Where were you when John F. Kennedy was shot? For Baby Boomers, the answer is usually “at school when an announcement came across the intercom.” Little did the kids know that as shots rang out in Dallas, the world they had come to know would change forever.
JFK and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in Dallas, waiting for the motorcade to begin.
America had emerged from World War II as a superpower, the only nuclear nation, the sole industrial nation unscathed from the devastation that had leveled entire cities throughout Europe and the Far East. Tokyo and Berlin – whose power-hungry dictators had plunged the globe into the most deadly conflict in human history – were smoldering ruins. Germany and Japan’s great factories had been bombed into burnt, twisted metal.
The American general who had led the free world to triumph, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had to decide whether he was a Republican or a Democrat – both parties had offered him the nomination. As a moderate Republican, he took the White House for two terms marked by unprecedented prosperity.
John and Jacqueline Kennedy with their daughter, Caroline.
Then a young U.S. Senator from Massachusetts ushered in a brand-new era the press called Camelot. John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” – then proclaimed that America would go to the moon within the decade.
John F. Kennedy’s inauguration
His shy, beautiful wife remodeled the White House. The President and his photogenic brothers, Bobby and Teddy, played football on the White House lawn.
John, Robert and Edward Kennedy
Then it all crashed on November 22, 1963. A thousand days into his storybook presidency, the youngest-ever commander-in-chief was struck down by a sniper’s bullets during a motorcade in Dallas.
Veteran TV journalist Jack Perkins was 29 years old and having lunch with his boss, NBC News legend David Brinkley, co-anchor of the network’s nightly news. Recalling that day for Beliefnet, Perkins remembers vividly, “he and I dashed from lunch back to the studio where for hours I filtered reports to him to put on the air. In my early years in TV news, one thing he taught me was that the more dramatic the story, the less dramatically it should be told.
“Then, when time came — 6:00 p.m. — for the evening’s regular Huntley-Brinkley Report, here’s how, undramatically, he opened. I still have his script.”
Somberly, Brinkley, who had been on the air non-stop all afternoon, began the news program with: “Good evening. The essential facts are these: President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, Texas. He was shot by a sniper hiding in a building beside his route. He was dead within an hour.”
“Simple declarative sentences,” remembers Perkins, who is now retired and lives with his wife on an island off the coast of Florida, “no ornamentation, his delivery calm, balanced.” Pure David Brinkley.
Across town, “I was working as associate director of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” remembers TV executive Stan Zabka. “We were in camera rehearsal when Nancy, our production assistant, now my wife of almost 50 years, entered the studio visibly upset, uttering the words ‘Dallas’ and ‘the President.’ Soon we learned that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
“All activity in Studio 6B came to a halt. On a television monitor overhead someone had piped in a CBS television feed of Walter Cronkite detailing a running account of the event. No one knew what to say, or if they could believe what they were seeing on the screen. Johnny entered the studio with his brother and our producer and told everyone to go home. The show was cancelled for the day.
Newlyweds Jack and Jackie Kennedy