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Remembering John F. Kennedy

Aired November 22, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And the magic and the myths of Camelot. We are going to discuss the criticism of JFK's presidency and the question, what if he had lived?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Here's a live picture from Arlington National Cemetery, where the Eternal Flame burns at JFK's grave, as it has for half-a-century. Right now, new generations of Americans are learning about John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his unique place in our history.

Our new CNN/ORC poll shows Kennedy is the most popular president of the last 50 years, topping Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. It's new evidence of his enduring legacy as the nation honors his memory.

JFK's last surviving sibling, 85-year-old Jean Kennedy Smith placed a wreath on his grave today, another wreath laid in Kennedy's home state of Massachusetts by the governor, Deval Patrick.

Over at the White House, President Obama ordered flags to fly at half-staff. And in Dallas, a moment of silence at the time and place where that fatal bullet hit.

CNN's John King is joining us now live from Dallas.

John, set the scene for us. What was this day like?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, very sober, very low-key ceremony here, the city of Dallas trying to turn a page from this. And 50 years later, this city trying to turn the page from an event that the mayor today acknowledged not only stunned this city but stained its reputation for many, many years.

No representatives of the federal government here, no representatives from the Congress or the Obama administration, none from the Kennedy family, either. This is a city of Dallas event as it tried to mark the 50th anniversary with the first-ever official ceremony here in Dealey Plaza.

As you noted, at 12:30 local time, 1:30 in the East, the moment when the assassin's first struck President Kennedy, first a moment of silence, then the bells tolling here. The mayor gave a speech. The historian David McCullough read from some of President Kennedy's most uplifting speech.

And then, Wolf, the Navy Choir Glee Club on hand, music to pay respects, as this city had the very low-key ceremony. Now on the grassy knoll, just over here from me, where so many tourists comes, so many conspiracy theorists gather, there is a plaque with a paragraph from the speech the president of the United States was to be giving at the very moment he was pronounced dead here 50 years ago today in Dallas, Texas -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It was a very, very moving ceremony today in Dallas. John, thank you.

The headlines of the day focused on the death of a president and a nation in shock and mourning. Over the last 50 years, we have learned more about the frantic minutes and hours immediately after the shooting. Watch this.


JAY WATSON, WFAA-TV, DALLAS, TEXAS: A gentleman just walked in our studio that I am meeting for the first time as well as you, this is WFAA-TV here in Dallas Texas. May I have your name please, sir?

ABRAHAM ZAPRUDER, WITNESS: My name is Abraham Zapruder.


ZAPRUDER: Zapruder, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Zapruder, and would you tell us your story please, sir?

ZAPRUDER: I got out and about half an hour earlier and get a good spot to shoot some pictures.

CHARLES BREHM, WITNESS: A 5-year-old boy and myself were by ourselves on the grass there on Palmer Street, I asked Joe to wave to him and Joe waved and I waved and then ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's all right, sir.

BREHM: And he was waving back. He was -- the shot rang out and he slumped down in his seat.

GAYLE NEWMAN, WITNESS: And then all of a sudden this next one popped and Governor Connally grabbed his stomach and kind of laid over to the side. And then another one, it was just also but -- and President Kennedy reached up and grabbed -- and looked back - he's grabbed his ear and blood just started gushing out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you the person who had fired it?

JEAN HILL, WITNESS: No. Not -- I didn't see any person fired a weapon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You only heard it?

HILL: I only heard it. And I looked up and I saw a man running up the hill. ROBERT CARO, AUTHOR, "THE PASSAGE OF POWER": If it's a conspiracy, not only the President who was hit, the Governor was hit, who know if the next shot would have been for Lyndon Johnson?

Johnson's car pulls into the emergency bay of Parkland Hospital. Four agents reach in and they grabbed Johnson and pulled him out and start to run him down one car over around looking for a safe place.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Johnson, his whereabouts are being kept secret for security reasons. If anyone knows where Mr. Johnson is, it is not us at this moment.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT, AUTHOR, "IN THE NEW WORLD": That was a signal moment in our cultural history. Suddenly, it occurred to us the right thing to do is to turn on television.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The reports continue to come in. And then confused in fragmentary fashion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Kennedy here has been given a blood transfusion at Parkland Hospital here in Dallas in an effort to save life.

WRIGHT: It was odd because there were no commercials. It was just a continuous experience.

WALTER CRONKITE, NEWS ANCHOR: Two priests have entered the emergency room at Parkland Hospital where he rest after the assassination attempt which now was about a half hour ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are your feelings right now, ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am absolutely shocked. We have the same birthday. I'm just crazy about him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, who would want to shoot the President? What did he do? I mean he's been doing so much for the country. Somebody goes ahead and shoots him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A flash from Dallas. Two priests who were with President Kennedy say he is dead. This is the latest information we have from Dallas. I will repeat with the greatest regret, two priests who were with President Kennedy say he has died of bullet wound.

BOB HUFFAKER, TV REPORTER: Malcolm Kilduff, the assistant press secretary, was filling in for the regular press secretary and then he had to draw himself up to give the most fateful announcement that a press secretary might have ever had to give.

ROBERT MACNEIL, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST: All the cameras were rolling and I remembered he put his fingers like this on the desk and press very hard to stop his hands trembling.

MALCOLM KILDUFF, ASSISTANT PRESS SECRETARY: President John F. Kennedy died in approximately 1: 00 Central Standard Time today, here in Dallas, he died of gunshot wound in the brain. I have no other detail regarding the assassination of the President.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The people standing here are stunned just as all of us are beyond belief that the President of the United States is dead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All over the world, people are going to remember all their lives what they were doing when they first heard that President Kennedy had been killed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The crowds are standing around in silence and sorrow in the rain. The strange thing is you don't even notice it's raining. And if you do notice, you don't care.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just can't believe it. It's exactly how like someone in my own family is dead. I just can't believe it.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Like a daze. You don't know what's going on. Why? Why did it happen? Who would have wronged such a thing is the question.

DAN RATHER, REPORTER: In the first minutes and hours, chaos and confusion was radiating out from the scene itself.

It was very pervasive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Secret Service agents thought the gunfire from an automatic weapon fired possibly from a grassy knoll.

MACNEIL: I saw some police run up this grass. I thought, they're chasing the gunman. I run with them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The report is that the attempted assassin, we now hear it was a man and a woman.

MACNEIL: I got to the top, looked around. A policeman went over the fence, so I went over the fence too. There was nothing there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The television newsman said that he looked up just after the shot was fired then saw a rifle being withdrawn from a fifth or sixth floor window.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It originally thought that the shots came from in here. And now it's believed that the shots came from this building here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I see police officers running back toward the Texas Schoolbook Depository Building. They are going to continue searching in that building for the would-be assassin of the President.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The center of downtown Dallas is in a virtual state of siege. They are combing the floors of the Texas Book Depository Building in an effort to find this suspected assassin. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the building on the sixth floor, we found an area near a window that had partially been blocked by boxes of books, and also the three spent shells that had apparently been fired from a rifle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Crime Lab Lieutenant J.C. Day just came out of that building with a British .303 rifle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a 7.65 Mauser.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A high-powered army or Japanese rifle of 25 caliber.


RATHER: Much of the first things you hear are going to be wrong. And, to some degree, you were constantly trying to separate out what seemed to be a fact.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In Dallas, a Dallas policemen just a short while ago was shot and killed while chasing a suspect.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: J.D. Tippit, a good, experienced police officer, was shot three times in the chest in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. Then the manager of a shoe store saw the suspect walked into the Texas Theater.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Someone has been arrested in one of the downtown theaters. They don't know if it was the man who shot the policeman or the person who actually shot President Kennedy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They suddenly jumped this man and started to drag him out of the theater, tussled him out to the car as the crowd broke and started to maul the police officers and grab this man, trying to run with him. They shouted "Murderer," and the officers hustled him into the car and ran away just as fast as they could.

RATHER: As we mentioned a short while ago, a number of arrests have been made in Dallas in the wake of President Kennedy's death. We have scenes of one of those arrests in the downtown area. This was just after a Dallas policeman was shot in the vicinity of a downtown movie house.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How did you approach him? How did you approach him?

DET. PAUL BENTLEY, DALLAS POLICE DEPARTMENT: And, as he approached him, the man who hit McDonald (ph) in the face with his left hand, reached for the pistol with his right hand. And as he reached his pistol, I grabbed him along with two or three other officers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What did he say to you after he was arrest?

BENTLEY: He just said: "This is it. It's all over with now."


BLITZER: Still ahead: The JFK conspiracy theories live on. We're talking about the lingering suspicions that foreign governments or even the U.S. government may have been involved.



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: JFK, in particular, I think, captured the -- the idealism, the ability to imagine and remake America to meet its ideals in a way that we haven't seen before or since.


BLITZER: That was President Obama on JFK's legacy, as the nation marks 50 years since his assassination.

And joining us now, Robert Dallek, the historian and author. His important book "Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House."

Professor Dallek, thanks very much for coming in.

ROBERT DALLEK, Presidential Historian: My pleasure.

BLITZER: We have a new CNN poll that we conducted. And we asked people today if they believed in these conspiratorial theories about the assassination of President Kennedy, who was involved in the Kennedy assassination. Look at these numbers.

It's amazing -- 33 percent believe the CIA had a role, 30 percent the mafia, 22 percent the Soviet Union, 21 percent Lyndon Johnson, 20 percent the Cuban government.

Are you surprised that, for example, a third of the American people today, according to this poll, believe the CIA was involved?

DALLEK: Wolf, this is the way it's been for 50 years.

And, you know, people can't let go of the idea that someone as inconsequential as Oswald could have done in someone as consequential as the president. They have got to believe there was some larger conspiracy here, but it's never been proven.

BLITZER: What do you believe? Because you have studied this for 50 years.

DALLEK: Oh, I have studied it. I have studied.

I think Oswald was the only killer. The mistake that came out of the Warren Commission was that they hid some of the things that the -- missteps of the FBI and the CIA. How could they have not known where he was, who he was, what he was doing, that he ordered this mail-order rifle? So, they were covering up for their errors.

BLITZER: So some of the mistakes from the Warren Commission that fueled these conspiratorial theories, you don't buy them, though?

DALLEK: No, I don't buy them.

But the point is that there's also a kind of paranoid style in our history. Richard Hofstadter, the historian, wrote brilliantly about this. And people have an affinity for these kind of -- because it makes life more understandable. And they just can't accept that someone like Kennedy, who was so powerful, influential, so young, attractive, how could this happen?

BLITZER: Had he lived, finished out his first term, and maybe been reelected to a second term, how would the world have been different, do you believe?

DALLEK: Oh, I think it would have been different, because, first of all, he would have run against Barry Goldwater. He probably would have been run as big, as successful a campaign as Lyndon Johnson did, won big majorities that he brought into the House and Senate.

He would have passed his four major initiatives, a tax cut, a federal aid to education, Medicare, and the civil rights bill, see.


DALLEK: As LBJ did. Now...

BLITZER: What about Vietnam?

DALLEK: Vietnam, what first I would say, we would have detente with him sooner than we had it under Richard Nixon, because his whole impulse with that great American University speech in June of '63 was about thinking anew, thinking afresh about our relations with the Soviets.

On Vietnam, he was tremendously skeptical about putting in ground troops. George Ball, the undersecretary of state, said to him, Mr. President, you put 200,000, 300,000 in the troops of the jungles of Vietnam, you will never hear from them again. And he said, George, you're crazy as hell, meaning he didn't want to do that. He was skeptical about putting ground troops into Cuba, so you can imagine Vietnam.

BLITZER: It would have been different, maybe.

Caroline Kennedy, his daughter, now the U.S. ambassador to Japan, a lot of us remember the article she wrote in 2008 endorsing Barack Obama for the presidency, writing this in the article entitled "A President Like My Father."

I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them, but for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president, not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans." You think about those words then, you look at President Obama's job approval numbers right now in our CNN poll, only 41 percent approve of the job he's doing, 56 percent disapprove.

You know, you say to yourself, what's going on?

DALLEK: Wolf, if Kennedy had lived and had a second term, do you think you and I would be sitting here talking about him today?

He would have had -- his flaws would have been seen. The limitations of his presidency would have been more obvious. Franklin Roosevelt had a second term. He never would have had a third term if it weren't for World War II, because his flaws came to the forefront. And second terms are something of a curse.

BLITZER: For almost all of these presidents.

DALLEK: For almost all of them.

BLITZER: Good point, Robert Dallek, as usual. Thanks very much for joining us on this special day.

DALLEK: Thank you. My pleasure.

BLITZER: I remember being let out of school early that day. I was a young boy when John F. Kennedy died. I walked home from school. I remember going into the kitchen, seeing my mom. She was crying, because she had already heard that the president was dead.

Up next: more personal memories of the president on this 50th anniversary of his death.


BLITZER: More JFK memories now.

Like so many Americans, CNN's Jeanne Moos took the president's death personally.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Pick your most iconic moment of the aftermath of JFK's assassination. Was it John- John's salute to his father's casket? Was it Jackie Kennedy refusing to take off the blood-stained pink suit, a favorite focus of Kennedy moves?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: We can get someone to bring you a change of clothes from the plane.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: No, I want them to see what they have done to Jack.

MOOS: But my most persistent memory was something else. For me, the early '60s were a time of transition. I went from long hair to short hair, said goodbye to my pigtails. (on camera): These pigtails. My mom actually saved them. (voice-over): And in my baby book for 1963, there was this notation." Took Kennedy death seriously."

What caught the eye of this 9-year-old girl was a horse, of course, a riderless horse with empty boots reversed in the stirrups, as if the rider were looking back over his past. The horse's was named Black Jack. And the 19-year-old holding him was Army Private 1st Class Andy Carlson.

ANDY CARLSON, FORMER BLACK JACK HANDLER: My skinny arm was trying to control all of that horse.

MOOS: Black Jack had a reputation as a hot horse. He got this job because he was too wild to ride. And after leading him about 14 miles, two days in a row, following JFK's casket on the caisson:

CARLSON: I felt beat near to death and worn out.

MOOS (on camera): I was so taken with Black Jack that after the funeral, I wrote a poem about the riderless horse.

(voice-over): Don't worry. It disappeared over the years, so you won't be subjected to the poetic ramblings of a kid.

CARLSON: At one point, he was pawing the paving. And he struck the toe of my right shoe. I wanted to fall down and roll around on the ground and cry, but couldn't do that.

MOOS: The riderless horse made an impression on Mrs. Kennedy. She later asked for his saddle, bridle, boots and saber.

Black Jack died in 1976 and was buried with military honors. He's been immortalized as a statue, by a book. He's even on Facebook, famous for champing at the bit while playing more than a bit part.

CARLSON: In the middle of all this solemnity, that there is one fool horse having the time of his life.

MOOS: It seems like JFK would have liked that.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: For more on the day America changed forever, don't forget, watch "The Assassination of JFK" later tonight, 10:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

Remember to join us Monday in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can follow us on Twitter @WolfBlitzer, @SITROOM.

Thanks very much for watching.