The following piece is authored by Radio America Founder and President James C. Roberts
On November 22 our son Andrew will marry Melody Dantzler in Charleston, South Carolina. Anticipating the joy of the occasion and the sight of the handsome groom and beautiful bride, I cannot help but think back 50 years to November 22, 1963, to a another attractive young couple and to the violent tragedy that shook the nation.
Like everyone alive on that day, I remember exactly where I was (going into my dormitory at the boarding school I then attended) when I got the news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
For my late cousin Charles Roberts, the memories of that day were burned into his psyche until the day he died 29 years later. Chuck was White House correspondent for Newsweek magazine and was in Dallas, riding on the first seat of the first press bus about six car lengths behind the presidential car, passing the Texas School Book Depository when the shots rang out.
Chuck’s first-person reporting, in Newsweek, made for riveting reading and would, in the opinion of Ben Bradlee, have earned him the Pulitzer Prize were it not for the fact that reporters for weeklies were not eligible. (The Pulitzer that year was given to UPI correspondent Merriman Smith).
Chuck wrote a best-selling book, The Truth About the Assassination and he and I spoke about the events of November 22nd many times after he retired.
In November of 1983, on the 20th anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination, I was serving as director of the White House Fellowships program and we held a session on the assassination at the National Archives, the repository of the main exhibits of the Warren Commission investigation into the Kennedy assassination.
The Archivist produced many of the key items, for viewing, including Kennedy’s bloody shirt, Oswald’s rifle, the deadly bullet and many others and in this somber atmosphere, Charles Roberts related his recollections to the group who listened in rapt attention.
He clearly heard the shots ring out, he said, but couldn’t say for sure how many. Major General Chester W. Clifton, Kennedy’s military aide, told Chuck that he had heard four shots.
Merriman Smith thought he heard three. Chuck remembered two. A key lesson to be drawn from this, he said, was the unreliability of eye-witness reports in times of confusion and crisis.
At the sound of the shots, Chuck saw a uniformed policeman running across Dealey Plaza, to the left of the President’s car with pistol drawn, “an immediate tip-off of serious trouble, violating the old rule of thumb that no one draws a weapon in the President’s presence unless he means to kill him or prevent him from being killed,” he wrote.
He also noted a “photographer, pursued by a policeman running up the grassy embankment ahead and to the right of the president’s car, ducking his head as if under fire.”
In the confusion the press bus stopped next to the Texas School Book Depository, from where Lee Harvey Oswald had fired the shots at Kennedy, and the reporters poured out to find out what has going on. Chuck told me that reporter Robin MacNeil, who ran into the Texas School Book Depository, thought afterward that he had literally run into Lee Harvey Oswald, who was fleeing the building.
Soon the reporters clambered back onto the bus which raced toward the Dallas Trade Mart, the site of the President’s scheduled speech. Upon arrival, most reporters headed up the escalator to a press room but Chuck ran to the parking lot where he heard a transmission between two police officers that the Kennedy motorcade had gone to Parkland hospital.
Brusquely rebuffed by the President’s personal physician, Vice Admiral George Burkley, when he asked for a ride, a police sergeant stepped out into the street and flagged down a cab, telling the cabbie, “take this man to Parkland Hospital – fast.”
Once at Parkland, Chuck encountered Senator Ralph Yarborough, near the emergency entrance where the president’s blood-spattered car was parked. Yarborough had been riding in the motorcade beside Vice President Lyndon Johnson just behind the President’s security car. Shaken, but coherent, he told Chuck over and over that he “smelled the gunpowder…. It clung to the card nearly all the way to the hospital.”
Chuck noted that Sen. Yarborough was known for his veracity, but that his recollection had to have been mistaken, in that no bullet had been fired within 100 feet of his car which then roared off at high speed to the hospital.
One of the first reporters to reach the hospital, Chuck gazed upon a numbed Jackie Kennedy sitting outside the trauma center, in shock staring into space. Soon the other five reporters arrived and milled about in confusion inside and outside of a classroom that had been made into a makeshift press headquarters. Unofficial reports began coming out from nurses and doctors, many weeping, that the President was dead and at 1:33 PM deputy White House Press aide, Malcolm Kilduff made it official. Visibly shaken, he read a statement that said, “President John F. Kennedy died at approximately 1:00 P.M. He died of a gunshot wound to the brain.”
As Chuck later wrote, “then there was bedlam.”
Minutes later, standing in the trauma center corridor, Chuck watched as the bronze casket containing the slain President’s body was wheeled by.
“My most vivid recollection, of that moment,” he wrote, “is of the dazed look on Jackie Kennedy’s face. Although I had talked to her many times, including (a) brief exchange when we arrived at Love Field, just two hours earlier, there was no glimmer of recognition as she walked by me, her hand resiting on the casket.”
Kennedy’s aides wanted to have the body flown back to Washington as soon as possible, but now – President Lyndon Johnson, had decided that he would be sworn in before Air Force One left the ground.
White House press aide Wayne Hawks quickly designated a press pool to cover the event, Merriman Smith of UPI, a wire service reporter, Sid Davis of Westinghouse, a radio/TV guy and Chuck, representing the news magazines. The three were placed in an unmarked police car, with siren silenced, which sped toward the airport at high speed, running red lights and crossing median strips en route.
Upton arrival on the Love Field tarmac, the three reporters entered the plane just behind federal judge Sarah T. Hughes who had been summoned to administer the oath of office.
Air Force One had been sitting in the sun without power for three house and as the reporters entered the plane, Chuck wrote, he was immediately struck by the darkness and the heat. The three moved forward to the main compartment where Johnson, his wife, Jackie Kennedy and Kennedy and Johnson aides – a total of 28 people by the reckoning of Roberts and Smith – crowded into the tight space.
Following the administration of the oath, Chuck recalled that LBJ kissed Lady Bird and then embraced Jackie Kennedy. Despite not being “deeply religious” Chuck found himself shaking the new President’s hand and murmuring, “God be with you, Mr President.”
Sid Davis left the plane. There followed a “nightmarish” flight back to Washington for the two remaining reporters which Chuck recalled (in an oral history quoted in Esquire magazine) as like entering “a tunnel.”
All the shades on the aircraft windows were kept down and the plane passed from daylight into darkness, unnoticed by the passengers. As the two reporters worked feverishly typing their copy amidst the weeping aides, officials and secret service agents, virtually all of the plane’s liquor stock was drained by the grieving passengers.
Seeing Roberts and Smith working on history’s first draft of the post-assassination story, officials kept coming forward – including the newly sworn-in President – who came by twice, once to say that he intended to ask Kennedy’s cabinet to stay on and the second time to say that he intended to make a short statement upon landing. There was considerable bad blood between the Johnson and Kennedy camps and some historians have written that Johnson was disrespectful in his treatment of Jackie and the Kennedy team. Chuck said nothing could be further from the truth – that the new President was the essence of graciousness and compassion toward the young widow and the slain president’s staff.
Following the publication of the Warren Report, Charles Roberts read the entire report meticulously and went on to write a best selling book The Truth about the Assassination. In it the seasoned former police reported was properly critical of the Commission’s errors of both the investigator’s conduct and some of its findings. but he concluded that its basic conclusions were correct, and he systematically rebutted the fantasies and irresponsible conclusions of the conspiracy theorists such as Mark Lane.
After weighing the evidence carefully and by doing extensive investigating on his own, Charles Roberts made this assessment:
“The truth about the assassination of John F. Kennedy is that the Warren C omission reached the only conclusions that are tenable to reasonable men. That truth, extracted and distilled from the 10,400,000 words in its Hearings, is borne out by the hard physical evidence as well as the most credible eyewitness testimony. It is the truth, in Earl Warren’s phrase, :as far as it can be discovered.”
Fifty years later, the detailed, accurate and evocative reporting of this superb journalist – written in a maelstrom of panic, confusion, shock and fear – remains a model for his profession and the judgment of this seasoned former police reporter on the Warren Commission report still stands the test of time.
Mr. Roberts is President of Radio America and the American Veterans Center.