The assassination of President John F. Kennedy and events that followed are burned in my memory forever, and not with a little emotion.
I was anchorman-reporter at Channel 4 in Washington, a TV-radio operation owned by NBC, and preparing the evening news when the editor on duty shouted: “Hey everybody, listen up. The president has been shot!”
Although it was in Dallas, we geared up quickly in the Washington bureau for whatever would come next.
I was given the job of broadcasting details on the local stations, as we got them.
The rest of that day is well-known by those old enough to remember.
On the day before the funeral the assignment editor was detailing everybody’s job. A correspondent was stationed every three blocks from the White House to the church at Connecticut and Rhode Island avenues, about 10 blocks away.
I drew the platform in front of the church, and my job was to describe the procession led by the caisson carrying the president’s casket, past heads of state from all over the world. I would hand over the broadcast commentary to a priest we had hired to describe the interior of the church and the funeral ceremony itself.
“You’ll have a maximum five minutes,” my editor said, “and you’ll work with Frank Blair (of the “Today” show), with you doing the radio broadcast and Blair doing TV. Ten minutes maximum. The director will let you know when to hand over the broadcast to the priest.”
(Funny, we were not given the priest’s name, and to this day I don’t know who he was except he was in one of Washington’s many Catholic churches.)
Broadcasters were placed on a platform where we could see down the aisle of the church.
Thousands of people jammed into the block-and-a-half area in front of the church.
As the procession rounded the block near the church, I noticed French President Charles de Gaulle, about 6-foot-5 or 6, and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, about 5-foot-7 or 8. (I wonder if someone at the White House paired them on purpose?)
This was my first big network assignment and my prebroadcast time was taken up by my thoughts of how I would open my 10 minutes. What I had not counted on was the reaction of the crowd. As the procession came our way, a wave of silence moved over the mass of people standing there. The best thing I could come up with was “The silence here is deafening.”
I think everyone in the crowd had portable radios tuned to NBC because my broadcast was echoing loudly.
Nevertheless, it went without a hitch up to that point, and the director said, “Thank you, Dave, nice job. Hand it over to the priest.” I did, and hopped down from the platform for a cup of coffee.
Hardly had my feet hit the ground when my engineer grabbed me and said, “They want you back up there. There has been a delay.”
Apparently a matter of protocol had delayed the movement of the casket into the church, so I hopped back up on the platform (I could do that then — I was 50 years younger), just as young John-John rendered a salute to his father’s casket.
Years later, one of my colleagues and I were discussing that day and he said, “Several of us have taken bets on this. Did you know John-John was going to salute and you bribed the director to put you back on the air so you could tell that?” Obviously he was ribbing me for the delay ran nearly 45 minutes and I had to fill the air time, without a script.
The day that my big network assignment that was to be a maximum 10 minutes ended up totaling nearly an hour. I learned later that the broadcast had been picked up by stations in more than a dozen countries. Later in my career I covered three other presidents as a member of the White House press corps. But there would never be anything as emotional as that day 50 years ago.