UP   |  November 17, 2013

What it was like covering JFK's assassination

The panelists remember the massive shock they felt on learning of John F. Kennedy’s death and recall what it was like to cover the news as a journalist.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> it just doesn't seem real, and that seems to be the prevailing attitude here now, even at this late hour, somehow there is an unreality about it all. this is richard valieriani, nbc news at the white house .

>> that was a correspondent at the white house on that day. walter, we just heard robert describe what it was like to be in dallas that day. what was it like to be covering this in washington , d.c. that day?

>> well, i was in the washington bureau, and had just come back into the bureau, and my first instinct was to pick up a telephone and try to make a call to one of my congressional sources. you couldn't make a call. every circuit in washington was instantly -- sounding busy. you couldn't get a dial tone . so really my first piece of the story was when i was sent to the white house to cover johnston's return from dallas , so i was there when he first entered the white house . interestingly, he headed it only momentarily long enough to pass through and go to his vice presidential office, where he worked for the first days of his presidency.

>> which was not in the white house .

>> whiches with was across the street in the executive office building. out of deference to mrs. kennedy , he worked there, they didn't move into the white house for a while. but the scene at the white house was, well, funeralial is a silly word to use for this, but that's what it was, it was, as they say, a very momentary entrance into the white house , but i remember filing the bulletin that johnston stepped into the white house that was now his and with that, i covered some side stories . one of my more striking memories is of the funeral procession the following week, up connecticut avenue to the cathedral and what was said to be the greatest collection of world leaders ever assembled since the congress of vienna . as i walked up connecticut, i looked to my left and there was salassi and charles de gaulle , the long and the short of it.

>> it resonated around the world. senator wofford, you were abroad, in the peace corps program. how did you find out and what was it like being abroad for this?

>> well, embassy called up with the bad news and it was a fact we didn't have hanging -- you didn't call until we knew he was gone. and then from that moment on, all of ethiopia, the word came back from the 400 peace corps volunteers around the country, how their neighbors had come with food, with sympathy. you realize -- and then as we got reports, i was peace corps representative for all of africa, we got reports from the 100 some countries where volunteers were serving that the same thing has happened. it was a worldwide mourning. and it reflected the fact that kennedy had sort of embodied what the world in some sense had been hoping for or believed in about america, young, can do, optimism, ideals. he had caught the imagination of people all over the world. not just the great moments in berlin and the massive crowds he assembled, but he went into peasant homes, had his pictures all over him, africa. and he reciprocated because his number one interest in his life was the world.

>> yeah. and mayor franklin, you were a college student in washington at the time. you would go on later in your life to win the john f. kennedy profile and courage award. what was it like just being a student in washington , on a day like that?

>> i was actually working at sears, when was called sears and roebuck, huge factory -- kind of a warehouse setting. and i took a break. during the day. and i heard the news on the radio. and i went back to my supervisor and told her that i really needed to leave for the day, that i was just completely devastated, i needed to be alone, i wanted to leave. and she told me that if i left, i would be fired. and i caught the bus and went to my apartment and --

>> you did leave?

>> i did leave. and like so many other people just felt as if i was in mourning. i felt completely devastated. this was the first presidential election that i had actually followed as a teenager, and i was one of the many people who was hopeful and thinking that this president was going to represent my point of view. and he was gone. so i think many, many people felt as if it was a family member, someone close to them who had died.

>> the only -- the only comparison i can think about, i wasn't around back then, i think of 9/11 and this network every 9/11 anniversary, we run on this channel what the live nbc news coverage was that day. i read the statistics about the day of the kennedy assassination , about 50% of the people in the country that afternoon were tuned into their televisions, watching it. by the time the funeral happened a few days later, it was something like 80, 85% of the entire country was watching it. besides 9/11, i don't think there has been another event in the television age that has brought the country together like that.

>> newsweek magazine said a little condescendingly that television came of age that weekend. and in fact, three years later, by 1966 , the national surveys said more people got their news from television than from newspapers. can i say something about emotions catching up. i don't think i felt anything for days. for the day of the assassination, the day after, we were too busy. and you think, like any reporter, what do i do? where do i go? who do i call? then until the funeral, and i was with an nbc crew at the top of the grassy knoll , shooting the faces of people who had come to look at the flowers and the signs and the notes that are left there. and an elderly man came along with a transistor radio and sat down on a bench beside us and the transistor radio was tuned to the funeral in washington just as the black watch highland pipe band passed the microphones. and the sound of the bagpipes and the memory of having seen this same unit on the south lawn of the white house nine days before with president and mrs. kennedy and their children watching from the balcony and the beautiful autumn day, suddenly i was just in tears. i was sobbing. tears running down my face. it was so unusual to cry, that the saltiness of the tears got me. it all caught up because i had two children, who were exactly the ages of caroline and john john. i just moved them from england where i lived for eight years, and i asked myself, what kind of a country have i brought my children to.

>> you mentioned the technology. i think it is impossible for many of our children, certainly the generation to understand the difference between what we could and did do to communicate this story in 1963 , and what happens now. i mean, obviously there was mass confusion. the day after the story, very prominent journalists were writing for print that it was a product of the mood created by the right wing of dallas , because the assumption was that it was going to be the far right that would give kennedy trouble. and, of course, it was a very confused communist. but imagine that story in the age of cell phones , cell cameras, twitter, facebook, and the wild far of information and misinformation that would have descended on society if all those things that existed --

>> and as it is, 50 years later, we still have about 28,000 different conspiracy theories out there about what really happened. just something we will get into a little later in the program. but walter mears talked earlier about the scene when lyndon johnson entered the white house as president for first time.

>> the french doors leading into the oval office of the president of the united states , the rocking chair and other mementos and reminders of the late president kennedy , mr. johnson paused and then passed on through. and he passed on