Watching the Kennedy Assassination

The First Family watches John F. Kennedy's funeral procession in Washington on Nov. 25, 1963, three days after the president was assassinated in Dallas. Widow Jacqueline Kennedy, center, daughter Caroline Kennedy, le... The First Family watches John F. Kennedy's funeral procession in Washington on Nov. 25, 1963, three days after the president was assassinated in Dallas. Widow Jacqueline Kennedy, center, daughter Caroline Kennedy, left, and son John Jr., are accompanied by the late president's brothers Sen. Edward Kennedy, left, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. (AP Photo) MORE LESS
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I’m almost 45. So I’ve been watching Kennedy Assassination commemorations my whole life. 50th is a big anniversary – certainly the last big symbolic number when any of the players in the drama will still be alive. But this one was entirely different and unique for me in a way I did not at all expect and in a way that was not entirely tied to the significance of the 50th anniversary milestone itself.

As some of you probably know, CBS News has been playing all the live coverage of the event, aligned with the hour things happened and in real time since the first report of the shooting until now. As I write, the live coverage of Kennedy’s funeral is underway. You can see it here. I wrote about part of this last week. But when I wrote I mistakenly thought they had simply posted a video of the first hour of the coverage. As I said on Friday, after watching it for a couple hours I found myself unexpectedly upset by what I saw.

This long, ongoing telecast ran only on the web, as far as I know. But I really want to praise CBS for running it in full. This might sound a little grandiose but it makes me think of the Vietnam Memorial, something very understated and yet profound in its impact.

For people like me (and the great majority of the population), the Kennedy assassination is part of the landscape of our public memory. There was never a time when it didn’t happen. It’s a given as much as the Civil War or the air. And public memorials, as much as they try are usually trite or even ridiculous, whether that’s tired speeches or garish cable news chyrons. But this approach allowed me to in some very limited sense relive or simply live what happened.

The horror of it was not knowing it would happen and then not knowing why or how it would end. Watching not just the big moments but the waits and the effort to make sense of it happening in the real slowness of unfolding time was a totally new experience for me.

Let me share a few additional thoughts. One is the personnel. The reporters were all men. But it was quite a list of luminaries: Cronkite, Sevareid, Harry Reasoner, Charles Collingwood, Edwin Newman, Roger Mudd, Dan Rather and a bunch of slightly lesser known figures from the dawn of television news. A number of these guys are for the ages, literally and figuratively. But Dan Rather is still around and working and he’d likely still be at CBS if not for the Bush/TANG disaster. (Apparently he was not invited to be part of the 50th anniversary commemoration, which seem classless given his key role in the coverage.) Roger Mudd, though now in his early 80s and retired, feels very much of ‘my’ news era, as does Rather of course. The personnel don’t capture the event itself. But as I watched, it gave me a very real sense of the distance and proximity of the events in time.

Another point in watching the events unfold is how unsurprising it is that the Kennedy assassination became such a seedbed of suspicion and conspiracy theories.

I’m describing things you know here. But seeing the coverage unedited and live gives you a sense of learning it. Oswald wasn’t just a crazy. He was a strident pro-Castro activist. He was a Marxist. He’d gone to live in the Soviet Union and renounced his American citizenship. At the height of the Cold War, this is really, really shocking information. Watching the news, I was struck by a negative capacity in the coverage and reaction – how little sense there was of efforts to blame either Castro or the Soviet Union, either in a moral sense or in a more concrete sense of having organized the murder of an American President. Perhaps this was the overwhelmingness of the event itself, the knowledge of the reality of the Cold War and the inability to go off half-cocked or perhaps it was the more channeled, moderated news environment. There were two and a half television networks and lots of daily papers. No Internet, no talk TV, no competing cable nets.

I don’t have an answer. But it stands out to me as a palpable difference with our own time how ‘calmly’, for lack of a better word, this news was received. Of course, one of the mysteries and confounding realities is that there was a real concern about violence and threats to Kennedy’s life. But it was of extremism from the right.

Then the assassin himself is shot and killed. It is such a shocking, unbelievable turn of events. I spent a lot of this weekend alone reorganizing TPM’s New York office. So I was able to have this coverage playing more or less continuously. (My one regret is that I didn’t remember precisely when on the third day Oswald was shot. So I didn’t get to see that ‘live’.) Watching this all live gave me an uncanny sense of the reactions I would have had at the moment. And putting myself in people’s heads fifty years ago, after Oswald himself is shot and killed, you get this overwhelming sense of ‘What is going on?’ A mix of shock and disbelief.

This was another case where being able to slip back and forth in time made the whole thing all the more shocking and electrifying. We know that that the people watching these four days unfold before them have only scratched the surface of the weirdness. Jack Ruby’s ties to the mafia, the mafias deep ties to the anti-Castro Cuban exiles, the Kennedy brothers repeated attempts to assassinate Castro, Oswald’s pro-Castro activism, Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union, his perhaps ambiguous effort to infiltrate anti-Castro groups, New Orleans (yes, just New Orleans). As you and I know, the list goes on and on.

A few other smaller points. I was struck by how much of the investigation was handled by the Dallas police department. The FBI was clearly in the background. But it was really an investigation of the Dallas city police department. It’s hard to imagine for a slew of reasons that that would possibly be the same today.

For what it’s worth, I don’t ‘believe’ any of the conspiracy theories, at least not as far as it goes. But watching this unfold, experiencing it in a sense, renewed my total understanding with how the country has never been able to shake an undying suspicion about just what happened. The available evidence doesn’t point to one or two potential conspiracies but to an almost countless number. ‘Points’, doesn’t prove or even make likely. But the bread crumbs are everywhere.

Probably twenty years ago, I read a transcript of a talk by Norman Mailer, presumably in preparation for writing Oswald’s Tale. There’s no question that the CIA and other arms of the federal government covered up a lot that was related to the assassination. Not a ‘cover up’ per se, but kept a lot of information from the public. The simplest answer is that there was just a lot of stuff that didn’t incriminate the government but which the public simply couldn’t be allowed to know – the attempts on Castro’s life, the connections with the mob and so much more.

Mailor’s take was different and appropriately novelistic in its contingency. Mailer said the CIA in particular was so cagey and institutionally dishonest not because it had anything to do with Kennedy’s death but because the Agency had so many ties and operations and assets in and around so many people Oswald was connected to that they couldn’t be sure they didn’t have anything to do with it.

For me this has always captured the real fascination and mystery of the assassination and also the real nature of clandestine government action – not omniscience or omnicompetence but uncertainty, unpredictability and fear.

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