- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

This is the first of two excerpts from “JFK: Breaking the News” (International Focus Press) by Hugh Aynesworth, Dallas bureau chief of The Washington Times. Mr. Aynesworth, as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, witnessed the assassination of JFK, the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald and the killing of Oswald by Jack Ruby.

A damp, gray, autumn sky hung over Dallas — weather to match my mood.

Friday, November 22, 1963.

President John F. Kennedy was coming to town. There’d be a motorcade, and then JFK would address a luncheon at the Dallas Trade Mart.

The president’s visit was the local news story of the week, or even the year for that matter, and my paper, the Dallas Morning News, was deploying every available hand to cover the event — everyone except me.

Science and aviation was my beat, not government or politics. All my buddies at the paper had been talking about the Kennedy visit for days. Now they would all be part of a story big enough to tell their children about.

“Where you gonna be?” photographer Joe Laird asked, juggling several cameras.

“Oh, Hugh’s off today,” columnist Larry Grove answered for me. “He lucked out.”

Grove was my best buddy on the paper. We had just returned from our first coffee break in the cafeteria, where I had told him I felt like everybody except me and the copy boys were going to be with the president at Love Field or at the Trade Mart luncheon.

“You may be the lucky one,” Grove said with a grin. “I guess I’ll get a good column out of it, but … ”

I guess I was somewhat spoiled. I was 32. Not only had I been covering all the U.S. manned spaceflight launches, the nation’s underground nuclear-testing program and various military stories, I’d been to Cuba just days before the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. I was used to action.

I drifted back down to the cafeteria, got another cup of coffee and picked up the day’s paper. I had at least three hours before I was scheduled to interview an aerospace scientist at Southern Methodist University.

The Metro section carried an interview with former Vice President Richard Nixon, in town under his lawyer’s hat for meetings with Pepsi-Cola bottlers.

Nixon was scheduled to fly out of Love Field two hours before the man who barely edged him for the presidency in 1960 would land aboard Air Force One. At a Baker Hotel press conference, Nixon predicted his old rival might drop Vice President Lyndon Johnson from the ticket in his 1964 re-election campaign if the Texan proved to be a political liability.

Politics was in the air.

An Associated Press dispatch, quoting the Houston Chronicle, adroitly explained the major reason for Kennedy’s trip to Texas: Three years earlier, JFK and LBJ carried the state over Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge by a razor-thin 46,000-vote margin. Now, a statewide poll showed Kennedy trailing Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, his likely opponent in 1964, by about 100,000 votes.

Although the most recent Gallup Poll showed the president pummeling Goldwater nationwide, 58 percent to 42 percent, Kennedy clearly needed to shore up support in this important swing state. A two-day, five-city tour of Texas accompanied by popular Democrats such as Johnson and Gov. John Connally must have seemed just the thing to improve his image.

JFK was adamant about showing the Democratic flag in Texas’ second-largest city, even though the president seemed unlikely to change many hearts or minds. Nixon had steamrolled him by 60,000 votes in Dallas. Goldwater promised to show even better in this black-earth redoubt of red-meat conservatism.

Well-known national Democrats, including U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, Governor Connally and Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, advised the president to postpone or skip the Texas trip. Groups of virulently anti-Kennedy Texans, some extremely well-financed, planned to take advantage of the press coverage to make their sentiments better known.

These Democrats feared that something really ugly could occur, especially in Dallas, where a long and vociferous list of Kennedy detractors was headed by E.M. “Ted” Dealey, then publisher of the News. My boss.

The News, the largest daily newspaper in Texas, routinely excoriated Kennedy in its editorial columns, part of the paper’s shrilly right-wing political slant that appalled and embarrassed many in the newsroom, including me — as thoroughly apolitical as anyone on the staff.

Two obnoxious sightings

The day before Kennedy arrived, “Wanted for Treason” handbills started popping up around town. The fliers depicted the president in full face and profile, as in a mug shot. “This man,” they read, “is wanted for treasonous activities against the United States.”

As I browsed through the News, I came to the most outrageous ad I’d ever seen in any Dallas paper: full page, black bordered, paid for by “the American Fact-Finding Committee,” its address a Dallas post-office box.

“WELCOME MR. KENNEDY TO DALLAS …, ” the anonymous “committee” announced in headline type, then proceeded to attack the president in a series of 12 questions. Wincing at the offensive ad, I looked up to see an even less welcome sight.

Dallas strip-club owner Jack Ruby, 52, was waiting at the cafeteria cash register to pay for his eggs and toast. Ruby never traveled light. This morning he was burdened with an umbrella, scarf, heavy coat, newspapers and a fistful of glossy photos of his strippers, pictures I suppose he hoped to finagle the News’ night-club columnist into running.

Also somewhere on his person there probably was a loaded handgun. Jack Ruby almost always carried a gun.

Ruby was a regular and noxious presence at the News — loud, pushy, always trying to hustle publicity for his seedy, second-floor strip joint, the Carousel Club. I held my breath, hoping he wouldn’t see me, and exhaled only after the unpleasant hustler with the big mouth stopped to talk briefly to two ad salesmen, then settled down, alone, at a table about 15 feet away.

I had noticed that Ruby leered at our young cashier in her too-short skirt while waiting for his meal. Now I watched as he cut a peephole in his paper to keep up his surveillance as he pretended to read.

A newsman from WFAA-TV left his table and steered over to mine to finish his coffee. We chatted briefly about the president’s visit. It never crossed my mind there might be trouble — real trouble.

I decided to walk over to Main Street and watch the motorcade ease by. After all, it wasn’t every day a president came to town.

In Dealey Plaza

It was a little before noon. The clouds had vanished, and Dallas gleamed in the sun under a bright blue sky. It was almost like spring. The temperature was climbing toward the high 60s.

From the News building on Young Street, it was a three-block walk to Market and Main. In 1963, the site was part of the courts complex, a bunch of nondescript businesses, mostly offices for lawyers and bail bondsmen.

Kennedy would pass by in just a few minutes. The sidewalks were jammed three and four deep with Dallasites hoping to get a glimpse of their handsome, 46-year-old president and his lovely wife Jacqueline, just 34. An estimated 100,000 people turned out to watch.

I walked west on Main to Houston, the southeast corner of Dealey Plaza, where the motorcade would turn right and proceed for a couple of hundred yards before turning sharply left down Elm in front of a dreary brick warehouse, the Texas School Book Depository. Until that day, I was hardly aware the structure existed.

The crowds were as thick around the plaza as they’d been on Main. So when I saw a couple of familiar assistant district attorneys standing in front of the jail building near the corner of Houston and Elm, I walked over to join them.

People on the street were tracking Kennedy’s progress via their portable radios. I could hear the familiar voices of local news announcers describing the motorcade’s move out of Love Field at 11:55 onto Mockingbird Lane, then Lemmon Avenue, Turtle Creek Boulevard and Cedar Springs Road in its serpentine route south toward downtown.

The general mood — especially through downtown and in Dealey Plaza — was upbeat. Nobody shouted insults or threats or threw things. Frankly, I was surprised given the venom I knew dwelt in many hearts in this city.

Onlookers had good reason to mind their manners. Seven hundred state and local personnel, from Texas Rangers to Dallas firefighters, were deployed to maintain the peace. Earlier that week, Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry announced that authorities would take “immediate action to block any improper conduct.”

The spectators milling around me were enthusiastic, laughing and calling to one another. I heard some try to mimic Kennedy’s famous Boston accent, saying “Hahvahd” and “Cuber.” Others waved little American flags.

We knew the motorcade was near when the police began, with minimal success, to shove people back onto the curb. The “pilot car” in advance of the presidential limousine eased to the right around the corner from Main onto Houston, and cheers and applause erupted.

>’Really happening’

I was standing with my lawyer friends maybe 10 feet from the curb. As we watched the big blue Continental glide by — I vividly remember Governor Connally’s broad grin — a huge black woman nearby burst into shouts.

“She’s got my dress on! She’s got my dress on!”

Jackie’s pink suit and hat weren’t exactly the same shade, but it was close enough for the lady to realize a moment of glory.

At 12:30, we heard the first loud pop. At first, I assumed a nearby police motorcycle had backfired.

As two more rapid rifle shots echoed across Dealey Plaza, the scene erupted into chaos. Terrified people ran in every direction, looking for cover, screaming, “Oh no! Oh no!” Some, frozen by fear, stood and wept on the sidewalks. Others tried to shield their children.

I had no idea who was shooting at whom, or why or where, except that it sounded very close. When I turned to look around, I saw the large lady in pink, so overjoyed by Jackie’s attire just seconds before, doubled over and vomiting against a street lamp.

“The president’s been shot!” someone yelled.

Sirens blared.

“I saw Lyndon get hit too,” another man said.

Instinct kicked in. I was a reporter, and I knew I had to start interviewing people — record the event. I remember three or four persons pointing toward the upper floors of the book depository, not 150 feet from where I stood.

Police officers, sidearms drawn, approached the building. Others followed a motorcycle cop who ran his machine up the grassy area to the west of the book depository.

“My God, this is really happening,” I said to myself as I reached in my pockets for paper to start taking notes. The best I could do was a couple of utility payments I hadn’t yet mailed and a third piece of paper, a letter from Empire State Bank thanking me for opening an account.

Next I found I had nothing to write with. I spotted a scared little guy, embraced tightly by his dad — not yet crying, but aware things were more tense than he liked. He forced a half smile and I noted in his hands he gripped a fat jumbo pencil, like the ones kids used in early grade school. It had a small American flag protruding from the eraser end.

“Hey, I’ll give you 50 cents for that pencil,” I said, perhaps a little too eagerly. His father gave me a look of deep suspicion.

“Sure,” said the boy, grabbing my quarters as I clutched the ridiculous-looking pencil and plunged through the panicked crowd toward the book depository.

The shooter described

The sidewalk and street in front of the book depository were all mine for about two minutes. It took that long for the motorcade press corps to fan out from their vehicles as Secret Service agent William R. Greer gunned the Continental toward Parkland Hospital.

Every reporter in Dallas suddenly was chasing the biggest story of his or her life, so the pressure of getting the story right was heightened by a good deal of shoving and elbowing to get it first.

Outside the building, the police did their utmost not only to protect the crime scene, but to insulate potentially valuable witnesses from the press.

Of the eight or so people I first tried to interview around the book depository, the most important was Howard Brennan, a 45-year-old steamfitter (he had his hard hat with him) who was stationed directly across the street opposite Lee Harvey Oswald. Brennan watched as the shooter aimed and fired, then calmly aimed again and again.

The first police APB (all-points bulletin) came at 12:45, based on Brennan’s description of the shooter:

Attention all squads. Attention all squads. The suspect in the shooting at Elm and Houston is reported to be an unknown white male, approximately 30, slender build, height 5 feet 10 inches, weight 165 pounds, reported to be armed with what is thought to be a 30-caliber rifle.

I saw Brennan talking to two officers and tried to poke my nose into their conversation.

“I saw him up there,” I heard Brennan say as he pointed toward Oswald’s sixth-floor perch, “in that window. No doubt he was the one. He wasn’t even in much of a hurry.”

One cop asked if Brennan could describe the shooter.

“Of course,” he answered. “I saw him real good.”

Then Brennan noticed me and moved away, asking the officers as he did so to keep me and the other reporters away from him — a request they were glad to fulfill.

An officer down

Sometime during these early moments, I saw a man with a rifle in one of the windows of the depository. Before I thought about what I was doing, I ducked to the pavement — tearing my trousers on a piece of lumber with a nail in it.

I felt so foolish in seconds, when a cop on the street said something to the man in the window and the Dallas cop leaned out casually.

Just then I hooked up with a friendlier face, Jim Ewell, our daytime police reporter. As we stood there on the sidewalk, a cop whom Jim knew walked up.

“They’ve probably got him trapped up there,” he said, pointing toward the top of the building. “So damned many places to hide in there.”

Reliable information was at a premium. We still didn’t know for sure who, if anyone, besides Kennedy had been shot, or even if JFK was badly hurt. I made a point of hanging close to police motorcycles and their open radios.

Then, the one we were standing near began to crackle. A male voice could be heard above the static: “We’ve had a shooting out here. A police officer has been shot.”

The witness said the shooting had just occurred near the intersection of Tenth and Patton streets, to the south of us in Oak Cliff.

I felt strongly that this cop shooting had to be connected to the shooting of the president, although I would have had trouble explaining why. I conferred with Ewell, and we quickly decided that he’d stand by for possible developments at the book depository while I headed for Oak Cliff.

I turned to Vic Robertson, a reporter for Channel 8 (owned by Belo Corp., which also owns the News). He and his cameraman, Ron Reiland, had a station wagon nearby. So I told them about the radio report.

“It can’t be more than three or four miles from here,” Vic said excitedly.

With Reiland at the wheel, we blasted out of Dealey Plaza, down the Houston Street Viaduct and over the broad, brown Trinity River bottoms.

We ran every red light. Vic and I yelled, “Stop! Stop!” at cars at each intersection. We nearly crashed a couple of times, came close to hitting a pedestrian or two and blew right past one police officer who tried to stop us.

Along the way, Vic pulled a few pages from his reporter’s notebook for me to use. I’d filled up my utility bills.

Tomorrow: Ruby and Oswald.

Copyright Hugh Aynesworth, 2003. All rights reserved. For information, visit jfkbook.com.

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