Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

TV comes of age tragically

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At 12:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, I was in my Grade 2 classroom finishing my lunch. Suddenly our teacher came into the room and she was in tears. She told us that John F. Kennedy, the president of the United States, had been shot in Dallas, Texas. Thirty minutes later, it was announced that JFK was dead.

According to the official account of the assassination by the Warren Commission, Lee Harvey Oswald had fired three shots at Kennedy, who was visiting Dallas and (inexplicably) riding in an open convertible with his wife, Jacqueline, and Texas Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie. Governor Connally was also shot, but he recovered.

As a seven-year old, I recall feeling sad, though likely more because my teacher was so upset than about the news. However, the rest of the school day was cancelled and our parents were called to pick us up.

As the Free Press reported the following day, "Winnipeg residents wept openly ... Cars, trucks and pedestrians halted on Portage Avenue while small crowds gathered inside the rotunda of the Free Press building for the first printed verification of the assassination. Other groups stopped before television sets in store windows as the first films of the scene appeared."

Five decades later, it is difficult to conceive that an assassination of an American president, even one as beloved as JFK, would bring Winnipeg and Canada close to a standstill. Yet, during the next few days, most normal activities ceased in North America -- though some sporting events were played on Nov. 23 and 24 -- as they did throughout much of the world. Two exceptions were Cuba, where Fidel Castro was still seething about the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, and Communist China, where the assassination was more or less ignored. On the other hand, despite Cold War tensions, stunned Soviet leaders and citizens expressed their sorrow.

In part, this collective mourning was due to JFK's youthful age and charisma. He was only 46 years old and had a 34-year-old wife and two young children.

Mostly, however, JFK's funeral and legacy have proven to be such a powerful and enduring memory because it was broadcast on television. So too, for that matter, has the heartfelt announcement of the assassination on CBS TV by Walter Cronkite, his voice shaking and his eyes teary, in a special news bulletin that interrupted a soap opera.

Granted, in the instant age of the Internet, social media and the 24-hour news cycle, it is hard to imagine how grainy black-and-white TV coverage of the events that November could be so lasting. But they were. Winnipeg had only three television stations in 1963, and during the period from Nov. 22 to 25, the story of JFK's death and its aftermath was all that was broadcast -- or that is how I remember it.

Journalism was still dominated by newspapers, though TV proved its worth as a medium that could convey indelible images on a much more personal and emotional level. There was Jackie, strong though wounded, and Caroline, about to celebrate her sixth birthday, kneeling and kissing the flag-draped coffin; the riderless horse pulling the caisson on which the coffin rested through the streets of Washington D.C., followed by the Kennedy family and the heads of state led by the towering figure of French president Charles de Gaulle; and little John Jr., or John-John as we knew him, bravely saluting his father.

No major historical event of this magnitude, as American biographer Robert Caro has pointed out, had ever been "seen live, as they were happening, which added to the drama, to the viewers' sense of involvement, and the viewers' emotions."

Jack Gould, the New York Times television commentator, added that the TV broadcast of the funeral "made families from coast to coast part of the sorrow, ritual and renewal in Washington."

Still, there was more sensational footage. On Nov. 24, as Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin, was being transferred from the Dallas police station where he had been held since his arrest two days earlier, he was shot by Jack Ruby and died shortly after.

Ruby was a local dance hall and strip club owner who was friends with many Dallas policemen. That morning, he had managed to enter the station and stood among the reporters as they waited for Oswald to be brought down. He emerged from the crowd wielding a .38 revolver and fired.

He later claimed to have killed Oswald to spare Mrs. Kennedy and her children, while JFK assassination conspiracy theorists believe Ruby acted to keep Oswald, a "patsy," quiet. "The truth is this: He said he did it for Jackie and the kids, but I think he (was) just looking for a reason," Ruby's older sister, Eva, later commented.

Whatever his motive, Ruby, who died from cancer in prison in 1967, had given the JFK assassination another devastating image. "For one moment of total horror, nothing could quite compare with the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald before the live cameras," Gould wrote a week later. "It was the first nationally televised real life homicide." (The short clip can be viewed on YouTube.)

It was strangely fitting that JFK's assassination and funeral propelled the influence of television, as he was the first TV president. Kennedy, the wealthy son of a New England magnate, was handsome, charming and bright. He had what media guru Marshall McLuhan called a "cool" image that emphasized his glamour, wit and captivating personality. Kennedy was indeed "the most telegenic person in public life," as he was called.

After he became a congressman in 1946 and then a senator six year later, Kennedy made it a point of appearing on as many TV news shows as possible. In 1960, when he ran for president against Republican vice-president Richard Nixon, JFK shined in the televised debates.

Kennedy chose the right colour clothes and wore makeup, while Nixon did not. According to political legend, those people who listened to the debates on the radio believed Nixon had won, while those who watched them on TV picked Kennedy as the winner -- proving it is not so much what you hear on television, but what you see. Still, the presidential election of 1960 was very close; perhaps, JFK's TV presence was the difference.

Once Kennedy was in the White House, he was the first president to hold live televised press conferences and millions of viewers were enthralled by him. So, too, were Washington journalists, who as per the custom of the day, ignored the stories of Kennedy's well-documented philandering with the likes of actress Marilyn Monroe and Judith Exner, who was also linked to mobster Sam Giancana.

From the day of his inauguration, JFK was likely one of the most photographed and filmed presidents of all time. There are an estimated 40,000 books -- with several more on the way this fall-- about him and a continual number of commemorative journals and documentaries detailing his life. Kennedy had been a true television star. Over those three days in November 50 years ago, TV, as Caro so aptly puts it, "transmuted him into a figure of legend and myth."

Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 18, 2013 A9

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