It continues to astonish that, even after a half-century, the question: “Where were you when JFK was shot?” is still being asked. It tells us just how deeply the event has impinged on our national consciousness.
I remember vividly where I was when Lee Harvey Oswald fired those shots heard ‘round the world. Along with CBS News sidekick, Norm Gorin, I was returning from our ritual Friday lunch at a cheap Chinese restaurant on New York’s E. 44th Street. As we headed back to the newsroom in the nearby Graybar Building, a breathless colleague buttonholed us in the elevator and blurted, “They got Kennedy!” Unused as we were to presidential assassination attempts in that more innocent time, we asked him what he meant by “got”. As he was replying, the doors opened on a chaotic newsroom where Walter Cronkite was getting ready to take the air to begin his well-recalled reportorial countdown to Kennedy’s death at 2:00pm.
Within minutes, I was told to get myself on a plane to Washington, ASAP. As a special-events producer, I was used to being dispatched on open-ended assignments, but never before had it come been accompanied by such an aura of shock and urgency. Special events were usually planned events, like space shots and political conventions, but not this time. After a brief stop at home to grab an overnight bag, I was on the Eastern Shuttle to the Capital to assist our Bureau there with the coverage of whatever arrangements were being contemplated in the aftermath. Yeoman television director Gorin was to follow soon after.
The CBS News Washington bureau was no less chaotic than New York had been. I was quickly hustled into the office of bureau chief, Bill Small, where an editorial response team was scrambling to pull things together. Competing rumors and facts ping-ponged around the newsroom. Trying to get our arms around the deluge of information was like wrestling alligators. Information-sorting PC’s on the desks at news bureaus were unheard of in 1963.
Then, around dinnertime, came an urgent call from the White House. We were being summoned, along with the other networks and newsreels, to the office of White House Press secretary Pierre Salinger. Salinger had been halfway across the Pacific on an Air Force flight to the Far East when the news arrived from Dallas, and his plane had made an immediate U-turn back to Andrews AFB. Now, Salinger was huddled with top White House officials, staffers, and others, who were formulating plans for the lying-in-state at the Capitol on Saturday and the funeral on Sunday.
Try to imagine the cascade of not-always-compatible demands and suggestions -- political, logistical, and familial – that were pouring into the Executive offices from all quarters. All had to be considered and, where feasible, factored into the overall plan.
As that prospective plan was revealed to us, it became immediately obvious that no network had the resources to comprehensively cover, unilaterally, the start-to-finish of what was going to be a public event of gargantuan scope. We’d need as many cameras as we could scare up in 24 hours from around the country; along with shotgun microphones, telephoto lenses, lighting, cable, tape machines, generators, trans-oceanic satellites and all the accompanying technical paraphernalia, field-engineers, technicians, and other manpower required to mount to such an unprecedented effort on such impossibly short notice. Only by pooling their resources could the broadcasters begin to cope with what was being contemplated.
There was already a framework in place for such cooperation. It was known as the White House Pool, and it became the basic structure for what was about to evolve. Responsibility for running the broadcasters’ pool rotated among the three networks, and, that month, it belonged to CBS. Once we had all agreed to a set of ground rules suitable to the particular challenge facing us, Bill Small, as the putative administrator of the agreement, turned to me and said [honest to God!], “It’s all yours, kid.” For his part, Bill had to go back to the bureau to keep CBS News up and running and to begin producing all the sidebar Washington film stories that were going to be needed when the network news went on air full time Saturday, pre-empting all entertainment programming. The Pool Agreement stipulated that each network could keep enough equipment and manpower to maintain its studio operations, and to mount a single sub-anchor position at some TBD point along the cortege route. Everything else moveable was to be turned over to the Pool.
Norm and I had partnered in running the joint-network television coverage of The March on Washington some 90 days earlier, so we both knew our way, logistically, around the institutions and infrastructure of the Capital. We headed out into the chilly night and proceeded to burn up gasoline and the telephone lines (no Smartphones in 1963), cobbling together the ad hoc network of ABC, CBS, and NBC equipment and personnel that would coalesce into an integrated whole over the next 48 hours. We woke up more people that night than I would even try to estimate (likely they were already awake awaiting a call, anyway) but nobody minded! It was because of the willingness on the part of hundreds of people to throw themselves so tirelessly into the effort, that the consequent broadcast coverage over the next two days was able to meet everyone’s hopes and expectations. But that’s another story.
This post originally appeared under my byline in the Cape Cod Times on 11/22/13