2 Reporters Recall The Assassination That Shocked The World

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy changed American history. It was also a news event covered unlike any before it. Steve Inskeep talks to two reporters who witnessed the events in Dallas 50 years ago: Hugh Aynesworth, then with The Dallas Morning News, and Sid Davis, then the White House correspondent for Westinghouse Broadcasting Company.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

People used to say that everyone could remember where they were when they heard President John F. Kennedy was shot. Even today, when most Americans are too young to remember, the moment is still so present in books, documentaries and movies that many us of know the events of that day. We never know the landmarks of Dallas, Texas, where President Kennedy rode in a motorcade on Nov. 22nd, 1963. Yet the assassination feels new again when you hear from eyewitnesses, like the two men we'll meet next. Steve, they spoke with you.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That's right. And one of them is Hugh Aynesworth, who in 1963, was a young reporter for the Dallas Morning News.

HUGH AYNESWORTH: I was probably the only reporter in the whole Dallas News newsroom who didn't have something to do that morning.

INSKEEP: Because his beat was not the presidency, but aviation.

AYNESWORTH: So I felt a little left out, really. But at the last moment, I decided it's only four blocks to where the motorcade would come down Main Street, so I'd better walk over and see - you know, see the president. So I did. And I got over by the depository building.

INSKEEP: The book depository that is so famous now. Go on.

AYNESWORTH: Yes. It was just a beautiful, beautiful day, up until I heard what I thought was a motorcycle backfiring. But that was the first shot.

INSKEEP: In those opening seconds, almost nobody understood what was happening. It's hard to follow it even now. When you watch the famous film - the president riding in his open car, first lady Jackie Kennedy beside him, the crowds by the side of the road, the motorcade trailing behind. Well back in that motorcade was a bus carrying a collection of White House reporters, including Sid Davis, who was then working for the Westinghouse Broadcasting Co.

SID DAVIS: I heard the shots. I heard three shots pretty clearly. I wasn't sure they were shots. But sitting next to me was Bob Pierpoint, of CBS, who knew guns; had covered the Korean War. And he jumped out of his seat, and he said, that's gunfire. When that happened, we started shouting at the bus driver to move up, move up! And we lost the presidential limousine. They just bolted out of there and headed for the hospital. They knew exactly where they had to go.

INSKEEP: Let me just stop you for a second because I want to bring Mr. Aynesworth back into this discussion. Mr. Aynesworth, you were in that crowd. What did you do in the moments after that shooting, Hugh Aynesworth?

AYNESWORTH: Well, I looked directly in front of me, across Houston Street; and I saw a man jumping up and down, and pointing up to the sixth-floor window up there. I didn't know what he'd known or what he'd seen or anything else, but I knew I had to get to him and find out. And as it turned out, he was the only real eyewitness that saw Oswald in that window.

INSKEEP: Aynesworth interviewed him. Sid Davis made it to Parkland Hospital. And in this day before pocket cellphones or the Internet, he called his office on a hospital phone and kept that line open, reporting everything as he learned it - until he came to the news that made him pause.

AYNESWORTH: While I was on the air broadcasting, some of my reporter friends - White House correspondents - were talking to two priests. And one of the correspondents said, you'd better get over here. He's waving at me while I was on the air. And I got over there just as the priest said that he's dead, all right; I just gave him the last rites. I ran back to my telephone, and I told my boss - I said, look, there's a priest here that says the president is dead. What do you want to do? And we both agreed that we would not put it on the air.

INSKEEP: Why?

AYNESWORTH: We both knew that the priest would know the difference between life and death. But we just didn't feel, without another source, without a doctor, a medical person telling us the president was dead - that we should not go on the air with it.

INSKEEP: The reporters waited until a White House spokesman confirmed the news a few minutes later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MALCOLM KILDUFF: President John F. Kennedy died at approximately 1 o'clock Central Standard Time today, here in Dallas.

INSKEEP: As the world absorbed that news, Hugh Aynesworth barely knew it. The young reporter who'd never been assigned to cover the president that day was now chasing leads around the city, not knowing for some time that the president was dead. He learned that the suspect, later identified as Lee Harvey Oswald, had killed a police officer and was still at large. Whenever he was near police, Aynesworth listened to their radios.

AYNESWORTH: I heard them say, there's a suspect in the Texas Theater. So I ran like mad to the theater. And then I asked one of the dumbest questions I've ever asked. I asked the woman - Julia Postal, who was the ticket salesperson - I said, did he buy a ticket? (Laughter) And she was crying. She had a transistor radio to her ear. And she says, he's in there. He's in there. So I ran inside and within two minutes, I saw the officers come up the aisle, and they jumped on Oswald so fast.

INSKEEP: Aynesworth went on to cover Oswald's story to the end. He would be at a Dallas police station two days later, when Oswald was approached by a man named Jack Ruby. Sid Davis went on to stay with Lyndon Johnson - Vice President Lyndon Johnson - until the moment Kennedy died. Having traveled with Kennedy to Texas, Johnson was at the hospital, and Davis was summoned to follow Johnson's motorcade in a race toward Air Force One. Reporters were needed to witness Johnson's swearing-in onboard the plane.

DAVIS: The aircraft was stifling hot, young people - Kennedy staff members - crying. I was standing near the president. And at this point, Johnson turned to his secretary, Marie Fehmer; and he said, Marie, I would like for you to go back and talk to Mrs. Kennedy and see if she would like to stand with us for the ceremony.

INSKEEP: This is Lyndon Johnson, thinking about the fact it's going to be photographed; he wants...

DAVIS: Absolutely. He thought - I think he saw the historical importance of her being in that room. Whether it was a picture or not, he wanted to make sure that she had an opportunity to be in that room.

INSKEEP: Johnson took the oath, as Sid Davis looked at his watch to mark the time. By early the next morning, Davis was back in Washington, talking live on the air as he watched one more motorcade.

DAVIS: The body came back to the White House about 4:15. And when I saw that gray Navy ambulance come up the driveway, and Mrs. Kennedy sitting with the casket - I had to close the broadcast. And I was signing off, and I decided unwisely to quote from a poem that Robert Frost had written. And Kennedy was very close friends with Robert Frost and at the end of his speeches on a long campaign night, Kennedy would say: The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. And I tried to say that on the air, and I couldn't get through it. And that's where I broke up on the air. This is 16 or 17 hours after the shooting but up until that point, it hadn't hit me that - the finality of his now being dead, and it's all over for the great adventure that he brought to us.

INSKEEP: Sid Davis and Hugh Aynesworth went on to long careers as reporters; Davis covering other presidents, Aynesworth debunking conspiracy theories about the assassination. Listening to them 50 years later, you still hear them working to describe every fact as they know it. What sticks in Davis' mind all these years later is the memory of looking at his watch on Air Force One, trying to take note of the exact moment in time.

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