatory additions, from a journal I kept at the time. It begins the morning after the shooting in Dallas, because the day itself left me no time for personal indulgence.
Nov. 23, 1963
Yesterday, President Kennedy was shot.
The shock to me was almost physical when I heard about it. The full feeling of grief did not come until today. I can describe it best by saying that his death affected me as deeply as any death has.
I was working that day in the Arlington County Courthouse and went home for a quick lunch. Then I left to return to Arlington and turned on the car radio, where the “Singing Nun” was singing “Dominique.” The song was interrupted at 1:38 with a bulletin that the president had been shot in Dallas.
My reaction was disbelief — then full shock. As I drove from my house through Georgetown, I wanted to shout out and tell all those people on the streets, who obviously had not heard about it.
In front of the posh Rive Gauche restaurant, I saw two distinguished looking men get into a limousine with low-number D.C. plates 444, and thought that, whoever they were, they should know. I rolled down the window and yelled, “The president has been shot!” They sent their chauffeur over to see what I was saying. He ran back to the car and one of the men, sitting in the back seat, tumbled to the front to turn on the radio. I found out later that the limousine belongs to the NBC bureau in Washington.
I drove to Arlington, listening to the steady coverage but not learning whether he was dead. I rushed to the pressroom and tried repeatedly to dial the Post but couldn’t get through. I realized someone should be at Hickory Hill, the attorney general’s home in McLean, and I was the closest. So I drove there.
About 2:20 I arrived. No reporters were there yet and, surprisingly, no police. CIA Director John McCone was there, having come immediately from CIA headquarters a short drive away. Robert Kennedy had been lunching with Robert Morgenthau, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, and Silvio Mollo, Morgenthau’s aide, when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called, telling Kennedy of the shooting.
James McShane, chief of federal marshals, was in and out of the house. The wife of Supreme Court Justice Byron White, a close friend of the Kennedys, was there. Down a hill, at the far end of the yard, I could see Robert Kennedy and McCone pacing back and forth. Occasionally Kennedy broke away to talk on a telephone by the tennis court. A White House car arrived and three people, one of them White House aide Ted Sorensen, went into the house. Robert Kennedy’s wife, Ethel, and a house employee left to bring the children home from school.
I still hadn’t called my office to tell them where I was. I was afraid to leave the grounds to find a phone because police had now arrived and were guarding the gate.
A reporter and friend from the Washington Evening Star had come shortly after I did and then gone to a house across the street to call his office. I saw him coming back and went to the same house. I gave all the information I’d gathered so far to a rewrite reporter at the Post then returned to the Kennedy house, brushing past a policeman by saying, “I just came from there.” The Star reporter wasn’t there. He’d been stopped at the gate when he tried to return. I realized I was the only reporter on the grounds.
Kennedy and McCone continued to pace. Three dogs walked with them and two ponies grazed peacefully in the front yard. Then as McCone’s driver and I listened on the CIA director’s radio, we heard what Robert Kennedy obviously had already learned: that his brother, the president, was dead.
Justice White arrived, walked to the attorney general and put his arm around him. Ethel returned with the children. McCone got into his car and left. The attorney general and six of his children now walked solemnly in the side yard. Ed Guthman, Robert Kennedy’s press aide, whom I knew from covering the attorney general, had arrived and we talked for a while. Then Nicole Alphand, wife of the French ambassador, came, and a driver from the British Embassy with a message of condolence.
About 4:30, Guthman told me I was the only reporter in the yard and that he’d tried to overlook it for quite a while. “But in fairness to those I told to stay outside, I’d appreciate it if you would go to the gate,” he said.
I did, but I missed nothing. Ten minutes later, the attorney general and Guthman left for Andrews Air Force Base to meet Air Force One, carrying John Kennedy’s body and the new president, Lyndon Johnson. I kept a vigil until 11 p.m., but there was no more activity. I went home to Georgetown wondering what the reaction there would be. With Johnson sworn in as president, my roommate Bob was now a presidential staffer. He and Paul Pendergast were home, with a journalist friend of ours. We talked of the enormity of it all, then went to bed.
Today, for the first time in many years, I cried. Twice. Both times, fortunately, I was alone. I was washing in the bathroom, morbidly humming various hymns from the Catholic funeral liturgy. I began humming “In Paradisum,” and was suddenly sobbing into the washcloth. Within seconds, it was over.
I went to a special Mass at St. Stephen’s, the nearby Catholic church I normally attend and the one the president often went to when he was in town. A purple cord was tied across the seventh pew from the back on the right side, the pew he used, and a black stole lay over his seat.
I went to work, and alone, in an empty section of the newsroom, began writing memos on various bits I had gathered. I wrote one about St. Stephen’s. I wrote that a black stole lay over the seat he used and a purple cord was ti—... At that point, with a word and sentence abruptly and poignantly ended, I could not control myself. I cried openly and hard.
Nov. 24, 1963
I had an exclusive story in the Sunday paper today. It described the location chosen for the president’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery and had a map.
White House spokesman Pierre Salinger, in his press briefing this morning, was asked where the grave would be. He said he didn’t know but he referred reporters to the article and map “in the Post” saying he assumed it was correct.
An editor on the Post city desk had called me yesterday about 3:30 p.m. to tell me there were rumors Kennedy would be buried at Arlington. Earlier, it had been widely assumed he’d be buried in Massachusetts.
I drove to the cemetery in a tremendous downpour and went to the office of John Metzler, the cemetery director, whom I’d dealt with often on other stories. He wasn’t there, I was told. I waited. No one would tell me anything. Finally someone said they were closing soon and I would have to leave but they would have Metzler call me “tonight or in the morning.” I was skeptical, and even if true, that was no help for the next day’s paper.
There was enough activity there that I decided the rumor was probably right. So I drove around in the cemetery. In front of the imposing Custis-Lee Mansion on a prominent rise in the middle of the grounds, I spotted a gathering of people in business suits despite the rain. They broke up and left before I could reach them, so I went back to the cemetery office, eavesdropped long enough to assure myself the rumors were right, then beckoned to a man I hadn’t talked to before.
“I’m from the Post. Can you mark the burial site on a map?” I asked. He could and he did. “The mark may not be perfect,” he said, “because it hasn’t been surveyed yet, but there’s a stake in the ground now.” He said it was lined up with the Mansion and the Lincoln Memorial, across the Potomac. I went to a phone booth, called my office, then went back to the area in front of the Mansion.
Using a flashlight, in the driving rain, I lined myself up between the Mansion’s flagpole and the cemetery’s Memorial Gate entrance then began looking. I quickly found the stake in the ground. I made notes on the area and on who was buried in the closest graves. I drove to the Post, gave them the maps, then maneuvered so that I rode down the elevator with the paper’s managing editor and told him what I’d been doing, a move that later paid off with a raise.
Sunday morning a classmate from journalism school at Columbia University, Turhan Tirana, and his wife dropped by to talk about the tragedy and that put the weekend’s events on a personal basis since Turhan’s wife was Patty Auchincloss, Jacqueline Kennedy’s step-sister. We watched TV coverage of the cortege from the White House to the Capitol, where Kennedy’s body was to lie in state. About 9 p.m., I drove, alone, to the Capitol to see the size of the crowd. It extended as far east as I could see.
Nov. 26, 1963
President Kennedy was buried yesterday in what was probably the most moving ceremony I’ll ever watch. The whole tragic weekend came to an impressive close on the steep grassy Arlington hillside.
I was the Post’s “advance man” at Arlington Cemetery and arrived there about 10 a.m. The roped-off press section was 50 feet uphill from the grave. I watched the cortege from the Capitol to the White House, then to St. Matthew’s Cathedral and the funeral, on NBC television monitors.
Shortly after noon, the rest of the Washington Post team arrived at the cemetery. Four worked with me, and another — our senior correspondent, Carroll Kilpatrick — was part of the White House press pool. I was the lone Catholic and I was designated to observe the religious aspects — and translate any Latin, I guessed. Members of Congress and other notables arrived in eight city buses and stood on the grass some 60 feet below the grave.
Moments after the casket was lowered into the grave, 50 jet fighters in three-plane V formations with one position dramatically empty, swept over the cemetery at 404 mph and 2,500 feet, according to a Pentagon fact sheet. Seconds behind, and with a startling stillness, the beautiful blue-and-white Air Force One came over at 2,000 feet and 513 mph. As it swooshed over, the plane dipped first its left, then its right wing, in a magnificent tribute to the man who had made it Air Force One.
The grandeur of the occasion was brought home to me when I looked across the grave and saw the vast gathering of heads of state. There was President (Charles) DeGaulle, standing erect in a light-brown uniform. He reached into his coat and took out a pair of glasses, put them on, and peered intently at the casket, then put them away. Next to him was Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and the only word to describe him in his garb was resplendent — like the sun going up and coming down at the same time. Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and Belgian Prince Baudouin were there, and Ludwig Erhard of Germany and Eamon de Valera of Ireland.
At the graveside was the family of the late president. The military joint chiefs were at the head of the grave, with Boston’s Cardinal (Richard) Cushing and Washington’s Archbishop (Patrick) O’Boyle. President Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and others were just below the grave.
On the hillside to our left were hundreds of wreaths and bouquets. I walked among them before the Secret Service restricted us to the press enclosure. They included one from the “2506 Cuban Brigade”, one “From the President and People of Israel in Grief,” and a huge one with red, white and blue streamers, inscribed simply, “Le General de Gaulle.”
Carroll Kilpatrick wrote the cemetery story for the paper and White House correspondent Eddie Folliard wrote the funeral story. I and the others contributed to them.
A few days later, back covering Arlington minutiae again, I got an urgent call from my immediate editor in Washington. I was to drop whatever I was doing and come in to meet with the top newsroom editor — the type of summons that usually boded ill.
But this time it was simply to tell me that I would find a raise in my next paycheck.