On Friday a friend mentioned that CBS was streaming in real time their original Kennedy assassination footage all weekend. I tuned in Saturday morning and had trouble tuning out again. I felt like Alice falling down the hole into a world that I had once lived in. When I've thought about that long weekend in 1963, I remember that my family watched everything unfolding in front of us as national television networks broadcast round the clock. But I couldn't quite picture what that was like until I saw members of Congress, the diplomatic corps, and governors of all 50 states start arriving at the White House to pay their respects to President Kennedy, whose body lay in state in the East Room, as part of the CBS footage.
With that blurry black and white broadcast flickering on the screen and the voices of Harry Reasoner and Walter Cronkite describing the proceedings I was transported back to our living room. I was a political junkie even in high school and remember watching all these people arrive with rapt attention. This time around I recognized a fair number of faces but what I noticed about the situation was nothing that would have struck me at the time.
This time I first noticed the little things: Almost everyone — man or woman — was wearing a hat. Then the big thing hit me: It was a white man's world in 1963. Almost every woman I saw arrived on the arm of a man. There were few people of color visible or minorities of any kind. That world is what the Tea Party folks want to return to; a world where we all know our place and wouldn't dream of stepping outside of our assigned role. That's a world that I have no intention of living in. No woman in her right mind wants to go back there.
What was also striking to me this time around was the quality of the work done by the broadcasters who were winging it most of the time as unforseen events unfolded around them. They used big words and assumed listeners understood them; I caught Cronkite saying "embroglio"! When have you heard anyone use a word like that on TV? They refered to the funeral cortege without explaining cortege and noted the riderless horse had its "stirrups inverted" without further ado. While I mostly saw male reporters, I did spot a female journalist in the basement of the Dallas Police Station just after Oswald was shot.
And that was another surprise. Bob Jackson's iconic photo of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald is burned into the brain of everyone who was alive back then. But when you watch the live footage you realize that's not what you see. An interview with Jackson in the Denver Post points out that it's photojournalism that told that amazing story because it has "the capability of telling a full story by freezing time." It's a striking thought given that it is TV that has always been touted as the medium that came of age with JFK's assassination. Yet it is the image from print journalism that has stayed with us for 50 years.
Watching even snippets of those events in 1963 is painful; not so much for the events themselves — tragic as they were — but for the realization that we seem to have lost the best part of ourselves in the intervening years and none of us have yet figured out how to make our nation whole again.