Four shattering days
Friday, November 22, 1963
It was rainy in Dallas but supposed to clear up later that morning. Over at Love Field airport, a young Times Herald reporter asked a Secret Service agent whether the clear, weatherproof top on the president’s limousine was going to be used or not; the agent checked the forecast downtown and determined that the bubble top could be removed so the president could ride in open air.
Above: The Kennedys receive an enthusiastic welcome in downtown Dallas. The man riding on the rear of the limousine is Secret Service agent Clint Hill. (Dallas Times Herald Collection/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza)
Thirty-three miles away, John F. Kennedy, the reason for these preparations, woke in his room at the Hotel Texas, put on dark suit and tie, and went downstairs to give an early speech in a nearby parking lot. Much to the crowd’s disappointment, Jacqueline Kennedy, on her first official outing since the death of the couple’s infant son in August, hadn’t yet joined her husband. “Mrs. Kennedy is organizing herself,” the president told the audience. “It takes her longer, but, of course, she looks better than we do when she does it.”
She would appear at breakfast shortly after, wearing a carnation pink suit and a matching pillbox hat.
Nov. 22, 1963: The fateful day in Dallas
The president was in Texas because he needed to be. It was a political trip, shoring up support for the state that had only narrowly elected him in 1960. After the morning in Fort Worth, he was to take a brief flight to Dallas and attend a luncheon at the wholesale Trade Mart. Dallas wasn’t sure if it wanted to welcome him: A newspaper previewed his visit with the headline, “Storm of Political Controversy Swirls Around Kennedy on Visit.”
But this morning was going well. The president’s assistant appointments secretary, David Powers, tracked the schedule with a blue pen, crossing through completed events, marking adjustments for time delays. The 8:45 breakfast actually happened at 9, the hotel departure occurred at 10:35, not 10:30.
Shortly before noon, Air Force One touched down at Love Field, where the president and first lady transferred to the 1961 Lincoln Continental that the Secret Service called the X-100. Texas Gov. John B. Connally and his wife, Nellie, rode in the vehicle’s jump seats. In another car were Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird. The weather had turned sunny and warm. The top was off.
In Dallas, it was a terrible week for Southern Methodist University fans; injuries incapacitated two of the football team’s top three linebackers. Titche’s department store had a special going on color televisions: $495, marked down from $725. The motorcade crawled through the downtown, past the Sanger-Harris on Main Street, where the department store’s Santa Claus was set to make his first appearance of the holiday season.
Kennedy supporters lined the city streets, several deep. The two couples in the limousine didn’t talk to each other much; they didn’t want to appear to ignore the crowds. But as the X-100 turned off of Main Street, Nellie Connally, a vivacious woman in a rhubarb jacket, couldn’t resist. At 12:29, she swiveled in her seat and buoyantly said to Kennedy, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.”
And then, as crowds cheered and Jackie, enjoying her trip, smiled at them, the president of the United States was hit by his first bullet.
It tore through his flesh above his right shoulder blade, exiting at the base of his throat, and searing into John Connally’s back. “Oh no, no, no, no!” the governor cried. An avid hunter, he immediately recognized the firecracker sounds that were coming from behind as rifle shots. “My God, they are going to kill us all.”
A second bullet entered the right side of the president’s head. Horrified, Abraham Zapruder, a women’s clothing manufacturer who had been filming the procession with his new Bell and Howell Zoomatic, kept his camera on the scene before him and, in frame 313, captured Kennedy’s skull exploding in a spray of pink and red.
Mrs. Connally cradled her wounded husband in the jump seat. She heard a Secret Service agent instructing the driver of the X-100 to drive to the nearest hospital. And she heard Jacqueline Kennedy behind her, repeating:
“They have killed my husband. I have his brains in my hand.”
The world had shifted, but nobody knew it yet.
Walter Cronkite brought the first news of the shooting to a national audience at 12:40 p.m. Central time. “Here is a bulletin from CBS News,” he read, interrupting a broadcast of “As the World Turns.” Three shots were fired, he said. The president was reported to be seriously wounded.
In fact, the presidential motorcade had reached Parkland Memorial Hospital two minutes earlier, eight minutes after the shooting. Doctors ushered Kennedy into Trauma Room 1, performed a tracheotomy, began chest compressions and placed a catheter in the president’s arm. But he wasn’t moving, his skin was grayish blue, and his head injuries were massive.
Back near the scene of the shooting, half a block behind the motorcade, Marion Baker, a 10-year veteran of the Dallas police, had heard the shots. He looked up to see pigeons flying off the top of the Texas Book Depository, and he sped his motorcycle in that direction.
Inside the warehouse, he noticed a man in a light-colored jacket and yelled, “Come here!”
The man began to approach, but when Baker asked the building’s superintendent, Roy Truly, whether he knew him, Truly affirmed that the jacketed man was a Book Depository employee. Baker let Lee Oswald go.
Upstairs on the sixth floor, police found a sniper’s nest: stacked boxes for balancing a rifle, an empty soda pop bottle, and the grease and bones remaining from a fried chicken lunch.
At the hospital, Mrs. Kennedy demanded to be allowed in the trauma room. Blood caked her stockings, her pink suit, her gloves. She was offered a sedative but refused one. Marion Thomas Jenkins, the chief of anesthesiology, saw her holding something in her hand. It was, indeed, a piece of brain.
Doctors pronounced the president dead at 1 p.m. Central time.
They wanted his body to remain at the hospital for a proper autopsy, but Secret Service agents insisted on removing it, driving it to Love Field where Lyndon Johnson was already aboard Air Force One. For security reasons, he was encouraged to get back to Washington, but he didn’t want to leave Dallas without Jackie, who didn’t want to leave without her husband’s body.
On board, Johnson telephoned Bobby Kennedy. He was the president’s brother, but at this point he was needed in a different capacity. When Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy picked up the phone, Johnson asked the stunned man for his legal opinion on whether he should take the oath of office while still in Dallas, and if so, what the exact words were.
Robert MacNeil on bumping into Lee Harvey Oswald
Shortly after, Johnson’s staff telephoned Sarah Hughes, a twangy-voiced U.S. District Court judge with whom Johnson was friends. She was instructed to come to the airport.
Police found Lee Oswald in a darkened movie theater during a screening of “War Is Hell,” where he’d hidden after shooting and killing J.D. Tippit, a 39-year-old patrolman who pulled him over for questioning.
“Well, it’s all over now,” Oswald told arresting officer Nick McDonald.
Twenty-seven people crowded into Air Force One’s stateroom to witness Johnson’s swearing in, two hours and eight minutes after President Kennedy was shot on Elm Street in downtown Dallas. Lady Bird Johnson stood on Johnson’s right, a dazed-looking Jackie Kennedy stood on his left.
He repeated the 35-word oath, in a low, broken voice: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
He and Sarah Hughes both added “So help me God” to the end. The new president ordered the plane and its grief home to Washington.
Later in the day, in the week, in the decade:
The neatly annotated presidential itinerary of David Powers would continue on through the afternoon, long after the schedule had been irreparably derailed. “12:36 Carried my president on a stretcher,” Powers would write in tidy cursive. “2:15 Carried casket aboard Air Force One.”
A Secret Service agent would mop the blood out of the back seat of the X-100, not thinking of the evidence he was cleaning away or the conspiracy theories he was launching with every swipe. The car would be refurbished and put back into service, until its retirement in 1977.
The Times Herald journalist who had asked about the car’s protective covering at Love Field on Friday morning was Jim Lehrer, who would go on to anchor PBS’s “NewsHour” and who would always wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t asked the Secret Service agent about the removal of the bubble top, even though he knew it wasn’t bulletproof.
The carnation pink suit worn by the first lady would end up in the National Archives, still spattered with blood, banned from public display. The pillbox hat, last known to be in the possession of Mrs. Kennedy’s secretary, would disappear.
On Nov. 22, 1963, she kept it on, through the two-hour flight, into the nighttime hours at Bethesda Naval Hospital for her husband’s autopsy, through her pre-dawn return to the White House, where the president’s body was placed in the East Room and guarded by servicemen representing each branch of the military.
Several times, people suggested she might like to change out of these clothes.
“No,” she told them. “Let them see what they have done.”
Saturday, November 23
President Kennedy's body lies in state in the East Room of the White House early on Nov. 23. It was guarded by servicemen from each branch of the military. (Abbie Rowe/National Park Service/JFK Library)
It had been 62 years since a presidential assassination. In 1901, William McKinley died eight days after a bullet pierced his abdomen in Buffalo, and what ultimately killed him was infection, not injury. McKinley’s death was before the Secret Service became a presidential security detail, before air travel and Air Force One, before on-sale color televisions made it possible for a country to witness itself in mourning, reflected back in moving pictures.
Around the United States, people gathered to pray in churches but they also huddled at home around electronic boxes, finding community in isolation. On screen, dignitaries made pilgrimages to Washington to pay respects, and foreign heads of state expressed dismay from across oceans.
Nov. 23, 1963: The day after the assassination
Late Friday at the White House, Caroline Kennedy, four days shy of her sixth birthday, and her brother John Jr., two days shy of his third, hadn’t yet known of their father’s death. Jackie’s mother, Janet Auchincloss, asked her daughter at Bethesda Naval Hospital who should tell them, and Jackie said she could when she got home. Janet decided this was too much for her daughter to bear, and she instructed Maude Shaw, the Kennedys’ British nanny, to tell the children herself.
“Please, no,” Shaw begged on the telephone, keeping her voice low because the children were nearby. “I can’t take a child’s last happiness from her.”
Mrs. Auchincloss insisted. In Caroline’s room, Maude improvised. “Your father has gone to look after Patrick,” she said. “Patrick was so lonely in heaven. He didn’t know anybody there. Now he has the best friend anyone could have.”
In the hours before dawn on Saturday, Jackie returned to the White House and went to the East Room to visit her husband’s body. She told the surrounding servicemen that she wanted to see Jack’s face.
When the casket was opened, 23-year-old James Felder, an Army sergeant with 57 days left in his service, watched as Jackie snipped a piece of Kennedy’s hair. She said, he remembered, “He looks so waxen.”
The newly former first lady went back upstairs, where she finally managed a few hours of sedated sleep.
Necessary tasks propelled the family and staff through the day. At 9:05, the new President Johnson met with CIA Director John McCone. At 9:20, he met with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, followed by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. He spent two hours with former president Dwight Eisenhower, seeking advice on a proposed tax cut and on the foreign policy of Laos and Cuba. Several of President Kennedy’s senior advisers offered to resign, to honor the changing of an administration. Johnson declined.
When Jackie woke, she told her staff to begin packing for the family’s inevitable departure from the White House. By the afternoon, her husband’s office was empty, save for his desk, two telephones, and a rug. Presumably searching for something with which to occupy herself, Mrs. Kennedy sat down at her writing desk, sketching out the executive residence’s capacity to accommodate visitors for the funeral weekend: “3rd floor 5 Single 2 Double,” she wrote on a sheet of White House stationery.
Her longtime personal assistant, Providencia Paredes, who had packed the pink suit for the Dallas trip, busied herself in Jackie’s dressing room, organizing clothes and accessories. “I just wanted to be near her,” Providencia says now, in case she needed anything. But all the first lady accepted that weekend was tea.
Paredes would later go to work for Robert Kennedy, until five years later, when he, too, was assassinated, in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. She would then work for Ted Kennedy, until his involvement in the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick. And then, after the third bloody tragedy involving a Kennedy brother and good friend, Paredes would take a sedate job in the library division of the U.S. Postal Service, until her retirement in 1992.
On Saturday afternoon, members of the military honor guard, who would double as pallbearers, quietly drove to Fort Myer in Arlington, Va., and unloaded a practice casket.
The team had just rehearsed a presidential funeral, anticipating the death of ailing Herbert Hoover. But Kennedy’s mahogany coffin from Gawler’s funeral home was much heavier than anyone anticipated; pallbearers wanted to make sure they could maintain their precision as they bore its weight up the Capitol steps and into the Rotunda, where the former president was to lie in state on Sunday.
They would practice again the next day, this time at Arlington National Cemetery. When the bags of sand they put in the casket didn’t seem heavy enough, they improvised again; with two servicemen sitting atop the casket, they carried it up and down the steps of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
From the assassination Friday until after the funeral on Monday, James Felder, who would later go on to become a lawyer, and then a voting rights advocate, and then a state representative for South Carolina, got a total of six hours of sleep. He was too tired to mourn. Seven days after President Kennedy’s funeral, Felder received a call from the wife of his commanding officer, Michael Groves. She told him that Michael had died of a heart attack at dinner, and she wanted Felder to be a pallbearer at his funeral. “That’s when it hit me,” Felder now remembers. “In 10 days, I had buried the commander in chief and my company commander. And then I cried.”
Emotions were off-kilter on Saturday. Soldiers became numb, and nursemaids were wracked with guilt. The moving images on television never stopped. A heavy mood rolled in and united the nation on the first full day of mourning.
The most extreme manifestation of a general state of anguish hadn’t happened yet, but it would, the next day, at 11:21 a.m.
Sunday, November 24
Mourners, waiting to view the flag-draped casket of President Kennedy in the Capitol Rotunda, line the sidewalk as night falls on Nov. 24. (Associated Press)
Lee Oswald had been held in a cell in the Dallas city jail, but he was scheduled to move to County on Sunday morning. Detectives and FBI agents questioned him several times after his arrest on Friday. Even when confronted with evidence, he never confessed to shooting the president or J.D. Tippit. Police found him smug and smirking, telling obvious lies with ease.
Jack Ruby's shove, and a missed shot
Across town in his apartment, Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner with a grandiose sense of self-importance, opened the Sunday Times Herald. He saw a letter beginning “My Dear Caroline,” addressed to the president’s daughter and written by a local father. Another article mentioned that Mrs. Kennedy might have to return to Dallas for Oswald’s trial. Ruby had adored Kennedy, and he was filled with rage at this final insult, at the thought of another burden placed on the man’s widow.
He drove to the city jail, stopping first at the nearby Western Union to send a money order to one of his employees, and then walked to the exit ramp of the jail where police had said they would bring Oswald through for his transfer.
At 20 minutes after 11, Oswald appeared, in a borrowed black sweater, flanked by Detectives L.C. Graves and James Leavelle. The media swarmed the area, television cameras ready to broadcast his face to the country. Ruby blended in - he was on a first-name basis with a lot of police officers, who frequented his club. He had a .38-caliber Colt Cobra in his pocket, and now he grabbed it and reached for Oswald’s torso.
“You killed my president,” he said, and pulled the trigger.
Oswald was taken by ambulance to Parkland Memorial, where he died at 1:07 p.m. Central time in Trauma Room 2. Medical staff hadn’t wanted to put him in Trauma Room 1. That’s where they had attended to President Kennedy 48 hours before.
At the White House, some members of the president’s casket team watched Oswald’s slaying on television from their makeshift headquarters downstairs but couldn’t stay to witness the aftermath. Instead, they had to move John Kennedy’s body from the White House’s North Portico to a caisson waiting outside to begin the procession to the U.S. Capitol.
The casket team, well practiced from its session at Fort Myer, passed an estimated 300,000 people lining the streets. They arrived at the steps of the Capitol, followed by Jackie, Bobby and the two children. President and Mrs. Johnson were also there. The Navy band played a solemn rendition of “Hail to the Chief.”
Nov. 24, 1963: A president is mourned, an assassin is murdered
At 1:52 p.m., Jackie Kennedy, who in the course of a weekend had insisted on wearing her bloody pink suit as a message to the nation, who had resolutely made the funeral plans, who had mapped out bedroom logistics for visiting guests, heard the opening notes of this presidential tune, bowed her head to her chest, and sobbed.
At the end of the ceremony, after President Johnson laid a wreath, waiting crowds were allowed to file into the Capitol Rotunda and past the president’s closed casket, two lines moving at an average of 35 people per minute.
The Capitol was supposed to close at 9 p.m., but by that time, visitors were still lined up in near-freezing temperatures all the way to D.C. Stadium, two miles away. Officials decided to extend visitation hours through the night.
People drove from Richmond and Connecticut, hundreds of miles, for the public viewing. Thirty-six nuns from New Jersey arrived on a rented bus; two teenagers arrived on foot from Baltimore, a 35-mile walk away; the famous heavyweight boxer Jersey Joe Walcott quietly appeared and waited in line like everyone else.
The death of President Kennedy was already becoming a narrative of the nation, a story it told about itself. A blend of minute factual detail and epic myth. Months after the funeral, when Kennedy family friend William Manchester would begin work on his book “The Death of a President,” he would find that people claimed to remember things they couldn’t possibly have seen, or personally visited places that had only been shown on camera.
The ownership of the gun used by Jack Ruby would become the source of a bitter rift among his heirs, long after Ruby died of cancer in 1967, at Parkland Memorial Hospital.
President Johnson would ride home from Sunday’s events at the Capitol under a new dawn of security, with a police officer ordered to monitor every building he passed for snipers.
The United States would never stop telling this story, as a loss of innocence, as a time of unity, as a rote memory.
Monday, November 25
Jacqueline Kennedy, flanked by Robert F. Kennedy, left, and Edward M. Kennedy, right, follows behind the casket of her late husband as it moves towards Arlington National Cemetery for burial. (Wally McNamee/The Washington Post)
More than 200 officials from more than 100 countries attended the president’s state funeral, the apex of official mourning. Ten prime ministers. Twenty-two presidents. Kings and queens and emperors. It was 42 degrees in Washington, four degrees cooler than average for that day, and windy. Everybody walked, in the open air, from the White House to St. Matthew’s Cathedral, seven-tenths of a mile away.
The funeral caisson was followed by Black Jack, the riderless horse symbolizing the fallen master. Black Jack was generally known to be calm and settled. During his career, he participated in more than 1,000 funerals. On Monday, he bucked and misbehaved through the entire procession, at one point kicking the foot of Arthur Carlson, the 19-year-old Army private who was his handler. Carlson thought his foot was broken. He spent the rest of the day in poker-faced throbbing pain, thinking about how angry he was at his horse and about how he could not show it to the hundreds of thousands of people lining the route.
Nov. 25, 1963: A president is buried
“I’m from Mobile, Alabama, and I’ve been to a lot of Mardi Gras parades,” remembers Carlson, now a retired oil rig worker. “Whenever we have a parade there, people are noisy. It’s a big party.” As he walked the route from the Capitol to St. Matthew’s to Arlington Cemetery on Monday, lined by an estimated 1 million people, he said: “I’ve never seen that many people be that quiet. It must have been eight or 10 people deep, the whole way, and they were all as still as statues.”
In Dallas, seven hundred uniformed police officers arrived at the Beckley Hills Baptist Church to mourn J.D. Tippit, the policeman who was killed on the same day as the president.
In Dallas, no one aside from immediate family arrived for the burial of Lee Harvey Oswald, not even the Lutheran minister who had originally agreed to officiate at the ceremony. He was buried in the only cemetery that would take his body. His casket was carried to its grave site by the reporters who had shown up to cover the funeral.
In Washington, Caroline Kennedy and Maude Shaw produced a toy helicopter and a picture book, and sang “Happy Birthday” to John, who was turning 3.
Bishop Philip Hannan, participating in the president’s funeral service at St. Matthew's, read five passages of scripture and then read Kennedy’s inaugural address as a testament to the man. Three years earlier, Kennedy, a friend, had asked Hannan after the inauguration what he thought of the speech. The bishop told him the words were good but that Kennedy hadn’t read it slowly enough. Now, inside the packed and emotional cathedral, Hannan read it slowly.
Cardinal Richard Cushing leads the coffin bearing the body of President Kennedy into St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington. (Associated Press)
At 1:30, the funeral procession left St. Matthew’s and proceeded to Arlington, where the burial site had been prepared by Clifton Pollard, a gravedigger who normally dug nine or 10 graves in a day, but for this occasion had spent several hours perfecting one.
Jackie had requested an eternal flame for the grave site. She’d seen one at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and found it moving; this one in Arlington was constructed by military engineers. Cardinal Richard Cushing had been asked to bless it and, after some research, determined there was no special blessing for an eternal flame.
After the Marine Band played the hymn "Eternal Father," he chanted the general benediction ad Omnia - to all - over the torch's copper tubing.
The burial completed, the Kennedy family returned to the White House for a reception.
President Johnson went to a budget meeting.
Cardinal Cushing went to the airport to catch a flight.
Black Jack, once again docile and well behaved, returned to his stable.
Four Shattering Days was reconstructed from more than four dozen sources, including interviews, Warren Commission transcripts, newspaper and magazine articles, personal papers, information from the National Archives and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and several books on the Kennedy assassination, including “Four Days in November” by Vincent Bugliosi and “The Death of a President” by William Manchester. Chris Lyford contributed research.
Shortly before midnight at the White House, once Charles de Gaulle had left and the Duke of Edinburgh had left - once everyone had left, Bobby Kennedy turned to Jackie and asked, “Should we go visit our friend?”
Jackie took some lilies of the valley from a cup on a hall table, and the brother- and sister-in-law drove back to Arlington, which was now empty and dark. As Monday ended, Jackie, who would later become Jacqueline Onassis, who would later become Jackie O, who would die in 1994 of non-Hodgkins lymphoma after returning to the White House only once in her life despite repeated invitations, left the bouquet next to the eternal flame.