Sixty Years in Journalism: Covering JFK

Any American who is old enough can remember where he or she was when President John F. Kennedy was murdered. I was in a downtown Washington deli, where I stopped enroute from Capitol Hill to the ABC News bureau to get a carry-out sandwich. I found the bureau editors, despite their state of shock, carrying out plans for continuous coverage, and I soon headed for the White House where the staff was somber and preparing for the arrival of a new President.

President Kennedy's casket was brought to the East Room of the White House, and I was in position beside the north portico, to describe the emotional scene. The entire nation, and much of the world, was riveted by the nonstop coverage of the tragedy, from Dallas, Texas, where the fatal shots were fired, to the White House, the Capitol, St. Matthew's Cathedral for the Funeral Requiem Mass, and the procession to Arlington National Cemetery.

A thousand days of hope and inspiration, and anxiety and some disappointment, all began on the campaign trail, where the youngest man ever to be elected President was a glamorous figure. In the days when candidates got no special protection, I watched his open car followed by hordes racing to keep up, notably young women, reaching for a handshake or just a touch. Kennedy often found he was missing a cuff link when he got out of the car. In his campaign speeches, I noted how he looked toward the balcony, even if no one was seated there, to convey an onward-and-upward expression.

Not that his campaign was smooth sailing. I was assigned to follow him to a meeting of Protestant ministers in Houston to defuse their worries about electing the first Catholic President. I sat with my recorder at the edge of the platform, as his message went out to the nation, including to skeptical primary voters in states like West Virginia.

After winning the Democratic nomination, Kennedy faced an experienced vice president as his opponent. As the cameras turned on for their first televised debate, Kennedy looked relaxed and in command. Richard Nixon looked stressed and in need of a shave. I was unaware of that dynamic. When I arrived with a colleague at my apartment to turn on my seven-inch black-and white TV, it wasn't there. A burglar stole it. Listening on the radio, we thought Nixon probably won the debate.

Reporters are professionals who can absorb a briefing on a different subject every day and make it understandable to readers and listeners, preferably with a dose of writing style. Kennedy had those skills in spades, as did his close aide and speech writer, Theodore Sorensen. Some of the words he spoke are engraved in stone in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

President Kennedy, for the first time ever, invited live coverage of his news conferences in the auditorium of the Department of State, which seats 800. Cameras were arrayed on an aisle midway up the steps. As a broadcast reporter, I chose to sit directly in front and plug into the sound system. There was no shortage of serious issues to probe: the arms race with the Soviet Union and Kennedy's summit with Nikita Khrushchev, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the Cuban missile crisis, the growing commitment in Indo-China, the promise to send an American to the moon and return him safely to earth, the proposed civil rights bills.

Some of Kennedy's best known oratory was memorably serious, beginning with his inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." But there were also frequent flashes of quick wit, though the comments may not seem as funny from the written transcript as they did when I heard them on the scene, or as they might be to visitors who see them on film in the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

Kennedy was asked about a Republican National Committee resolution that his administration was a failure. I assume it passed unanimously, he quipped. Asked about his treatment by the press, he said, I'm reading more and enjoying it less. When we got into office, he said on another occasion, what surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we'd been saying they were. One of his best known lines was spoken not at home but introducing himself to the people of France during his state visit. I am the man, he said, who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it.

Looking back now, Kennedy was more an inspiration than a total success story. He made many young people pay attention to the issues and think about careers in public service, beginning with the Peace Corps, which was created by his administration. Personal matters back then were hidden from the public: His painful Addison's disease was an concern between him and his doctors. Womanizing was an issue between him and Jacqueline.

And finally passing civil rights bills took the political savvy and Capitol Hill experience of President Lyndon Johnson. I watched from the Senate Radio-TV Gallery as he brought Republican leader Everett McKinley Dirksen to agree that the time had come to remove a national stain. Dirksen's heartfelt oration helped enlist Senate votes to overcome the Dixiecrats. Johnson moved ahead with major economic initiatives. from Medicare to his War on Poverty, until stymied by his decision to accelerate rather than rein in Kennedy's commitment to Vietnam.

But my memory of John F. Kennedy in his prime remains vivid and laudatory. He was the personification of a can-do America filled with youthful promise. It was years after he fell victim to high-powered rifle shots fired at his motorcade, before I could bring myself to listen to the recording ABC Radio made of our coverage of the Kennedy funeral. It's been more years before I could sit down and recall with reportorial equanimity what he meant to me and to our nation.

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