Coverage-50 years to the day-of events leading to the assassination of President Kennedy

JFK Elm Street

 

Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert Kennedy visit the casket again on Capitol Hill. As they enter the Rotunda, the crowd parts for them and they kneel by the catafalque in prayer. The card on the wreath: “From President Johnson and the Nation.”

Hundreds of thousands waited through the night for a quick glimpse

 

Instead of returning to their car, they decideto walk for a bit among the huge, silent crowds. Mrs. Kennedy speaks to a group of nuns. A reporter asks Robert Kennedy his impression of the crowd (now 200,000 and growing rapidly). Hs says “Fantastic, fantastic.”

 

Midnight: 100,000 people have passed through the rotunda and gotten a glimpse of the flag-draped casket. Behind them the line stretches three miles. They stand, all night in the November cold. Most know the doors will close before their turn comes. But they stand anyway, silently.

 

A Mother kneels on the sidewalk, telling her children: “We can pray right here.”

 

A young man tells his girlfriend they won’t make it to the Rotunda. “I don’t care, I want to stand in line anyway,” she tells him. “It’s the least we can do.”

 

Thirty-six nuns from New Jersey take their place at the end of the line. Two members of President Kennedy’s PT-109 crew could have gone to the head of the line but refuse. 

 

A woman in a wheelchair, another on crutches limping along, all wait. “There were Virginia farmers in denim, New York women in mink, and – everywhere, it seemed-groups of students, of negroes, and of seamen” practicing their salute to the sailor in the mahogany box.

 

Among those with no chance of getting in: two teens who walked from Baltimore, 35 miles away and 40 students who arrived from Connecticut at dawn in a chartered bus. No one complains and no one leaves. “They were there,” William Manchester writes. “They had to be there, and just being there was enough.”

 

Mary McGrory, a journalist saw one young man with a guitar. “Do you know the President’s favorite song?” He didn’t and she told him. Together they sing:

 

“Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey, won’t you come home?

She moans the whole day long…

 

Then they sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and the spiritual:

 

“Hush, little baby, don’t you cry,

You know your Daddy was born to die.

All my trials, Lord, soon be over…

 

*Manchester, pp. 562-64

 

 

The White House 

 

Fourteen minutes after placing letters and trinkets inside her husband's coffin and snipping a few locks of his hair, Mrs. Kennedy watches as the flag-draped casket is wheeled out of the East Room and into the entrance hall near the North Portico. The widow holds the hands of her two children. 

 

John Jr.: “Mummy, what are they doing?”

 

Mrs. Kennedy: “They’re taking Daddy out.”

 

"But why do they do it so funny – so slow?”

 

“Because they’re sad.”

 

"Steadfast and still, she awaited the signal to move, her lashes heavy and her lovely mouth drawn down in a classic curve of grief..."

 

The widow, John Jr. and Caroline step onto the North Portico – their first public appearance as a family since the events of Friday. Caroline rests her head, with its black mourning headband, against her Mother’s waist. John Jr. squirms. But the eyes of tens of millions of Americans, and countless millions more around the world, are focused only on Jacqueline Kennedy – as the widow herself fixes her swollen eyes on the caisson bearing her husbands remains.

 

William Manchester writes:

 

“Her expression of ineffable tragedy was, in that flicker of a moment, indelibly etched upon the national conscience.”

 

He continues:

 

“It was the first sunlight she had seen since Dallas, but she did not blink. Steadfast and still, she awaited the signal to move, her lashes heavy and her lovely mouth drawn down in a classic curve of grief.”*

 

“…The average American, whatever his race, religious convictions or politics was gaping, anesthetized by what after two full days he still felt could not be happening.”

 

It is later estimated that 95 percent of the adult population in the United States was either watching on television, or listening to the funeral on the radio. All of Europe, much of Asia, even the Soviet Union was also watching.

 

*Manchester p. 529-30, 533

 

 

 

The East Room

 

Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy enter the East Room to have the coffin opened for a final time. She is carrying letters written by her, Caroline, John Jr., cufflinks and a scrimshaw of the presidential seal – all of which will be placed inside.

 

Clint Hill closes the doors to the East Room; General McHugh folds back the flag and unlatches the casket’s top. The honor guard, McHugh and Hill turn away and stand facing the wall at attention. 

 

Mrs. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy kneel before the open coffin. It is the first time the widow has seen her husband since Parkland It isn’t Jack, she thinks to herself, and she is relieved that they decided to keep the coffin closed. She places the letters, the scrimshaw and the cufflinks in the coffin. Robert Kennedy adds his own item: a PT109 tie pin. “He should have this, shouldn’t he?”

 

“Yes,” Mrs. Kennedy whispers. The president’s brother also places an engraved silver rosary Ethel had given him at their wedding. 

 

Finally, Mrs. Kennedy snips a lock of her husband’s hair.

 

As they emerge from the East Room, those nearby see that Mrs. Kennedy and her brother-in-law are in agony. Mary Gallagher, a secretary: “I had never seen her look worse. Bobby was leading her by the arm, holding her up; she was limp, with her head down, weeping. She looked as though she were ready to fall.” She was swaying visibly; Clint Hill fears she will faint.*

 

Hill looks at his watch: 12:46. 

 

*Manchester, pp. 514-17; Blaine pp. 276-77

 

Jack Ruby is known by many in Dallas as a man prone to angry emotional outbursts and sudden, vicious explosions of violence. In Case Closed, author Gerald Posner lists the following 17 examples:*  

 

  • “You could not reason with him when he lost his temper, recalls Tony Zoppi, an entertainment reporter for the Dallas Morning News.
  • “He was erratic and hotheaded,” noted Harry Olsen, a Dallas policeman who knew Ruby well. “He would just fly off the handle about anything… sometimes he would get so mad he would shake.”
  • Ruby often assaulted his own employees; he lost the left tip of his left index finger when one employee bit it off during a fight.
  • Ruby beat one of his musicians with brass knuckles
  • Ruby cracked the head of another employee with a blackjack
  • Ruby knocked the teeth out of one employee
  • Ruby out the club’s handyman in the hospital after beating him severely
  • To avoid paying the club’s cigarette girl $50 in back wages, he threatened to throw her down a flight of stairs
  • Ruby threatened standup comedian Robert McEwan after McEwan told several Jewish jokes that offended Ruby
  • Ruby also beat up customers. On at least 25 occasions he beat them with either his fists, a blackjack – or he pistol whipped them. He often ended his fights by throwing people down the Carousel’s stairs.
  • Ruby was known for attacking people from behind, kicking men in he groin or face, once he had knocked them to the floor – or even striking women
  • Ruby often forced beaten victims to crawl out of the club on hands and knees
  • Once Ruby chased another nightclub owner, Joe Bonds, through an alley, shooting at him several times but missing.
  • One of his dancers, “Jada” says Jack Ruby was “impossible, totally unpredictable…he is completely emotional. One minute he is nice, and the next minute he goes berserk…I don’t think he is sane.”
  • Edward Pullman, whose wife worked for Ruby: he “was insane. He was a psycho…he was not right.”
  • Johnnie Hayden, an official of AGVA (American Guild of Variety Actors), recalled that most of those who knew Ruby felt he was a “kook.”
  • William Serur, who knew Ruby for more than a decade, watched him change for the worse. “In the last few years I thought that he might have been suffering from some form of disturbance, mental disturbance, by the way he acted.”*

*Gerald Posner, Case Closed, pp. 357-58

 
Jack Ruby, left, whose two "Gentleman's Clubs" were advertised in the November 1963 issue of "This Month in Dallas," given to visitors to Big D.   

 

 

 

Dealey Plaza 

 

Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels looks out the window of Dallas police hq. There, in Dealey Plaza, he sees an Edsel, painted in crazy colors – and a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the top. It was “Honest Joe Goldstein, the Lone Ranger.” Known to many as an eccentric pawnbroker, Goldstein, like Jack Ruby, befriended cops and sought attention. In fact, Ruby and Goldstein are close friends.  

 

*Manchester, pp. 514-15

 

London

 

A popular BBC program, “That Was the Week That Was,” normally a comedy show, devotes its broadcast to the death of President Kennedy. The star of the show, David Frost, captures the sense of global shock:

 

“The reason why the shock was so great, why when one heard the news last night, one felt suddenly so empty, was because it was the most unexpected piece of news one could possibly imagine. It was the least likely thing to happen in the whole world. If anyone else had died – Winston Churchill, de Gaulle, Khrushchev – it would have been something that somehow we could have understood, perhaps even accepted. But that Kennedy should go – we just didn’t believe in assassination anymore. Not in the civilized world, anyway.”  

 

The Cabinet Room

 

“Gentlemen, the President of the United States!” – and with that introduction from Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Lyndon Johnson enters the Cabinet Room for his first Cabinet meeting. He opens with a silent prayer and then repeats what most of them had heard by now: that he needs them more than President Kennedy did.

 

Attorney General Robert Kennedy comes in late; it is a dramatic moment, and other Cabinet members leap to their feet. One pats him on the back. President Johnson, who remained in his seat, later perceives Kennedy’s late arrival as a deliberate snub; Kennedy denied it.

 

Rusk tells the new commander-in-chief: “Your unique qualities of character, wisdom and experience are a blessing to our country in this critical hour, and our confidence in your leadership is total.”*

 

*Manchester, pp. 476-77

 

8:45 a.m. The West Wing

 

Evelyn Lincoln, President Kennedy’s secretary, is packing up President Kennedy’s belongings. Suddenly President Johnson appears. He asks her into the Oval Office.

 

“I need you more than you need me,” he tells her. “But because of overseas (he was likely referring to the need to show government continuity to the outside world) I also need a transition….can I have my girls in your office by 9:30?”

 

“Yes, Mr. President.”

 

Mrs. Lincoln retreats to her office; she sees Robert Kennedy. Sobbing, she tells him “Do you know he asked me to be out by 9:30?”

 

“Oh no!” the Attorney General says.*

 

*Manchester, pp. 453-55 

Lyndon Johnson spent the first night of his presidency not at the White House - where the casket of his slain predecessor would soon be taken - but at his home in Northwest Washington. The Elms, it was called, a French chateau-style house at 4040 52nd Street.

 

It was 2:15 in the morning, and as Secret Service agent Jerry Blaine stood watch, he suddenly heard approaching footsteps. Heart pounding and cocking his submachine gun to scare off the intruder, Blaine pushed the stock into his shoulder, ready to fire.

 

Let me see your face, you bastard. 

 

He tells what happened next: 

 

"The next instant, there was a face to go with the footsteps. The new President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, had just rounded the corner, and Blaine had the gun pointed directly at the man's chest. In the blackness of the night, Johnson's face went completely white."

 

Blaine - was a split second away from firing - regained his composure as the reality of what had just happened washed over him. Fourteen hours after losing a president, the nation had come chillingly close to losing another one.* 

 

*From "The Kennedy Detail," p. 264-5

Dallas

10:15 Central / 11:15 Washington

 

Questioning continues for Wesley Frazier, the Book Depository employee who gave Oswald a ride to work this morning. “Relax,” Detective Rose tells him. “You have nothing to hide, right?" “Right.”

 

Rose: “Did Oswald ever talk politics?”

 

“Not with me.”

 

“Did you ever see him with a rifle?”

 

“No, sir.”

 

“Ever talk about one?

 

“Not to me.”

 

“Did he discuss the visit of President Kennedy?”

 

“Not that I remember.”

 

“Ever see him with a pistol?”

 

“No, sir.”

 

In a nearby office Frazier’s sister Linnie Mae Randall, is also being questioned; she repeats her story about seeing Oswald through the window with a long package.*

 

*Bishop, pp. 541-43

 

Under heavy security, President Johnson is driven to his home in Northwest Washington. Two agents at the gate draw their revolvers as the car approaches. Safely on the grounds of The Elms, as his home at 4040 52nd St NW is known, Agents Youngblood and Roberts escort him inside – walking backwards behind him.   

 

The President’s living room is crowded with old friends and neighbors. But no one says “Hi Lyndon!” LBJ has a new title on this night. “We must be going,” the visitors begin to say; there is no effort to discourage them, and they drift away. 

 

Johnson walks into his den with aides; someone makes drinks. “I’ll take a scotch tonight,” the new commander-in-chief says. Johnson is handed his drink. He looks up at the portrait hanging on his wall – of the late House Speaker Sam Rayburn – and says “I wish to God you were here.”*

 

*Bishop, p. 538-40

 

Bethesda Naval Hospital 

 

An overnight bag with fresh clothing and a makeup case - both monogrammed JBK - arrive from the White House (packed by Provi Paredes) and are given to Mrs. Kennedy. She places the bags in a bedroom and leaves them unopened.

 

Family and friends in the 17th floor suite make furtive glances at the blood and brains on her pink suit; “It was,” Jim Bishop writes, “as though they were looking at a murder.”

 

 

A warm bath could have been hers. She could have shed her clothing and never have to look at the ghastly outfit ever again. But she refuses.  She also declines an opportunity to lie down. Instead, noticing that the women in the room are getting tired, she suggests that they go home and get some rest. They decline. 

 

Charles and Mary Bartlett arrive to a fresh set of tears. It was the Bartletts that introduced Congressman John F. Kennedy to Jacqueline – then a photographer for a local Washington newspaper – in 1951.* 

 

*Bishop, pp. 509-11