Tue, 11/22/2016

Aspects of the JFK Assassination: Our Interviewees Remember

Robert MacNeil

In its roughly seventy-year history, television has, at its best, served to bring the country together in times of crisis and sadness. Watergate, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and 9/11 are a few that come to mind. But never more so than on November 22, 1963. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was the first time people looked to television for comfort, while everyone tried to make sense of what had happened and where to go from there. From the first news bulletin on CBS News interrupting As the World Turns, to the solemn state funeral, viewers were automatically and compulsively drawn to the television in a way they’d never been before. 

We’ve covered the topic of the assassination with many of our interviewees, but newsman Robert MacNeil’s account is particularly spellbinding. He was riding on a bus directly behind the motorcade in Dallas and he speaks in such vivid detail, if you close your eyes, it’s almost as if you’re there. It is essential viewing for those who want to know what it was like to be there in Dealey Plaza that morning. In our over eight hundred interviews, this might be the most important remembrance we’ve committed to tape.

There are so many aspects to the story of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. A big piece of the puzzle, of course, was the home movie taken by Abraham Zapruder of the terrible event that day. Life Magazine published still frames of the film in 1963, but the original remained in a vault at Time-Life, unseen by the general public for over a decade. Until, in 1975, Geraldo Rivera’s ABC series Good Night America ran a grainy and blurry version of it. One of the few non-governmental citizens who viewed the film before 1975 was Dan Rather. He recounted that experience for us, and, fascinatingly, what he was told to leave out when reporting on the film.

We’ve got many news people speaking on the assassination, but we also have stories of what happened with television shows that were in production that day, how people found out the news, and the reaction of the television community at large. Judy Garland famously sang a stirring, teary rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” on her 1963 variety show The Judy Garland Show in tribute to her fallen president and friend. Skitch Henderson, the then-leader of The Tonight Show band, filled us in on a fact that, but for our interview, may have been lost to history. The evening of the JFK assassination, Johnny Carson did not go on, but NBC had a plan.

We’ve got dozens of interviewees discussing John F. Kennedy, including his presidency, his assassination, and the conspiracy theories it continues to spark to this day. Many knew him and were there, witnesses to history. Among them are Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Roger Mudd, Bob Schieffer, Ted Koppel, Barbara Walters, and Don Hewitt. It is a treasure trove of information, and an invaluable resource. 

- by John Dalton