On election night, 1960, I watched the returns trickle in to Huntley and Brinkley on a black-and-white TV set at an American University fraternity house in Washington. I was an almost 18-year-old college freshman, and Dwight Eisenhower was the only president I had been aware of.
The results would not be determined until the next day, but when they were (and even with the tampered ballot boxes in Cook County, Illinois - the "hanging chad" scandal of that day), John Fitzgerald Kennedy was declared the winner over Vice President Richard Nixon. My politics had not been fully formed yet, and like many others of my age, I was attracted to Kennedy, who resembled an older brother, in contrast to the bald and grandfatherly Eisenhower.
I met Kennedy briefly in 1962. While working as a copyboy for NBC News in Washington, White House correspondent Sander Vanocur took me to the Oval Office where I watched Adlai Stevenson sworn in as America's ambassador to the United Nations. Kennedy looked exactly as he did on TV: young, lots of hair, a great smile and full of life.
Fast forward one year. At about 1:30 I was driving to work for my 2-11 p.m. shift at NBC. The radio interrupted Chubby Checker singing "The Twist" to report that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. At a stoplight, I rolled down my windows and shouted to drivers on both sides, "The president has been shot; Kennedy has been shot in Dallas." These were not the last stunned expressions I saw that day.
By the time I arrived at NBC, BULLETIN and URGENT dotted the UPI and AP Teletype machines, which were my responsibility to clear of copy and take to the correspondents. Many couldn't wait. They stood next to me to read the latest. Everyone else was on the telephone, trying to get more details and line up guests. This was before microwave dishes, so interview subjects had to either come to the studio or a film crew (before portable videotape cameras were in use) would go to them.
The first wire service report that Kennedy had died came from Reuters, which used a designation reserved at that time for only the most momentous events: "FLASH: Kennedy dead," it said. I tore it off, announced it to the newsroom and stuffed it in my pocket as a piece of history. Correspondent Robert Abernethy (who now hosts a program on PBS) walked in and wanted to know what had happened. He had not been listening to the radio. "President Kennedy is dead," I announced. He turned ashen and asked the assignment desk what he could do.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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