The President's Been Shot

Forty years ago, the assassination of JFK stunned Americans, who vividly recall the day even as they grapple with his complex legacy

President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally ride through the streets of Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, the day of Kennedy’s assassination. (© CORBIS)

(Continued from page 4)

I was in the CBS newsroom when [the shooting] broke on the wires, and I remember the president of CBSNews was away at lunch and they couldn’t find him, so I ordered everybody on the air. I called Frank Stanton, president of CBS. I remember the secretary said, “He’s in a very important meeting, and he asked not to be disturbed.” I said, “Tell him by the time the meeting’s over the president of the United States might be dead.” He got on the phone within minutes and said, “Stay on the air!” Walter Cronkite went on the air and stayed there for 36 hours. Americans that morning did not go to church. They went to their television sets. Walter Cronkite single-handedly calmed this country down after the assassination. We relieved him at his desk, and he went to his office and sat there with his head in his hands. He got a phone call from a woman who said, “You’ve got some nerve to cry over Jack Kennedy after the things you’ve said about him.” And Walt said to her, “Lady, you’re a goddamn fool,” and hung up.


I was traveling with my husband in southern Spain the summer after Kennedy’s death, in the part of the country where they raise bulls. And there was a very pretty chambermaid who was scrubbing the floors on her knees after the children spilled something. The chambermaid asked where we were from, and I said, Washington. And she said, “Where Kennedy lived.” It was really quite touching. It was a very remote place, and she was a simple, poor and hardworking person for whom John Kennedy was a very important figure.

He wasn’t able to accomplish very much. He got killed too soon. I have no doubt that his legacy would have developed and become larger. Nobody confuses him with Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt. Those were presidents who were justly deified through history.

I have a longstanding and serious professional interest in the relationship between personality and performance in political leaders. The quality of the man is enormously important to his leadership. Does he have to be a virtuous man to be an effective leader? I think there’s a relationship, but it’s not simple. It matters that John Kennedy was a womanizer, but it doesn’t define his presidency.


I first came to know him during a congressional battle to pass a labor reform bill in the late 1950s. He was a senator, and I was a congressman. His first executive order as president was to expand food assistance to the poor in the United States. He had seen the children of unemployed miners in West Virginia suffering from rickets and hunger and malnutrition. His second executive order was to create the Food for Peace office to deal with hunger and malnutrition, and he named me as director. It was the most immediately rewarding job I ever had.

I think he quickened pride and enthusiasm for the American political process and the operations of the government. He introduced a note of usefulness and energy.

The day he was shot, I was in the Senate. As I remember it, Ted Kennedy was presiding over the Senate, and I was sitting there listening, and Mike Mansfield, the majority leader, motioned for me to take over for Teddy. Mike Mansfield asked for unanimous consent to make an announcement that had nothing to do with the debate in process. He said the president had been shot—not killed, because he didn’t know that at the time. I trudged back to my office, and when I got back my secretary was just sobbing. He had been shot like an animal in the street. I knew when I saw my secretary he had died.



Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus