IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The heartbreak of losing a president

Only three days after the nation was shocked by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, millions across the nation tuned in to watch the funeral of their late president.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Only three days after the nation was shocked by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, millions across the nation tuned in to watch the funeral of their late president.

Among the most solemn days of the 20th century, the funeral of President John F. Kennedy occurred on Monday, Nov. 25, 1963. The event was at once personal and global, as millions of people from around the world tuned in to a live television broadcast.

The nation was still in shock from Kennedy’s assassination only three days before, and an estimated 81% of homes with a television had their sets tuned to the funeral possession, one the highest TV ratings in US history, according to Nielson.

“This is when America became a TV nation,” said Patty Rhule, a senior manager of exhibits at the Newseum in Washington. Television was fast becoming a ubiquitous presence in American homes, thanks in no small part to the telegenic Kennedy family.

Those who tuned in saw images of sorrow and prestige. Dozens of foreign dignitaries, including French president Charles De Gaulle and British Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, flew in from around the world to march behind the funeral procession. The DC Metropolitan police chief Robert V. Murray later said that the all the attending heads of state and royalty made for the largest security risk his department had ever faced.

The unfortunate stars of the day, however, were the stricken members of the Kennedy family—most of all, Jacqueline Kennedy, the late president’s widow.

Approximately a million people lined the processional route, which went from the Capitol to The White House to St. Matthews Cathedral and finally Arlington National Cemetery. The procession was led by the Marine band.

Veteran journalist Bob Schieffer, who covered the event 50 years ago for The Fort Worth Star Telegram, said Kennedy’s funeral “became the template for coverage” of such tragedies. “We were working in one of the worst moments of the nation’s life back then and we didn’t know what to make of it, much like what happened on 9/11.”

As the casket was borne to its place of burial, Jacqueline Kennedy bent down and whispered to her son. John F. Kennedy Jr., known to many as “John John,” saluted his father’s coffin. Fifty years later, that image endures in the American consciousness, a grim, touching reminder of one of our nation’s saddest hours.