On Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. It is difficult if not impossible to offer new information on this historic incident -- a behind-the-scenes glimpse of one the most notorious assassinations in modern history. Yet, in spite of the depth and breadth of knowledge surrounding Kennedy's death, the intrigue remains.
Perhaps it is due to conspiracy theories that still abound; perhaps it is the pondering over the years about what could have been had Kennedy survived. More than four decades later, one thing is certain: Kennedy's assassination was a defining moment -- a tragedy experienced on a scale, and received at a speed, previously unknown.
Here, NBC News Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss offers his reflections upon the assassination and the days that followed, and discusses how Kennedy's murder became not just an infamous moment in history, but a turning point for the way news is delivered and consumed:
I was a 7-year-old at Western Avenue School in Flossmoor, Ill., that Friday afternoon when our teacher, Mrs. Larocca, astonishingly crying, announced that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
Through the long weekend at home, my 5-year-old brother and I were glued to the television screen -- three days of funeral music, still photos of JFK as a childhood football player and Navy hero, the late President's two children, Caroline and John, who were almost the same age we were, beside their father's flag-adorned casket.
On Sunday morning, Nov. 24, I was watching NBC, the only one of the three networks that broadcast live Jack Ruby's attack on the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. (NBC's correspondent, the late Tom Pettit, was there at the Dallas jail.)
Walking into the next room, I told my mother that Oswald had just been shot. She said, "I'm going to turn off that television. You've been watching too much. Now you're making things up!"
TV was still so primitive that when NBC News first broke into the soap operas on Friday, correspondent Frank McGee had to repeat into the microphone what he was hearing by telephone from NBC's reporter in Dallas, Robert MacNeil (who later founded PBS' MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour).
MacNeil had just asked a slight young man outside the Texas School Book Depository to direct him to the nearest telephone. He later suspected that the man was Oswald himself, making his getaway.
With the retrospect of history, we can fully understand what a milestone that brutal televised weekend was. 1963 was the first year more Americans got their news from TV than newspapers, and JFK's murder hastened that process.
It was also the first time that Americans were full participants in a national ordeal. When George Washington died in 1799, many Americans did not know it for weeks. When Lincoln was murdered in 1865, the new invention of the telegraph allowed them to learn the news almost simultaneously.
But thanks to the cathode ray tube, Americans experienced John Kennedy's murder in a far more primal way than earlier national tragedies like the Johnstown Flood or President McKinley's assassination.
Americans too young to remember that day in 1963 might find John Kennedy an interesting or admirable historical figure. But having lacked the experience of living through our first truly national funeral on that long, televised, ugly weekend, most can't quite comprehend why many of us who did are still so affected by the trauma of his death.
Michael Beschloss is the author of several books, including:
- The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945
- Taking Charge (1997) and Reaching for Glory (2001), both about Lyndon Johnson
- Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance (1980)
Michael's newest title, Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789 - 1989, is to be published by Simon and Schuster in May, 2007.