Personal stories the guide to one day in Dallas

By Jayson Jacoby November 22, 2013 10:51 am

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor 

I went back in time this week and what a curious journey it was.

My destination was a day rather than a place.

Nov. 22, 1963.

Until Sept. 11, 2001, and with the exception of the monumental events that attended the nation’s birth in the 1770s, it was perhaps the singular day in American history.

For many people, including some of those who served as my tour guides, I suspect that that day, when president John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, retains its unique status in their memories even after the terrorist attacks a dozen years ago.

I talked with several people who were in Baker that November day. Most were high school students.

Fifty years is a considerable span, of course.

Call this period by its other name — half century — and it seems longer still.

Yet while listening to these former students’ recollections I was struck not by the anachronisms but by how familiar the scenario seemed.

Nearly a decade and a half deep into the 21st century we have a tendency to presume that the technology of our age, and in particular our ubiquitous communication tools, have in effect changed everything.

I would have said the same had you asked me a week ago.

If an event comparable to the Kennedy assassination happened today, surely things would be different because of Facebook, Twitter and the like.

But after vicariously experiencing, through the students’ vivid memories, what happened in their classrooms on that November morning I’m not convinced the world has changed as drastically as I thought it had.

In fact I believe that on balance Americans 50 years ago knew more about the epochal events in Dallas, and sooner, than we would today under similar circumstances.

The reason has nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with the level of media access.

One of the former BHS students I interviewed said that after the principal announced that the president had been shot, many students congregated in the library because there was a TV there.

In addition, a school official tuned a radio to a news station and broadcast it over the intercom system.

This reminded me of a documentary I watched last week on CNN.

Although we’re accustomed today to seeing hordes of reporters at every major event, all of them wielding smartphones and Twittering away like mad, in almost every case the journalists are far from the action.

The “news” they report, as a result, often as not consists of making meaningless observations or repeating the few scraps of fact.

But on Nov. 23, 1963, the day after the shooting, dozens of reporters, photographers and TV cameramen crammed into the Dallas police station when the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was brought in for what was, in effect, a press conference.

And so, anyone in 1963 who had a radio — and that was pretty much everybody, as radio was a much more popular source of news then than it is today — could have heard reporters shouting questions at Oswald and, potentially, could have heard his famous response that he was “a patsy.”

If you had a TV you could have seen the pale little man illuminated by the lights, almost in the manner of a political candidate fielding questions.

And the next day, Nov. 24, the nation watched, live again, as Jack Ruby shot Oswald dead.

None of this would happen today.

I doubt any reporter — much less a nightclub owner with a .38 revolver in his hand — would get within 100 yards of Oswald.

Yes, the nation’s bandwidth would be overwhelmed with speculative tweets, text messages and Facebook posts.

(Actually that describes pretty much every day in 2013.)

But I doubt the public — including high school students — would know anything near as much as those Baker teenagers did on that Friday before Thanksgiving.

Of course, had the assassination happened today most of the thousands of people gathered in Dealey Plaza would be clutching smartphones capable of taking digital video.

But it’s unlikely anyone would have had a clearer view than Abraham Zapruder did with his analog film.

The best contemporary comparison to the Kennedy assassination is of course the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

And tens of millions of Americans watched that tragedy happen live on TV, as well.

But as morbid as it sounds, that event was vastly more telegenic than the assassination. Skyscrapers, it goes without saying, are considerably more conspicuous than a single man. Police departments can’t hide massive buildings from the cameras.

Almost all the people I interviewed who were teenagers 50 years ago emphasized that a major reason they were so stunned on Nov. 22, 1963, is that the idea of a president being assassinated seemed to them an archaic one.

And with good reason — more than 60 years had passed since William McKinley was killed.

This, it seems to me, makes for a particularly strong link between the baby boomers and subsequent generations, including mine (I was born in 1970, which makes me a member of Generation X).

There have been three attempted assassinations during my lifetime. Only one — John Hinckley Jr.’s shooting of Ronald Reagan in 1981 — was a near thing.

We aren’t, of course, naive about sudden and unexpected violence — the 2001 terrorist attacks rid us of any vestiges of such innocence and replaced it with a tinge of uneasiness that I suspect will linger for many decades.

Yet the concept of a president being murdered — by a sniper lying in ambush, no less — is outside my personal experience, and as such it lacks the persistent strength of memory that people have who, almost literally, saw such a tragedy happen.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.