Kennedy’s assassination, from the eyes of a British newspaperman
I heard the first uncertain fragment on BBC Radio. I was wearing a dinner jacket, driving in the dark to a press ball in Teesside in the industrial northeast of England. This dinner dance was quite an occasion for me. I was the new boy, early thirties, putting in a first appearance as an editor at a big social event where all the rival purveyors of news hobnobbed with mayors, MPs, police chiefs, bosses of the coal mines, steel mills and shipbuilding yards: in short, all the news sources of the entire northeast we covered.
I guess it was near 7 p.m. UK time when I heard the flash. President John F. Kennedy had been shot at 12:30 p.m. Texas time. I was 20 miles from the offices in Darlington where I’d just been entrusted with the editorship of the Northern Echo (circ. 100,000). It was, and is, a regional morning daily with a glorious heritage going back to the sensational editorship of W.T. Stead in the 1870’s (he died on the Titanic), but with its circulation of 100,000 ebbing before the challenge of nine national dailies, two rival regional dailies, three city papers and TV and radio.
I turned right around and drove back to Darlington. By the time I’d navigated the traffic on cold, greasy roads, negotiated with my blood pressure, and run up the backstairs to the editorial floor, the president had been pronounced dead. My deputy, a masterful text editor, had his head down amid the flood of telexes. Given the time difference between the UK and U.S., we had just over three hours to deadline to make sense of the rapidly changing story, send the words by pneumatic tube to the hunched up Linotype operators in the composing room, and get the lines of hot metal to fit our page designs.
I added to the tension. To the alarm of the sub-editors, and the printers even then buzzing for “more copy, more copy” for the other news scheduled for inside pages, I said that we were also going to produce a four-page special. They were not to pause updating the running story. I’d compile and edit the four pages on Kennedy’s life, and discuss how often a president’s life had been ended by murder.
What was I thinking? It was crazy to attempt to crash out pages when everyone was stretched to the max already. But I’d caught a bug while in the United States for two years of study and travel as a postgraduate Harkness Fellow from 1956-8. I’d become infatuated with U.S. politics and, in turn, by the people attempting to realize the ideals of its constitution. Day after day I’d watched Senator John McClellan’s Labor Rackets Committee investigate big union ties to the mob, notably Jimmy Hoffa’s International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Bobby Kennedy, the committee’s chief counsel, sat side by side with his brother, Senator John Kennedy, in face to face confrontations with the dregs of American society. I’d also recoiled from the extremism I saw in travels through all the states in the Deep South, and Texas, too, witnessing with sickening frequency the rule of fear imposed on blacks seeking the shelter of the rule of law for the right to vote and acquire a halfway decent education.
Three years later when Senator Kennedy had become president, I was disappointed by what seemed his overly cautious approach to redressing the wrongs I’d seen in the Deep South, while I was enchanted by his cool wit. In one of his open press conferences, he was challenged to respond to a Republican group’s vote to condemn his erratic foreign policy. “I trust,” he said, “the vote was unanimous.” At the same time, I caught a glimpse of the simmering hatreds besetting reformers. Revisiting D.C., I began to take the political temperature, as reporters are wont to do, by asking a taxi driver — then middle-class and white — how he thought President Kennedy was doing. “He’s great in his right place,” he growled, “but they ain’t dug it yet.”
At the Northern Echo that night in 1963, the first thing I did was commission a portrait of Kennedy’s life, and an analysis of the forces that had spawned the dreadful sequence of attempts on the life of a president. I sent for every photograph we had of the Kennedys and also for whatever we had of presidents Lincoln, McKinley and Garfield, and their assassins.
Not a single photograph of anything came back. “Sorry,” it was explained, “no one can find those files. The night manager of the picture department has one night a week off and this is it.” Well, I said, there’s that very nice day manager who seems to know where she’s put things. This was young Shirley Freeman, known to admirers of her retrieving skills as Shirley Fileroom. She, too, could not be found. I summoned my indispensable secretary, Joan Thomas. She suggested we call Shirley’s parents. “Oh,” they said, “she’s out with her boyfriend.”
“I think they went to the cinema.”
Joan said the Odeon was the most popular.
“Kindly get the manager on the phone.”
Joan did. The manager hadn’t heard of the shooting. He was aghast when I asked him to stop the film and search the cinema for Shirley, who might or might not be there. Then I had a better idea. Would he mind just pausing the movie for a quick message on the screen? A handwritten message on a Perspex slide flashed into the consciousness of a couple canoodling in the back row: “Can Miss Shirley Freeman call the Echo urgently.”
Her date was ruined, but back at the office she deftly found everything we wanted. We made it to press on time. On every November night of the shooting, I again feel the chill of the loss of the prince of promise. “From this day…to the ending of the world, it shall be remembered.”
PHOTOS: President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, and Texas Governor John Connally ride through Dallas moments before Kennedy was assassinated, November 22, 1963; Visitors tour the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum in Hyannis, Massachusetts November 14, 2013. REUTERS/Brian Snyder