Learning of Kennedy’s death while in flight


JFK meets with Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz, center, and Assistant Secretary James Reynolds in July 1963. Wirtz and some other Cabinet members were flying over the Pacific on Nov. 22 of that year. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Columnist November 21, 2013

Much of John F. Kennedy’s Cabinet was far from Washington when the president was assassinated.

“We were, on November 22nd, on our way to the annual gathering of the U.S. and Japanese cabinets,” Kennedy’s labor secretary, Willard Wirtz, recounted in a 2008 memoir that Carl Fillichio, now the Labor Department’s senior adviser for communications, came across as he prepared materials for the department’s centennial commemoration this year.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

The group, Wirtz wrote, included Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon, Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Walter Heller, Treasury Undersecretary Henry Fowler, and other officials and spouses. (Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was at his home in McLean at the time, having lunch with Robert Morgenthau, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.)

“We had left Washington on the 21st and had spent the night in Honolulu,” recalled Wirtz, who died in 2010 at age 98 as the last survivor of the Kennedy Cabinet. “A relatively early start the next morning had put us near Wake Island,” some 6,700 miles from Washington, “when Dean Rusk was called hurriedly to join the crew in the cockpit. He came back in about ten minutes, carrying a long sheet of yellow telegram paper.

“ ‘The President,’ he told us, ‘has been shot in Dallas. We don’t know the details or whether he is alive or dead. The message that has come through on the radio is all garbled.’ ”

A second report didn’t clarify things, wrote Wirtz, who stayed on as labor secretary under President Lyndon Johnson . The uncertainty continued for about half an hour.

“Then the left wing of the plane dropped, and we knew we were starting back. That the president was dead.”

This trip is no junket

Some codels (that’s shorthand for congressional delegations traveling abroad) are cushy affairs. Others are a little iffier.

Take the jaunt to the storm-ravaged Philippines that a group of lawmakers are planning for Friday. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who is leading the delegation, says the lawmakers are flying commercial into Manila, then hitching rides on military flights packed with humanitarian supplies to check out the areas of the country most damaged by the typhoon.

“We’ll shoehorn in,” he says. He’s warned his colleagues attending the trip, Reps. Al Green (D-Tex.) and Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), that the trip will be a rough one. They apparently weren’t surprised.

“I told them don’t expect to sleep,” Smith says. “Which they knew — they’re seasoned.”

The group had initially planned the trip without any military assistance, relying entirely on nongovernmental organizations in the area, he said. The nearly 13,000 military personnel there are pretty busy, after all — but the Pentagon caught wind of the trip and offered the lawmakers some space among the cargo. (Not exactly first class, but it’ll do.)

Smith says the visit, in which the members of Congress will meet with local government officials and assess the state of relief efforts, is an important step in monitoring the aftermath of the storm and the effectiveness of those efforts. Particularly of concern, he says, is the potential after such a large-scale disaster for human traffickers to take advantage of refugees.

He’ll hold hearings and brief colleagues when he returns.

Presumably after he catches a few winks.

A hearing’s half-life

Get the fallout shelters ready — the Senate has gone nuclear. And in what caused some chuckles around the otherwise testy chamber on Thursday, it looked as if the first casualty of the new dynamic was a hearing on — wait for it — nuclear safety.

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid triggered a series of procedural votes culminating in a rule change essentially eliminating the ability of the minority party to filibuster most nominees (a move dubbed the “nuclear option”), he asked senators to drop what they were doing to come to the floor to vote.

One of the events canceled to allow senators to do so was a hearing at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The topic: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s follow-up to the 2011 accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. The committee announced that the session would be rescheduled, presumably during less toxic times.

“We look forward to a return engagement when the fallout dissipates,” an NRC spokesman deadpanned.

Echoes not so distant

President Richard Nixon apparently thought the JFK assassination might quickly fade from the country’s collective memory, newly transcribed audiotapes show.

Not exactly. All the events and reminiscence leading up to the 50th anniversary on Friday of the tragic event say otherwise. And though Nixon assumed that recollections had faded less than a decade after Kennedy’s death, it still cast a shadow on the 37th president and his aides, according to our friends at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, who are transcribing the tapes of Nixon’s White House years.

The subject came up in August 1971 when Nixon was discussing travel plans to Dallas and New York with his top aide, H.R. Haldeman, the tapes show. Kennedy had been gunned down in a motorcade in Dallas less than eight years earlier, but Nixon seemed to think a parade of his own wouldn’t be a problem.

The assassination, Nixon told Haldeman, “was so far back in the public consciousness.”

Though the conversation ended with Nixon assuming he would do a motorcade of only “three or four blocks,” the president ultimately traveled across the city via helicopter.

In another transcribed conversation from just a few months later, Nixon and his secretary, Rose Mary Woods, realize that it is the anniversary of JFK’s death. “You know, listen, I had not thought of it, but — ” Nixon says as Woods calls to the president’s dog. “This is the day the — ”

“That Kennedy was — ” Woods says.

“Right,” Nixon replies.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop
. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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