Did you ever notice that a news event you actually witnessed didn’t seem much like the way the reporters described it? Why is that? Are the people that write the news that different from the rest of us, or is it something their profession does to them?
It was the Friday before Thanksgiving around two in the afternoon when somebody came into the office and said they’d heard that President Kennedy’d been shot in Dallas. Somebody else managed to come up with a radio and we turned it on. Around 2:30 an announcer told us the president had died. An hour later we were sent home.
The next day, Saturday, Kennedy’s body was brought to the White House. On Sunday it was to be taken in a procession to the Capitol for public viewing of the closed casket.
I got downtown around 10:30 in the morning. One of the nice things about Washington then – maybe still is – was the free parking on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. There were lots of cars there already, but I found a place near the Monument and walked the few blocks north to the White House. Big crowds had formed all around the place and along the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, which was the route the procession was going to take. There was nothing going on on the White House grounds, so I headed down Pennsylvania toward the Capitol, zigzagging around a million standees, passing an occasional seller of Kennedy photos.
The crowds got bigger when I reached Constitution Avenue and went on east past the Capitol. People were lined up rows deep around the plaza. Those in the back couldn’t see much, so some had climbed into trees and others were perched on the scaffolds for TV cameras. If I hadn’t known what they’d come for, it would’ve been hard to guess. The people weren’t festive, but they also weren’t morose. I didn’t see any obvious signs of grief. Tourists out to catch a glimpse of a big parade, I would’ve thought. Most of the sightseers had found a place to stand by then, and they stayed where they were, but as more arrived there was some pushing and shoving for position. Lots of kids were running around. Some of the adults had transistor radios; most had cameras. Trying one place after another, I had a chance to overhear what people were talking about. It wasn’t Kennedy or the assassination that seemed to be on their minds, but more personal things like keeping their kids in line or where to go after things broke up. A lot of what they said had to do with the procession: where it was going to come from and turn, where the caisson with the casket would be, and how to get into position for a good picture. Pictures were a definite priority.
After a while I found a place above the level of the crowd at the entrance to the Senate Office Building at Delaware and Constitution. The day was bright and sunny, but the wind was cold. I was sheltered where I was though, with a good view of the procession, where it would come from and turn, and I could see most of the Capitol steps. It was 20 minutes to noon when I got there, and I stood with the rest of the onlookers for a couple of hours. People kept coming, mostly from the north, it seemed, the direction of Union Station. Sometime during that period news rippled through the crowd that Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot. It didn’t cause much comment.
A little before 2:00 the cortege that had made its way from the White House reached the corner below me, turned into the East Capitol Plaza and came to a halt at the foot of the steps. There was a policeman, I remember, some flag bearers, three clergymen, the horse-drawn caisson with the casket, a man leading a horse that had riding boots turned around in the stirrups, and limousines for Mrs. Kennedy and the other mourners. What took place after they stopped was lost to my view. I did hear 21 cannon shots after a while, that seemed to come from somewhere to the rear. I left the place where I’d been standing and pushed my way into the crowd. All I could see were the people immediately in front of me, but I was able to overhear radio descriptions of what was going on. The casket had been taken into the Capitol and a ceremony was conducted. Eventually Mrs. Kennedy and the other mourners left. Those of us in the plaza continued to stay where we were, hoping we’d be let into the building eventually. News came over the radio that Oswald was dead.
Earlier, when I’d passed the place where I was now, a line half a block long had formed up in anticipation of the public’s being allowed to view the coffin. From the radio, we heard that that line had meanwhile gotten much longer. Those of us jammed around the foot of the steps weren’t in the line, of course, and we couldn’t even tell where it was, but we knew we were close to where it started. When the doors were opened to the public, the people around me surged forward with a force too strong to resist but not so forceful as to put anybody in danger. I didn’t contribute to the movement, but I didn’t fight against it. I was carried along by the people around me. The head of the line that had existed since early morning dissolved under the pressure, and I found myself in the column that formed up in its place. I overheard comments later that some of the people who’d been waiting since seven that morning had been sent to the end of the line, which was now blocks long; and I spoke subsequently with a student from the University of Maryland who came down at 5:00 the next morning and was still in line when the doors of the Capitol were closed at 9:30 and everyone was turned away.
One of the popular topics among those of us stuck in the crowd, was where we’d come from. A woman claimed she’d made the trip from New Jersey, but she was topped a minute later by a man from Chicago.
After no more than twenty minutes of waiting, we started up the steps, through the entrance and into a room filled with flowers, then on into the rotunda, the big circular area under the Capitol dome. The president’s closed casket was in the center. There were military sentries stationed in the room and a custodian of the presidential flag. We filed past at a moderate pace then out through the doors on the other side of the building. By twenty after three, I was headed down the Capitol’s west steps to the Mall where I’d left my car near the Monument five hours earlier.
Government workers were given the day off Monday. That’s when the funeral was held, and the president’s body was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The next Thursday was Thanksgiving, and I drove to Arlington. I got there around 10:30 and traffic was backed up in front of the gates. Cars weren’t being allowed in but were directed to a parking area across the street in Fort Meyer.
Kennedy’s grave is on the side of a hill that overlooks the Potomac. The Custis-Lee Mansion stands on the crest of that hill, and the view is spectacular from there. Looking northeast, you site along the bridge over the river to the Lincoln Memorial on the other side and the city beyond, with the Washington Monument off to the right a little and the Capitol dome a bit further.
There was a crowd around the grave with a line maybe a block long waiting to file past. It was moving quickly though. The gravesite, I saw when I got there, was a square area covered with flowers, surrounded by a low picket fence. There was a mound with pine boughs that had a green beret on it and a circular metal plate with a small flame at its center.
After passing by the grave, I made my way up the hill to the Custis-Lee Mansion to take advantage of the view it offered.
I heard cars on the road below and looked down to see a limousine approaching with a police escort. Whoever had come was of sufficient importance to be allowed access of a sort that was denied to the rest of us, so I started down the hill to see who it was. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, it turned out to be Jacqueline Kennedy who got out of the car. She was accompanied by her sister, Lee Radziwill, Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, his campaign manager, Larry O’Brien, and two other men I didn’t recognize. I stood as motionless as everybody else, held by a sense of courtesy to Kennedy’s wife as she walked to the grave from where the car had stopped. She knelt there for a moment, and the people with her did the same. She appeared perfectly composed and at ease. She stood and talked with Salinger for a few moments, then continued up the hill toward where I happened to be standing. Onlookers crowded around her with cameras clicking and whirring but otherwise well-mannered. The people screening me from Mrs. Kennedy parted then to let her through. She passed within a few inches of me, turned and looked back down the hill. I stared at her face from less than a foot away. She was smaller than I’d imagined, as famous people always turn out to be in my experience, her hair browner, her skin darker, more tinged with orange. There were signs of weariness in her face, I suppose, but the strain of everything she’d been through over the course the last week certainly wasn’t evident. Salinger was at her side and the two of them stood looking back at the site where the crowd still clustered around the grave. She spoke so softly I could barely hear the words. It was something like, “… just keeping watch, just keeping watch.”
She walked back down the hill then, got into the car, and she and her companions drove off, leaving an image in my mind that seemed more appropriate to remembering Kennedy’s death than all the symbols and ceremonies people had come up with to give the occurrence distinction.