[The following story is adapted from my book, Shaking Hands with History, 2021]
Sixty years ago today, SS-100-X became the most famous car in automotive history. You have seen it many times, you would recognize its photograph instantly, and yet its name conjures in you no recognition. Unlike Ford's Mustang or Chevrolet's Corvette, when this car rolled off the assembly line it was assigned no catchy name: just a number. It set no speed records. At over twenty feet long and almost four tons, it moved with the nimbleness of a World War I tank. In fact, it took its place in history while traveling at only 11.2 miles an hour. It isn't its speed or design drawing almost two million people annually to view it on display in a museum.
SS-100-X began as a 1961 Ford Lincoln Continental four-door convertible. After major modifications, it joined the White House fleet of automobiles. On this date six decades ago, November 22, 1963, it transported President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy and Texas Governor and Mrs. John Connally along a seven-mile procession through Dallas, Texas. At 12:30 p.m. that afternoon, it became a macabre relic of American history.
SS-100-X: it was the car in The Motorcade.
Many years later, I came to know several people who rode in that fateful procession. The recollections they shared with me about their experiences that day follow.
David F. Powers
Born in 1912 in Boston to Irish immigrants, Powers worked in the publishing business and served in the Army during World War II before meeting fellow veteran John F. Kennedy in 1946. When the future president returned home from the war and ran for Congress that year, Powers joined the campaign and remained with Kennedy all the way to the White House. His formal administration title was Special Assistant to the President, but their relationship ran much deeper. He was a member of the "Irish Mafia," a tight circle of longtime Kennedy confidants. The year after the assassination, Powers became the first curator and director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Powers and I had connected through a mutual friend. In 1993, when he learned of my forthcoming Boston visit, he invited me to the library to join him for coffee.
Within minutes of arriving at his office, we were fellow Irishmen sharing jokes and stories of family connections to the old country. He told me he knew some Rogans from Ireland. Their name originally was Regan, but an immigration official at Ellis Island transposed the "e" to an "o" when their ancestors arrived here. He asked if they were any relation. "Only if they're rich Irish," I replied.
He laughed. "I know what you mean. I was a poor working-class shanty Irishman who just happened to know the president of the United States."
Dave Powers and I hit it off at once.
Our connection cemented when I showed him my copy of his 1972 book Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye that he had signed for me when I was a teenager. "And you've kept it all these years!" he exclaimed with appreciation.
"Since I hear that you're a political memorabilia collector," he said, "I put together a few things for you." He handed me a large envelope of various JFK photographs from the library, along with a vintage Life magazine from December 1963, which was the JFK memorial edition. "I had a few of these left over, and I thought you'd like to have it." We stood over his desk as he flipped through the magazine and commented wistfully over many of the highlights of Kennedy's life depicted in the photos.
He turned yet another page, and then his expression changed. Gone was the smile, and a pained look overcame him. I looked down at the page that altered his demeanor. It was a photo spread from the 8mm Zapruder film, which was the only motion picture footage taken of the assassination. He closed the magazine. "I wish that wasn't in there," he said in a whisper.
"Dave, you were there that day. Are you ever able to shake the memory of it?"
"Never. Here at the library reminders surround me every day of what might have been. It's unavoidable."
We sat on the couch and he told me about that trip to Dallas. Because Texas was a key state for JFK's anticipated 1964 reelection campaign, Kennedy chose to make a two-day trip there to shore up his support. He described their hectic schedule after leaving Washington on November 21 for San Antonio, Houston, and Fort Worth (where the official party spent the night).
"The next day, after a speech to the chamber of commerce, we flew from Fort Worth to Dallas and landed at Love Field. The crowds were huge and friendly, and the president and Jackie beamed when they came off the plane. After shaking hands with people along the fence, they climbed into the limousine with Governor and Mrs. Connally. I was in the Secret Service car right behind them as we started the procession through downtown Dallas to the Trade Mart, where the president had a speech scheduled for 12:30.
"Along the way I took home movies of the crowds and the motorcade, but I ran out of film as we got closer to downtown. There the crowds grew larger and larger, and they were more and more enthusiastic. The president and Jackie rode in the back seat of their car. He waved to the people on the right, and she waved to the crowd on the left. We planned it that way so that nobody on the sidewalks would feel ignored.
"We turned off Main Street. We made a couple of sharp turns and proceeded onto Elm Street, which put us almost at the end of the route. We were going slowly on the turns. I checked my watch and saw it was 12:30, which was the time we were due at the Trade Mart a few miles away. That was good, I thought. We weren't too late. We'd be there in a few minutes.
"Then I heard what I thought was a firecracker. I looked up and saw the president's body start moving slowly to the left. Another shot rang out, and Governor Connally disappeared from view. I saw a nearby overpass in front of us and I thought that maybe someone was shooting at us in an ambush. Then I heard a third shot and saw it blow off the back of the president's head. The impact of the bullet sounded like a melon thrown against a cement wall.
"The cars all accelerated quickly. Jackie climbed onto the back of the limousine, but a Secret Service agent jumped on the rear of the car and shoved her back inside. It probably saved her life.
"When we arrived at the hospital a few minutes later, I ran over to the president's car. Several of us picked him up and put him on a stretcher. I knew he was gone when I saw him."
Powers pushed aside the magazine. "Come on," he said, "let me show you some happier memories." He gave me a tour of the photographs from the Kennedy years adorning his walls, which included signed pictures and mementos from John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy. One photo depicted JFK and Powers in a motorcade through Ireland a few months before the assassination, inscribed, "Dave Powers goes home. Best wishes from his travelling companion, John Kennedy." Nearby was a framed document bearing a seal and ribbon. During the Kennedy years, JFK promoted fifty-mile hikes for physical fitness. After Kennedy pressured Powers into making one of those lengthy treks, the president presented him with this unique certificate congratulating him for hiking fifty miles—to and from Kennedy's refrigerator to steal the president's Heinekens.
"Here's something that you'll really appreciate," he said, and then he led me around his desk to a rocking chair. "This was the president's actual rocker that he used in the Oval Office. When we closed down the library exhibits for refurbishing some months ago, I told the archivist to store this here." During JFK's presidency, he used it to ease his chronic back pain, and he loved it so much that his staff brought it on Air Force One whenever he traveled. I had seen countless photographs of him relaxing in this very chair. I mentioned that I recalled watching the TV news the day after the assassination and saw a mover wheeling this rocker on a dolly out of the Oval Office. When that image came across the screen, my tough-as-nails longshoreman grandfather wept.
Dave nodded. "Give it a try," he told me as he motioned with his head toward the chair.
"Are you sure?"
"Go ahead. The president wouldn't mind if an Irish kid from San Francisco sat in it."
"What if he knew the Irish kid was a Republican?"
He laughed. "Well, that might be a problem, but we won't tell him. Go on, try it out." Dave picked up my camera and snapped a photograph of me sitting in JFK's chair.
"That's a very historic chair," he said with a grin, "and you're adding to its history. You just became the first Republican ever to sit in it—
"—And, trust me, you'll be the last!"
John F. Kennedy hired Evelyn Lincoln as his personal secretary during his final months as a member of the House of Representatives. She remained in that sensitive post when Kennedy moved on to both the U.S. Senate and the White House. Like Dave Powers, she flew to Texas with the president and rode in the motorcade.
I struck up an acquaintance with Mrs. Lincoln (as the president always called her) through the mail when I was a teenager and after she had retired. In later years, we became friends and spoke over the telephone often. She was quite pleased that the young boy who used to write to her about his interest in history and politics later served in public office.
Although we had maintained a friendship for many years, we met only once. Over dinner with my wife and me in 1991, she shared many behind the scenes stories of the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and other leaders of that era. Ironically, our evening together coincided with the twenty-eighth anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. As the wine poured, she offered increasingly unvarnished recollections—until it came to Dallas. When I tried drawing out those memories, she couldn't go beyond generalities. The grief proved too much. It wasn't until a couple of years later during a phone conversation that she offered these limited comments about that day.
"We left the White House by helicopter for Andrews Air Force Base on Thursday morning, the day before he died, and we flew aboard Air Force One to Texas. During the flight, the president sat in his private office talking to a number of Texas congressmen joining him for the trip. Later that night, he spoke at a testimonial dinner in Houston, and then we spent the night in Fort Worth.
"On Friday morning, before he left the hotel, I had the chance to introduce him to a few of my relatives who lived in the area. They were thrilled to shake his hand and meet him. He looked so handsome in his blue suit, and he charmed them.
"The president made a breakfast speech to the chamber of commerce, and then we headed to the airport. The flight to Dallas was short—only fifteen minutes. I remember taking some memos into his private cabin for him to sign. He looked distracted as he chatted with the congressmen seated with him. While he listened, he signed the memos and handed them back to me. They were the last things he ever signed.
"Air Force One landed at Love Field. It had been raining when we left Fort Worth, but now there was sunshine. I knew Kennedy would be pleased, because without the rain he could ride in the limo without the bubbletop on it. He always preferred to ride in an open car with no covering so that the crowds could get a better look at him. Afterward, the press reported that the bubbletop would have saved him from gunfire, but that's not true. The bubbletop wasn't bulletproof. Its only purpose was to protect him from the elements.
"By the time I got off the plane, I saw that he and Jackie were shaking hands with people along the fence. She wore a pink suit and matching pillbox hat, and she held a bouquet of red roses in her arm.
"I was already in my assigned car when the president and Jackie climbed to their limousine. Governor and Mrs. Connally were with them. The motorcade left for the Trade Mart, where the president had a 12:30 speech.
"As we drove through Dallas, I was amazed at the crowd size and the wonderful response we received. We had worried about hostile protests, but I saw none. Everybody was cheering, smiling, and waving. My last memory of Kennedy alive was seeing him in the back of the limousine with a beaming smile as he waved.
"I remember him waving."
That was it. She went no further. During our earlier dinner, she hit the same termination point in her recollection: "As his car pulled out of Love Field for the ride through downtown Dallas, I saw him sitting in the back seat. He was waving his hand." Then she stopped. "After all these years," she told me during dinner, "it's still too painful to discuss."
With that, and just as she had during our later telephone conversation about Dallas, Mrs. Lincoln changed the subject.
Jack Valenti met John Kennedy only once. It occurred on the last night of the president's life.
Born in 1921, Valenti flew over fifty combat missions during World War II. After obtaining a Harvard MBA degree, he returned home to Houston and began a career as an advertising executive and political consultant. His friendship with Lyndon Johnson dated back to the future president's congressional years. In late 1963, when Kennedy decided to make a political trip to Texas, Johnson recruited Valenti to organize the multi-city tour. Valenti rode in the Dallas motorcade. Immediately following the assassination, he joined the new administration as Johnson's presidential assistant. He remained at the White House until 1966, when he left government to become the president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Holding that position for the next thirty-eight years, he was the public face of, and chief advocate for, the Hollywood movie studios.
I knew Jack from my time in Washington. With much of the entertainment industry sited in my Los Angeles district, I allied frequently with the studios in the battle to protect American intellectual property (IP) from piracy. My membership on the House Judiciary Committee's IP subcommittee gave me a position of legislative leadership on this issue. Later, in my capacity as U.S. under secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property, I became the Bush Administration's de facto IP czar. Because of these positions, I worked closely with Jack for years, and we developed a close friendship.
Our relationship transcended partisan politics. During my 2000 reelection campaign, President Clinton targeted me for defeat as payback for his impeachment. Thanks to Clinton's help, my Democrat opponent, Adam Schiff, had campaign contribution reports that looked like a Who's Who of Hollywood. After Jack's death, one of his MPAA lieutenants told me that she attended a meeting with Jack and the studio heads during that campaign. The leaders told Jack that Clinton was lobbying them hard to support Schiff financially, as were all of their A-list stars. Jack (a lifelong liberal Democrat and a close friend of Clinton) listened politely for a few minutes, and then he ended the discussion. "Gentlemen," he said, "Jim Rogan has been the best friend Hollywood has had in Washington when it comes to protecting our interests. As long as I am head of this association, we will support him, and I don't give a damn what Bill Clinton thinks about it." That was that. Although Schiff collected checks from people like Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg, my campaign deposited checks from Disney, Fox, Warner, Universal, and Paramount.
One day, while joining him for lunch at his Washington office, I brought along a copy of the famous photograph of Lyndon Johnson, flanked by his wife and a dazed Jacqueline Kennedy, taking the presidential oath aboard Air Force One shortly after the assassination. I asked Jack (who was depicted in the photo standing a few feet from Johnson) to autograph it for me. After he obliged the request, he told me about his experience that nightmarish day.
"About a month earlier, Vice President Johnson called me at my ad agency office in Houston and told me that President Kennedy had decided to make a multi-stop visit to Texas that November. Lyndon wanted me to organize it. He wasn't happy about the trip. He thought it was a bad time for Kennedy to come. Governor John Connally and Senator Ralph Yarborough, both Democrats, were having a terrible feud, and their bitterness was causing intraparty divisions. However, the president needed Texas to win the 1964 election, so he decided to visit.
"I put my business on hold and spent the next month working out the details of each stop. I coordinated everything with senior White House staff, the Secret Service, the Democratic National Committee, the state Party offices, and so forth. It was a monumental task, and I knew Lyndon would expect perfection when he brought the president to his home state. This had to be a success.
"On Thursday, November 21, the official party landed in Houston. JFK and Jackie came off the plane, and the crowds went wild. I focused on getting everyone into the motorcade and then to the hotel without any problems, so I didn't meet him when he arrived. A big problem developed before the motorcade departed. At the last second Yarborough refused to ride in the same car with Lyndon. I couldn't believe that asshole! I shoved him into a car with some Texas congressmen, and then I jumped into a White House staff car and we all took off for the hotel.
"The reception at the Rice Hotel went off perfectly. Lyndon told me that the president was pleased with it. So was Johnson, so much so that he told my wife, Mary Margaret, to go home and pack a bag for me. Johnson wanted me to travel with the official party to Dallas and Austin the next day.
"That same night, we all attended a testimonial dinner for Congressman Albert Thomas. While everyone was backstage, Johnson brought me over and introduced me to the president. We had never met. He thanked me for my work in organizing the trip, and he said that I did such a good job that he might steal me away so that I could organize his other trips. Then he introduced me to Jackie, who was dazzling. Like every other man in America, she enchanted me. The president thanked me again, and I went back to overseeing the program. How ironic it is that the only time I ever met John Kennedy was on the last night of his life.
"The next morning, we were in Fort Worth for a breakfast. When that finished, Kennedy, Johnson, Connally, and the other politicians went outside in the drizzle and spoke from a makeshift wooden platform to the few thousand people who had congregated outside. Then we drove to the airport for the flight to Dallas.
"At Love Field, another great crowd awaited. I did a final motorcade check, and then I jumped into a car with Kennedy's personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln. We were about six cars behind the presidential limousine when we departed.
"Along the way the crowds were boisterous and cheering. Everyone was smiling. I knew Lyndon would be very pleased with the turnout.
"Near the end of the route, we made a couple of quick turns into Dealey Plaza. Suddenly, the car in front of me accelerated quickly. Police started waving at the cars behind, people started running in the street, and I wondered what the hell was going on. My first reaction was that the cars in front took off speeding to the Trade Mart because we were running late for Kennedy's speech.
"At that time, I didn't know anything bad had happened. Our driver took us to the Trade Mart. When we arrived and the president's limo wasn't there, I thought they must be running late, or maybe they stopped for some reason. Then I heard a guard say the president and Governor Connally had been shot. I couldn't believe it. I grabbed a deputy sheriff and told him I had the president's personal secretary with me and that we needed to get to the hospital right away. He put us in his squad car, and we rushed off to Parkland Hospital.
"It was bedlam at the hospital. Cars parked all over, Secret Service and police swarming about, people rushing in and out. I dropped off Mrs. Lincoln with some Kennedy people. One of Johnson's aides came over and whispered to me that Kennedy was dead. He said the vice president wanted to see me right now.
"I was fighting back tears when I found Johnson in a small room in the hospital basement. People entered and started speaking to him. A Secret Service agent pulled me aside and said that Johnson wanted me to get out to Air Force One immediately. I didn't know why. I just did what he told me.
"An agent drove me back to Love Field and I boarded the jet. Everyone on board looked shell-shocked. They spoke to each other in whispers. Soon after, Johnson boarded the plane. He grabbed my arm and said, 'Jack, I need you on my staff. You need to come to Washington with me right now. Tell Mary Margaret to send your clothes. You can live with me until you and your family find a place back there.' That was that. My life and career as a Houston ad exec were over forever, although I didn't realize it at the time.
"Once on the plane, Johnson took charge immediately. He started making phone calls and meeting with people in the office. I couldn't believe how calm he looked after what had just happened.
"The White House and Secret Service pushed Johnson to leave Dallas for Washington immediately. He refused, and he ordered that the plane not depart without Kennedy's body and Jackie aboard.
"While we waited for Jackie and the late president, another debate erupted as to whether Johnson should take the oath now or back in Washington. He decided to do it before we left. He wanted the oath ceremony photographed, and he wanted that photo given to the press outlets immediately so that the world, and especially our enemies, would know that there was a continuity of leadership.
"A hearse pulled up on the tarmac with a coffin. They carried it up the stairs, loaded it in the back of the plane, and covered it with an American flag. Jackie remained in the back with the casket. Johnson sent someone to ask if she felt up to coming forward and joining him as he took the oath. When she appeared, she looked like she was in a trance. Judge Sarah Hughes from Texas had joined us, and I had obtained the oath over the phone from the Department of Justice. With everyone now assembled, Judge Hughes asked Johnson to raise his hand. Just before she administered the oath, Congressman Thomas pulled me next to him to get a better view of history being made."
"And," he added ruefully, "because of Albert Thomas's thoughtfulness, I ended up in one of the most famous photographs ever taken."
Former House Speaker Jim Wright
To say that Jim Wright's Republican colleagues disliked him when he was the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives understates the point. The third-ranking House Republican at the time, Congressman (later Vice President) Dick Cheney, said of him, "He's a heavy-handed son-of-a-bitch, he doesn't know any other way of operating, and he will do anything he can to win at any price, including ignoring the rules, bending the rules, writing rules, denying the House the opportunity to work its will. It brings disrespect to the House itself. There's no sense of comity left." Congressman (later Speaker) Newt Gingrich called Wright the most corrupt speaker of the twentieth century, and he recruited seventy-seven other GOP colleagues to file formal ethics charges against him.
Despite this onslaught, there was a lone Republican congressman who liked Jim Wright, albeit one who never had to endure service under his ham-handed leadership.
I liked him.
Born in 1922 in Texas, he flew as a bombardier during World War II. After the war, he returned home and held several local political offices until 1954, when he won the first of seventeen terms in Congress. Elected speaker in 1987, his ruthless approach in ramming through his legislative agenda angered Republicans (and many Democrats). After ethics charged piled up against him, which ranged from improperly profiting from book sale royalties to unlawful foreign policy interference, he resigned from Congress while maintaining his innocence. Upon leaving Washington, he returned home and taught college.
My youthful appreciation for coaxing historical recollections from noted leaders didn't end when I arrived in Congress. If anything, it metastasized because senior colleagues who had witnessed history from front row seats abounded. During legislative downtime, I looked for opportunities to ask them about their experiences. Occasionally, I wrote to retired members whom I wanted to meet and invited them to lunch when they came to town. Soon after I wrote to Jim Wright back in Texas, he called me and said that he planned to be in D.C. for the annual Former Members of Congress Association gathering. Each year, the Association holds a two-day reunion for former House and Senate members. The agenda always includes a morning business meeting held in the House chamber before the legislative session. We set that date on the calendar to meet.
Incumbent congressmen never attended these Association get-togethers in the chamber. With busy schedules, and with no political benefit derived from schmoozing has-beens, they had better things to do. Unlike my colleagues, I'd come, stand along the back rail of the chamber, and point out for our teenage House pages all the notables from the past whom I recognized: "See that man over there in the tan coat? He ran for president in 1972. I got his autograph when I was a kid. See that tall guy in the aisle of the second row? He was secretary of the Treasury. See the lady in the red dress? She was the Democrat vice presidential nominee in 1984—the first woman nominated by a major party." Later, I watched with satisfaction as the pages brought autograph books over to the people I had identified for them. These once prominent and now largely forgotten old-timers smiled as they signed for the pages, many of whom were born long after their public careers had ended.
At the Association's 1998 meeting in the House chamber, I pointed out an elderly man. "Do you see that fellow over there in the light blue sports coat? That's Jim Wright. He was Speaker of the House ten years ago."
Later, when I walked over and introduced myself, he greeted me warmly, and then he fished around in his wallet for a piece of paper bearing my name and telephone number written on it. "See? I was going to call you today," he said with a slight speech impediment, which he explained came from his recent cancer surgery on his tongue and jaw.
I invited him to lunch. "Absolutely!" he responded. "Why don't I come to your office and pick you up, or else I can come to your committee room and wait for you?"
"Sorry, sir, but it's not appropriate having a former Speaker of the House wandering the Capitol halls looking for a freshman, especially when the freshman is the beneficiary of the meeting. I'll come to you."
"All right let's meet for lunch in the private Speaker's Dining Room across from the Members' Dining Room. The nice thing about being a former speaker is that I am allowed to reserve it."
At noon, we had the dining room to ourselves. As a favor for one of the House archivists, I asked him to sign for her a photograph of his formal portrait hanging in the Capitol. He inscribed it, "To Barbara, who takes care of the old things in the Capitol—like me!"
Throughout lunch, he shared stories about his career in Congress and some of the historical figures with whom he worked. The most memorable part of our discussion came when he told me about November 22, 1963.
"I represented Fort Worth in Congress for thirty-four years, which was the city where President Kennedy started his last day. It was such a big deal to have the president of the United States in my district. He gave a speech there that morning and paid tribute to me. Then we drove over to the airport and boarded Air Force One for the flight to Dallas.
"Governor Connally and other Texas congressmen were on the plane with us. We sat talking with the president during the flight, and he was very interested in discussing the different political dynamics of Fort Worth and Dallas. We were still discussing it when the plane landed at Love Field. As we prepared to leave, he turned to me and said, 'Jim, we'll finish this discussion later this afternoon when we get back to the plane.'"
At this point in his story, Wright wiped away a tear. When he continued, he said softly, "We never finished that discussion."
I asked about the motorcade. He recalled, "It was a beautiful day. The crowds all along the way were very enthusiastic. I was in a car behind the president, maybe five cars back.
"Near the end of the motorcade, as we got closer to the Trade Mart, I heard a loud pop. At first, I thought it was a firecracker. Then I heard a second pop, and I assumed it was a twenty-one-gun salute. 'This is a strange place to do that,' I thought. Then I heard a third pop, and that was odd because, if this were a twenty-one-gun salute, the shots were out of cadence. My heart sank when I looked out the window and saw horror on the faces of the people standing along the grassy knoll. I didn't know it at the time, but they had just seen the president's head explode.
"I turned to see the president's car. It looked as if it had stopped in the middle of the street, and then it sped off as a Secret Service agent climbed onto the back of it. I saw another Secret Service agent violently push Lyndon down in his car.
"When we arrived at Parkland Hospital it was pandemonium. I saw the president carried out of his car." Wright paused briefly and gazed toward the carpeting on the floor. Composing himself, he continued: "I looked inside of his limousine. Blood, brain tissue, and chunks of his head covered the back seat. I knew he was dead.
"A few minutes later, I saw Lyndon at Parkland. He was stunned by what had happened, but he recovered quickly. He handled himself well that day under terrible circumstances.
"After the doctors pronounced the president dead, Lyndon wanted to get back to the plane immediately. He didn't know if there was a conspiracy to kill the whole government or not. We called Judge Sarah Hughes, who came to the plane to swear him in. I was in the plane with him when he took the oath of office."
I asked Wright how that day impacted him as he reflected on it thirty-five years later. He shook his head. "It was the saddest day of my entire career. It had started on such a high note. I was hosting the president of the United States in my hometown. My adrenaline was flowing, and I was on cloud nine. Then it all was destroyed. I've relived the day in my mind many, many times over the last thirty-five years.
"And, sadly, I will again, many, many more times."
I wanted to hear about history even when I was in the middle of making it.
In January 1999, a few hours after I delivered my opening statement in the Clinton impeachment trial before the United States Senate, I appeared on Larry King Live, a television interview show broadcast live to an international audience on the CNN network. When I arrived at their Washington studio, I learned that King had invited two additional interrogators for our interview: Dan Rather, then the longtime anchorman of the CBS Evening News, and fellow CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, the host of the long-running news show, Face the Nation.
A producer introduced me to both Schieffer and Rather in the greenroom before airtime. I told Rather I looked forward to his questions because I was a longtime fan. He thanked me, but his eyes showed scorn for what he undoubtedly thought was a cheap effort to ingratiate myself. Conservative Republicans had for years bashed Rather and other media liberals, so the last person from whom he expected a sincere compliment was a conservative congressman. Still, he looked surprised and mildly impressed when I told him, "When you were a young reporter, you were in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963. That must have been an incredible experience."
His countenance changed from disdain to quizzical. "How did you know that?" he asked.
"I heard your reporting from that day. Like I said, I've followed your career for decades." Since we had time before going on air, I asked him to tell me about Dallas.
"Kennedy was scheduled to make a five-city Texas trip," he told me. "CBS assigned me to head up their coverage of the visit. At the Dallas portion, I positioned myself at the very end of the motorcade. I stood just beyond the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza on the opposite side of an underpass. The motorcade would come down Elm Street, drive under the pass, and then head out to the Trade Mart for his speech.
"At 12:30, the motorcade turned onto Elm and started its approach to where I waited. It only had about forty yards to go until its end. Because of my location, I never heard any shots. The first sign I had that something was wrong was when Kennedy's limousine sped past me without any other cars behind it. It raced by so quickly that I wasn't even sure it was his car.
"Suddenly, there was confusion all around. I knew something bad had happened, but I didn't know what. I rushed back to the local CBS affiliate. When I got there, reports had come over the wire services of shots fired at the motorcade. We still had no information about whether anyone was hit.
"I knew Dallas, and I assumed that if any trouble had developed, they would take anyone injured to Parkland Hospital. I called Parkland on a hunch, and I got in my call before everyone else jammed up the switchboard. My source there told me that Kennedy died. I called the New York television studio with the news, but they refused to announce it on the air until the White House confirmed it. CBS Radio didn't wait for confirmation. They went live with me saying that the president died. The official White House announcement didn't come until later.
"I went back to the scene and learned that a guy at a local clothing store might have taken a movie of the shooting. I tracked down the photographer, Abraham Zapruder. Once he developed the film, he let me watch it just one time. The graphic nature stunned me. It showed the president's head explode upon impact from the final shot. Later, I gave an on-air verbal account of what I saw on the film during a live CBS broadcast. I contacted Zapruder again and tried to buy the film for CBS, but Life magazine had beaten us to it."
With that, Larry King's producer interrupted the discussion and escorted us into the studio.
A few days later, I sent a note to Rather and thanked him for sharing his memories of Dallas. I also wrote that I suspected my comment about being an old fan was cause for understandable cynicism, so I hoped to restore my credibility with an attachment: I enclosed a copy of the letter he wrote to me in August 1974 (when I was a teen) in which he thanked me for writing and expressing appreciation for his work at CBS.
A couple of weeks later, a large box arrived. Inside were autographed copies of every book Rather had authored, with each bearing a gracious inscription. He enclosed a letter thanking me for sending that old letter, along with a suggestion that we get together for coffee.
Once again, my boyhood hobby of collecting political memorabilia paid off a dividend in later life.
Texas Governor John B. Connally
Of all the people in the Dallas motorcade, I once met the man with whom I wanted to talk the most about that day. Unfortunately, our encounter was not under circumstances that allowed me to ask former Texas Governor John Connally about his recollections of riding with Kennedy in SS-100-X.
Born in Texas in 1917, Connally served in the Navy during World War II. Later, he obtained a law degree and became an aide to his longtime friend, Lyndon Johnson, during LBJ's congressional years. At Johnson's urging, Kennedy named Connally as secretary of the Navy in 1961, a position he held until he resigned the following year to run for Texas governor. He went on to win three consecutive terms in the statehouse, and in this capacity, he welcomed the Kennedys to his home state in November 1963.
When the presidential motorcade departed Love Field for downtown Dallas, Connally sat in the jump seat of SS-100-X directly in front of Kennedy. According to the official Warren Commission report, the assassin's second shot passed through Kennedy's neck and throat, and then it struck Connally's back, exited his chest, blew through his wrist, and then lodged in his thigh. Although seriously wounded in the shooting, Connally survived.
President Nixon named Connally (still a Democrat at that time) as his secretary of the Treasury in 1971. Sixteen months later, he resigned to head "Democrats for Nixon" for the Republican president's 1972 reelection campaign.
Three weeks before Election Day 1972, Connally came to San Francisco as a Nixon campaign surrogate. Along with two school friends, I waited outside KGO at dawn for him to arrive. The sun was just rising when a black stretch limousine pulled to the curb. We were his only welcoming committee when he exited the car.
Connally had a commanding, dignified presence. He was tall, with wavy white hair and a deep baritone voice. That he survived one of the most infamous crimes in American history added to his mystique. While shaking hands with the same man I had seen depicted in countless photographs seated with Kennedy in that blue Lincoln, I felt both awed and awkward. I wanted to ask about his experience on that fateful day, but when my opportunity arose, I fumbled about for a way to approach the sensitive subject. If I ask him about Dallas, will it upset him? Will it cause some traumatic reaction? I lost my nerve.
Connally stood on the sidewalk and signed autographs for us, which created for me an unexpected distraction. As his hand moved across our souvenirs, I stared at his wrist looking for the scars from the bullet's entrance and exit wounds. I couldn't see them, so subconsciously I started leaning closer and closer. While I fixated on his wrist trying to spot his gunshot scars, I noticed that his hand had stopped moving suddenly. A deep voice asked, "Is something wrong, son?"
I snapped back to consciousness with a start. Without realizing it, I had positioned my face about three inches from his hand! Now embarrassed, I glanced upward and saw Connally looking at me quizzically.
"Son? Are you okay?"
"Oh, I'm sorry governor, I was—I was—I was admiring your cufflinks! And I'm farsighted. I just wanted to get a good look at them. Boy, they sure are beauties."
"My wife gave them to me. I'll tell her you like them." He posed for a group picture, and then he disappeared inside the studio.
Damn! John Connally stood with me on a deserted street, but I was a kid and I lost my nerve. I never asked my questions. That was too bad because the opportunity never returned.
Although John Connally and I never met again, I still got to see in person the man in the jump seat, along with a very, very good look at a nice pair of cufflinks.
One Last Recollection
A final memory comes from the man whose photograph taken that day made headlines around the world. Although his image is seared into every memory of November 22, 1963, you won't recognize his name, but you know Clint Hill. At the first sound of gunfire, he was the Secret Service agent who jumped onto the rear of SS-100-X, pushed Mrs. Kennedy back into the car, and threw himself over the First Couple as the limousine sped to the hospital.
Born in 1932, the college athlete became a Secret Service agent in 1957 after a stint in Army intelligence. He served on President Dwight D. Eisenhower's protective detail and then, after Kennedy's election, the Service assigned him to guard First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. On November 22, 1963, as the motorcade neared the sniper's perch, he stood on the left running board of the Secret Service car trailing behind SS-100-X, which put him in direct line with Mrs. Kennedy's position in her car.
At the sound of the first shot, Hill jumped from the running board and sprinted to the presidential limousine. He put his foot on the rear bumper and grabbed the handrail to pull himself onto the car, but the limo driver accelerated rapidly. Hill almost fell off, but he managed to pull himself onto it in time to save Mrs. Kennedy, who had climbed onto the rear trunk to retrieve a section of her husband's skull. Hill shoved her back inside, and then he protected the Kennedys with his own body until they arrived at Parkland Hospital.
I never had the privilege of meeting Agent Hill, but we did correspond some years ago. After the fiftieth anniversary of Dallas, I wrote and asked him about that day. He responded with an amazing handwritten letter that described November 22, 1963 as a routine day for presidential travel. The crowds they encountered in Fort Worth, San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas remained large and enthusiastic.
As the motorcade turned into Dealey Plaza, he heard a gunshot and saw Kennedy react to it by grabbing his throat. Hill rushed toward the presidential limousine to protect the First Couple from additional fire. He added a final, brief sentence to this most painful recollection:
"I was too late."
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After thirty years at the helm of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Dave Powers retired in 1994. He died at age 85 of a heart attack on March 28, 1998.
Evelyn Lincoln, President Kennedy's personal secretary, died at age 85 of cancer on May 11, 1995.
Jack Valenti ran the MPAA for thirty-eight years until his retirement in 2004. He died at age 85 on April 26, 2007 of complications after suffering a stroke.
Richard Nixon hoped to make John Connally his new vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, but the Democrat-controlled Congress signaled it would not confirm the man who abandoned their Party to align himself with Nixon. In 1980, Connally ran for president as a Republican, but he garnered only one delegate to the national nominating convention. He died at age 76 on June 15, 1993 of pulmonary fibrosis.
Following Dallas, Clint Hill continued in the presidential protective detail. He went on to guard Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. The Secret Service promoted him to the position of assistant director before he retired in 1975.
After Kennedy's assassination, the FBI moved SS-100-X to the White House garage, where agents photographed the interior and searched it for evidence. It was cleaned, painted, and overhauled, and then it returned to presidential service. During the next fifteen years, it transported Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter before the government retired it from the fleet in 1977. The next year, it went on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where it remains to this day as one of the venue's most popular attractions.
 Two journalists that I had met in previous years, Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News and David Broder of the Washington Post, both had traveled in the Dallas motorcade press bus. I was unaware of this at the time that I met them, so I missed the opportunity of asking them about it.
 According to a schematic chart of the motorcade, both Jack Valenti and Evelyn Lincoln rode in the White House Official Party bus, which was twenty cars behind SS-100-X during the procession through downtown Dallas. See Todd Wayne Vaughan, Presidential Motorcade Schematic Listing, November 22, 1963, Dallas, Texas, vers. 9.00 (1993), www.jfk.hood.edu/Collection/Weisberg%20Subject%20Index%20Files/.../Item%2015.pdf, 34 (accessed July 15, 2019).
 The car in which Jim Wright rode in the Dallas motorcade was twelve cars behind SS-100-X. See Vaughan, Presidential Schematic, 21.
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