Four Days in November: 50 Years Revisited

The coffin of President John F. Kennedy lying in repose in the East Room of the White House. (Abbie Rowe, National Park Service, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

Twenty-five years ago this week, being the perfectionist 12-year old kid that I was, I checked the VCR to make sure it was set to record at approximately 8:00 pm Central Standard Time. I knew what I was going to record was going to be a keepsake for archival matter.

Last night, I pulled out that videotape and watched it again. No damage and no wear and tear affected it. It was still in great condition. The program I taped still captivated me as it did on that week in 1988.

The title of the show was “Four Days in November: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy.” It was produced and aired on CBS and hosted by Dan Rather. It is posted below, in its entirety.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It’s an eerie feeling to say that because the assassination took place on a Friday, November 22, 1963.

Today is Friday, November 22, 2013. The same day…50 years later.

Four Days in November…permanently cemented into American history.

That weekend, Iowa was to host Notre Dame while ISU and Drake was slated to play each other. Thanksgiving was a week away. It was an ordinary day, that 22nd day of November, until 12:30 pm Central time.

What was to be another weekend to many became a blur, a nightmare, a roller coaster of disbelief, shock, sadness, and bewilderment.

David Brinkley said it best in his commentary: “It was too much, too ugly, and too fast.”

The evening headline in the Des Moines Tribune from November 22, 1963.
The evening headline in the Des Moines Tribune from November 22, 1963.

There have been three Presidents assassinated before JFK: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. All three were within a 36-year span (1865-1901). Each one shocking, and terrifying, but this one, Kennedy, impacted this nation like no other. Why? Television and radio.

These days, we take television for granted. It’s available where ever we go. Social media gives us the news immediately, good or bad.  It wasn’t like that in 1963. Television showed its power on November 22, 1963. Three networks. That’s all it took.

CBS stayed on the air for 56 hours, with no commercials, which was unprecedented at that time. Walter Cronkite, Rather, Harry Reasoner, Mike Wallace, to name a few spearheaded the CBS coverage. NBC was led by Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Edwin Newman, Frank McGee, and Bill Ryan. Ed Silverman, Don Goddard, and Ron Cochron handled the ABC coverage..

There were no hyperbole, fluff, hype, or any of the things we see today when a breaking story is being reported. Legendary broadcasters like Brinkley, Huntley, and Cronkite reported the story, gave you the facts, and offer sane and intelligent perspective. It was simple and professional. There was a duty to inform the public of what was taking place.

We were seeing history.

If you permit me, I have several thoughts as I re-watched the CBS special:

  • As the news broke of the assassination, the reporters kept their composure despite their shock. Cronkite’s pause when he read the official announcement spoke volumes.
  • CBS was the first television network to break in with a news bulletin at 12:40pm CST. ABC and NBC followed minutes later. Chaos ensued in the newsrooms as everyone was scrambling to get on air. People were running in and out of the studios gathering as much information from Dallas as possible.
  • As David Brinkley pointed out in his commentary, everything was going too fast for everyone. Within five hours after the assassination, JFK’s body, Jackie Kennedy, LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson were all back in Washington. Lee Harvey Oswald was captured in a movie theater, arrested for the slaying of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit shortly after Kennedy was cut down. Before the night was over, Oswald would be charged with Kennedy’s death.

Then came Sunday. As Kennedy was lying in repose at the U.S. Capitol, Oswald himself is shot and killed by Jack Ruby. America was now in a state of bewilderment.  “This can’t be happening, is it?” 

  • The most powerful images, to me, was the public viewing at the Capitol and the funeral. A nation in mourning, as a riderless horse lead the flag-draped coffin of Kennedy, carried on a caisson solemnly heading towards Arlington National Cemetery. The band playing “Eternal Father Strong to Save” (Navy Hymn) and Chopin’s “Funeral March” in the background, as masses of people lined the streets, silent and somber, waiting to pay their final respects to a President, so vibrant and energetic.
  • Commentaries were devoid of political rhetoric and personal agendas. Yes, there were questions about why, what, and how did this happen, but the focus was to offer a freshly shocked nation words of understanding and reflection, like the one Edwin Newman provided. Those words, including those of Brinkley earlier and later on with Frank McGee were eloquent without contempt, poignant without malice.They are the words that can be applied to today’s world, just as they were echoed 50 years ago today.

We were witness to tragedy. We were witness to history.

Along with the CBS special, I strongly recommend another one, also titled “Four Days in November” done by accomplished producer David L. Wolper, of “Welcome Back Kotter” fame. Wolper did 3 films chronicling Kennedy which are top-notch and outstanding. This one is no different.

Dan Rather commented early on in the CBS special: “We make no comment on the past, we only bring it back.”  Rather and CBS felt the visual images were more powerful than words can describe.

He is right.

In closing, Frank McGee and Edwin Newman summed up this day 50 years ago. This dark grim chapter in our nation’s history. The “Four Days in November” America will always remember.

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