'Old Ghosts Begin To Dance:' 50 Years Later, Dan Rather Reflects On Reporting JFK's Death
On Nov. 22, 1963, Dan Rather was far down the journalism totem pole, but he was in Dallas for President Kennedy’s visit. He was near Dealey Plaza when the president’s motorcade arrived. KERA recently talked with the legendary Texas newsman to get his impressions of what happened 50 years ago. He’s taking a look back at the assassination in a special on the AXS cable channel on Friday night.
On returning to Dealey Plaza for the first time in two decades:
"It’s always eerie to return to Dealey Plaza. I consider it sacred ground. It’s been made into a memorial of sorts, including parts of the School Book Depository where the shots were fired. But I’m always a little uncomfortable in Dealey Plaza. For me, a lot of the old ghosts begin to dance when I go to Dealey Plaza. It has been a long time ago, but I still have vivid memories of so much of that day. It was a turning point for the country and, yes, a turning point for me as a person and as a pro."
On what stands out about that day:
"I was just beyond the overpass, just beyond Dealey Plaza, and therefore I did not hear any shots. I didn’t realize what had happened. I thought I saw the presidential motorcade whiz by, but when the rest of the motorcade didn’t follow, I knew what was wrong and then I crossed over Dealey Plaza and ran back to our local station -- KRLD was the only place where I could broadcast. I didn’t know what had happened, but I knew something had happened. My reporter’s experience kicked in. I managed to get through by phone to Parkland Hospital and that along with a number of other things led us to break a story that the president was dead long before the official announcement."
On what would've happened if he'd been wrong in first reporting the president's death:
"Well, I’d probably not be talking with you today. I covered the police beat in Houston, where I grew up for a long time. I knew the doctors said he was dead; police said he was dead. A member of the hospital board had told a member of the KRLD staff, Eddie Barker, that he was dead. There was never any doubt in my mind that he was dead. But it wasn’t my place to have CBS Radio and Television to play the Star Spangled Banner and announce the president was dead. They asked me what the situation was. I said ‘He’s dead.’ They said ‘Are you sure?’ I said ‘yes.’ So Radio did play the Star Spangled Banner and announced the president was dead. Television had no doubts about it. And Walter Cronkite said ‘Dan Rather said he’s dead.’ But on the television side they decided to wait for the official announcement. That was 10, 15, 18 minutes later."
On seeing the Zapruder film early and describing it on TV:
"It was another shock and challenge that we, our CBS News team, and our affiliated station KRLD, we were among those who found the Zapruder film and played a small role in getting it processed. As a consequence of that I was shown the film the next day in Zapruder lawyers’ office. They wanted money for the film and said 'We’re going to show you the film once and only once.' They put it up on a makeshift wall in the lawyer’s office. So I saw it only once. And I immediately went back to the station, which was close by, to describe from memory what I had seen one time on the film. When I first saw it, it only lasts not that many seconds, my jaws dropped, my eyes bugged and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. But I realize my response was to get back and describe what I had seen. And I described it from memory twice -- once right behind the other. And I went back and bid on the film for CBS News. But by the time I got back, Life magazine had bought it and had paid a lot of money for it. The film was not seen by the public [for many years]."
On how often he thinks about that day in '63:
"My mind wanders back there fairly often, obviously with the 50th anniversary and all of the attention, it goes back more often. I know it’s fair to say over the years over the entire span of 50 years … just at an odd moment a kind of videotape of my mind begins to play of events in Dallas and of course I’ve always been interested in following the story. … It was a traumatic and cataclysmic event for me personally and for the country."
On why Americans are still fascinated by the assassination:
"It’s a very good question. I’m not sure I know the answer. I think part of it is President Kennedy represented youth. He was the second youngest president that we’ve had. … He represented youth, vigor, forward-looking, the future. He was the first American president born in the 20th century. Think about that. He was the first Roman Catholic elected. It was a given that no Catholic could be elected. There was just so much promise in his presidency. Even many people who didn’t vote for him -- they saw the promise in his presidency and suddenly it was cut so short."
On the CBS News decision not to invite him to participate in the network’s 50th anniversary coverage:
"I have to be honest and say it puzzles me a little. When I left CBS News, it took me a long time to realize that someone I think mostly on the corporate side of CBS had decided to just try to wipe me out of the story of the company that it was Ed Murrow to Walter Cronkite to Dan Rather. Dan Rather just wouldn’t exist. A little like the Russians would do during the Soviet era. They sought to airbrush me out of their history. … I know what I did and what I didn’t do. I didn’t do it perfectly. But the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam War, Watergate, 9/11, I’m secure in what I did. I think the public knows this effort. The only thing that concerns me is when a corporation in its own interest, when it sees for its own benefit, when it decides to change history, that’s something we need to think about."
We contacted CBS News, and it responded with this statement: "Mr. Rather's work during that time is well represented in CBS News' coverage, including our special broadcast, '48 Hours Presents: As It Happened: John F. Kennedy 50 Years.'"
On his JFK special on the AXS network: