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The astonishing story of a cub reporter who was there on the day that the President died.
On November 22, 1963, the phone rang in the Dallas U.P.I. office. Wilborn Hampton, a cub reporter, answered and heard these words: "Three shots fired!" It was the voice of the U.P.I. White House reporter. The gunshots had been fired at President Kennedy—and young Hampton was the first to receive the news. This is his story, a riveting account of a young man swept into the white-hot core of ...
The astonishing story of a cub reporter who was there on the day that the President died.
On November 22, 1963, the phone rang in the Dallas U.P.I. office. Wilborn Hampton, a cub reporter, answered and heard these words: "Three shots fired!" It was the voice of the U.P.I. White House reporter. The gunshots had been fired at President Kennedy—and young Hampton was the first to receive the news. This is his story, a riveting account of a young man swept into the white-hot core of a tragedy that would shake the world. It is also a minute-by-minute chronicle of how reporters collected the facts of the major news story of the twentieth century. KENNEDY ASSASSINATED! will leave readers with an unforgettable sense of the shock, grief, and enduring loss that every American experienced that day.
Certainly I will never forget where I was that day. I was standing by the news desk in the Dallas office of United Press International, mostly trying to stay out of the way.
I had been working at U.P.I. for only two months. News agencies like U.P.I. and the Associated Press, U.P.I.’s chief rival, provide news stories to newspapers and television and radio stations. It was my first job after finishing the University of Texas in Austin that summer, and I was still learning the ropes.
It had been very hectic in the office for the previous two days. President John F. Kennedy was making a highly publicized trip to Texas, going to five cities and making a major speech in Dallas. The Presidential visit was what was called in those days a fence-mending trip. The Texas governor, John B. Connally, and the state’s senior senator, Ralph Yarborough, were involved in a political feud that even Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was also from Texas, couldn’t patch up. So Kennedy himself was coming to the state to try to reconcile them. Connally, Yarborough, and Johnson were all traveling with the President in a public display of unity.
Everybody in the Dallas office had been busy on the story. Everybody, that is, except me. Since I was the most inexperienced reporter on the staff, I did not have a lot to do with covering Kennedy’s trip. As a result, I had felt like a fifth wheel around the office since the President had arrived in Texas.
The only part I had played so far in covering the President’s visit was to take some dictation over the telephone the previous day from Merriman Smith, who was U.P.I.’s chief White House reporter. But that was about to change in the next couple of minutes. In fact, my whole life was about to change.
Merriman Smith was known to everyone by his nickname, Smitty, and he had been covering Presidents since Roosevelt. Since he was the senior White House reporter, Smitty always traveled with the President and always rode in the press car in Presidential motorcades, right next to the car phone, which was still a rare enough item to be considered modern technology. After taking the dictation from him, I gave Smitty’s notes to Preston McGraw, who was known as Mac, to turn into a news story.
Everyone else had worked late the previous night. But when I had asked Jack Fallon, the U.P.I. division news manager, if he wanted me to stay and help out too, he told me no, I could go on home. It was a disappointment to me.
So, there I was, standing by the news desk, while there was a lull in the Dallas office. President Kennedy had arrived at Love Field, the Dallas airport, on a five-minute flight from Fort Worth, and he was at that moment driving through downtown Dallas in a motorcade on his way to the Trade Mart, where he was to make his speech. Governor Connally was riding with him.
There had been a flurry of activity in the office with the President’s takeoff from Fort Worth, where he had spent the previous night, and his arrival in Dallas. Although Dallas was considered hostile political territory to Kennedy, a large crowd turned out to greet him at Love Field. Jackie Kennedy was given a bouquet of roses and both the President and the First Lady went over to shake hands with some of the people at the airport.
And all along the motorcade route through downtown Dallas, thousands of people lined the sidewalks along Main Street to see the President as he drove by. Smitty had even called in from the telephone in the press car to dictate a paragraph to Jack Fallon about how surprisingly large the crowds were.
But the office was quiet now, everyone relaxing for a few minutes until the President arrived at the Trade Mart, and the frenzy of covering an American President would resume.
So I was alone as I stood by the news desk that day. I was wondering whether I should offer to get sandwiches for the rest of the office from the diner across the street, and whether I would get to stay and help out that night when the President flew on to Austin, the last stop on his trip.
Suddenly the telephone rang. I picked up the receiver and answered, "U.P.I."
I immediately recognized Smitty’s voice from the day before. But this time Smitty was shouting.
"Bulletin precede!" Smitty yelled. "Three shots were fired at the motorcade!"
Kennedy Assasinated. Copyright (c) 1997 Wilborn Hampton. Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge,
Wilborn Hampton: Thank you. It's a real pleasure to be here and to take part in an online interview. Modern technology is really amazing. As I think back on how reporters had to fight for telephones on the day Kennedy was shot, it seems incredible to me that we can now answer questions from all around the country just sitting at a computer. I'm looking forward to talking to all those out there online.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Walt. Thanks for the question. It is a good one. To answer, I am first going to quote Chou En-lai, the late Chinese premier. Chou was once asked what impact the French Revolution had on history. Chou replied after a moment's thought, "I think it is too soon to tell." I think it is probably too soon to tell what impact the Kennedy assassination had on American history. More than the killing of Kennedy as a person, those shots in Dallas 34 years ago killed an ideal that we who were then fresh out of college had. In one flash of gunfire, the handsome and witty young man who was going to lead us into the last half of the century was taken from us. On a political level, his death probably made it easier for President Johnson to pass the important civil-rights legislation that followed and start his Great Society programs. So in many ways, the Kennedy assassination had a major impact on the legislation that followed his death. But it also made the nation a bit more cynical.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Max. It's very observant of you. As far as I know, the title was not an actual headline from that day 34 years ago. Or rather, "Kennedy Assassinated" was the headline in just about every newspaper in the world. "The World Mourns" was not, as far as I know, a subhead anywhere the next day, although it might have been. However, the editors at Candlewick Press whom I was working with decided to try to make it sound like a headline, and the idea of a news report permeated the design of the book by Ann Stott, who was the designer at Candlewick. So, you are right that it is intended to sound like a headline.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Jane. Thanks for your question. The idea behind the book came from an editor at Candlewick Press, who was looking to publish some nonfiction books for young readers written by people who had been firsthand witnesses. A mutual friend, Mary Pope Osborne, who is a children's book writer, told the editor at Candlewick about my involvement in covering the Kennedy assassination, and we went from there. The reason I wanted to write it for young adults was to try to explain to those who were not yet born when Kennedy was killed why that event more than almost any other in those decades was so important for us, to explain what it was like for those of us who were then young adults. However, a couple of reviews of the book have made note of the fact that parents and grandparents may want to get the book and read it before the youngsters. I am gratified that it seems to be finding an audience that ranges from young adults to grandparents.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Jack. Thanks for your question. As it happens, I didn't have to do hardly any research at all for the first draft of the book. For those of us old enough to remember, events of that day seem to have become etched in our memory. And, of course, being right in the middle of it, I can recall what happened that day more clearly than I can some things that happened last month or even last week. However, as it became clear that to have a complete account of that day, I would have to include a lot of material that I was not personally eyewitness to (for example, there is a chapter on what happened in Emergency Room One at Parkland Hospital, and no reporters were there), I had to research from books that were written later and included interviews with the doctors and nurses that were in the emergency room as the surgeons tried to save Kennedy's life. So the book went through a couple of rewrites to include extra material, and for that I had to do some research. Thanks again.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Shanna. Thanks for your question. After writing the first draft of the book, I met with the editors and the designer at Candlewick Press, and we started going through the archives of pictures from the weekend that Kennedy was assassinated. I had remembered some of the pictures from the time. A lot of pictures had been published over the years, and most of them were in either the old UPI archives, which are now owned by another photo agency, or the AP archives, or other newspaper morgues. Also, the Kennedy library had some photos. The designer and editor and I got together and decided which ones would best illustrate the chapters in the book. The designer (Ann Stott) did a great job of putting them all together. Some of them were harder. It took a while to find a picture of Tippit, the Dallas police officer that Oswald killed, and, strangely enough, Senator Yarborough of Texas. But the pictures in the book look great, and I'm grateful to Ann Stott for displaying them so well.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Frank. Thanks for your question. I should say up front that I've never subscribed to any of the conspiracy theories. I've always believed that events occurred pretty much the way the Dallas police pieced together those first couple of days and the Warren Commission concluded. A lot of people don't want to think that something so tragic and world-shattering as the Kennedy assassination could take place so randomly. But as Kennedy himself once noted, anyone can kill anybody else if he or she sets his or her mind to it. I did see Oswald several times the night of the assassination at the Dallas police station when they would bring him down from his cell to be interrogated in the Dallas homicide office. He was a very strange man who kept denying he had shot anybody and who kept saying things like "they are denying me my hygienic rights." Once he leaned over and whispered to a photographer next to me, "Call the ACLU. They are denying my rights." We will never know why, I guess, although I have my own theory. But as for a real conspiracy, it simply involves too many people and would have had to be arranged on very short notice since the map of the presidential motorcade was not known until the day before the shooting, and the decision to leave the bubble top off the president's car was not made until the morning the president was killed.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Harley, Thanks for your question. I mention in the book that covering the assassination made me decide to become a journalist and to try to become a foreign correspondent. There was something exhilarating about being right in the eye of such a tornado of history; [it] was both horrible and exciting. At any rate, I did go on to become a foreign correspondent, and I covered three different wars in the Middle East and a lot of other big Page 1 banner headline stories. But nothing ever came close to what I felt that day in Dallas 34 years ago, just two months out of college, on my first job. Thanks.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Rory. Thanks for you question, and I'm glad you like the book. When I picked up the phone in the UPI office that day and heard Merriman Smith shout that three shots had been fired at the motorcade, I couldn't at first believe it. I pretended I hadn't heard him and asked him to repeat it. I quite literally nearly dropped the phone. Later, at the Parkland Hospital, when they announced officially that he was dead, I raced down the corridor of the hospital to where I had tied up a phone. Even today, I can still remember my words when I phoned in the news. "My God, he's dead; he's really dead." I could scarcely believe it. Because of the crush of covering the news the rest of that day, it was several hours before the full impact hit me. As I left the hospital to go to the Dallas police station, it came over me like a thunderbolt. I stopped outside the hospital beside a giant live-oak tree on the front lawn and began to cry, muttering to myself again, "He's dead, he's really dead." But I had to keep working and after about two minutes, I wiped my eyes with my sleeve and ran to my car to drive to the police headquarters. I think I'll always remember everything about that day.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Grant, Thanks for the question. UPI and AP are what are known as news agencies or news services. They have reporters all over the world and they send news stories over the teletype wire (now over computers, of course) to newspapers. Some newspapers can't afford to keep full-time correspondents in New York and Washington or London or Tokyo or Moscow. So they subscribe (pay a monthly fee) to news agencies to cover those places for them. So, a paper like Baltimore would not necessarily have a reporter in, say, Dallas. Or possibly even one traveling with the president. They would then rely on UPI or the AP to cover any major news story that happened there. At the time of the assassination, UPI and AP were strong rivals, sometimes bitter rivals. Another news agency is Reuters, which is a British agency and over the past several years has become a major agency also in the United States. UPI has over the past dozen years or so become a less competitive agency. I left UPI about 17 or 18 years ago, and I now work at a newspaper in New York.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Bill. Thanks for your question. I hope young people will understand what Kennedy meant to us back in the early 1960s. There was always a lot of gossip about Kennedy over the years. But the special place he had for so many of us who were in college or just out of college in those years was not personal about Kennedy so much as about what he personified. As I talk to some groups of young people in connection with the book, I try to explain that we had just finished two wars -- World War II and Korea -- and completed eight years of the Eisenhower presidency (he was a great American and general, but a little dull). We were in the middle of what we now call the cold war; [people were] afraid there would be a nuclear war and were building fallout shelters in their backyards. Suddenly it was the 1960s, and this young handsome man was president; he was funny, told jokes, and seemed to symbolize a breath of fresh air in the country after a long winter of gloom. Then suddenly, in the flash of a gunshot, he was gone. It made us all a little more cynical, and the country has never fully regained the sense of hope that Kennedy gave us since.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Brendan. Thanks for your question. In preparing for some of the appearances I've made with groups of young people in connection with the book, I've tried to think of something comparable. Nothing readily springs to mind, but I had thought of the death of Princess Diana, and in fact, talking to some junior high students earlier today at a Barnes & Noble store here in New York, I asked them if they remembered where they were when they heard the news about Princess Diana. Most did. It's the only thing I can think of where if you ask someone if they remember what they were doing when they heard the news, they will be able to. The Kennedy assassination was like that for anyone old enough to remember. You can ask anyone where they were or what they were doing when they heard that news (that Kennedy had been shot) and they will be able to tell you, even 34 years later. For those a bit older, the Challenger disaster might be another such event. It's usually events that are not so much important historically but that are also emotional. It's a good question, and only time will tell for sure.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Llama. Thanks for your question. The competing reporters from the wire services were very aggressive in their race to get the news out to other newspapers. There's always a race to get news to people first, whether between TV stations or, for wire services, to their newspaper clients. In the book, I describe how the UPI White House reporter and the AP White House reporter got involved in a fight over the one telephone in the press car as the car was speeding along the freeway in Dallas. However, I don't think it compares to the paparazzi. They are competing to get the most exclusive photograph, the most revealing or unusual or bizarre picture that they can sell for the most money. The reporters covering the White House won't get more money for a story. It's just that the one who gets the story out first and with the best details will be the one more people read. So the competition is between one another, not so much against the subject himself or herself.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Michael. Thanks for your question. I thought about making a joke and saying we used tin cans and clothesline, but it's a very good question and one that comes up a lot when I talk to groups of young people about the book. In writing the book, I was aware I would have to explain why some of the communcations problems I faced covering the story were actually problems. For example, when two reporters in the press car got into a fistfight over the car telephone, it was because that was the only means of communication they had from the car. Today, of course, not only would all the reporters have their own cell phones, but they would probably have laptops with which they could write the story themselves right there in the car and send it to newspapers around the world. In those days, a car phone was modern technology. There was one in the car, and Merriman Smith (the UPI White House correspondent) had to use it to call the main UPI office, and we would write the story and send it on a teletype wire to newspapers around the country. At Parkland Hospital, reporters had to scramble to find telephones to call their newspapers. I managed to tie up one pay phone by having my office call me at the pay phone number, and as long as my colleague in the office didn't hang up, that phone was ours. Communications were about 90 percent of the game in those days.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Knight. Thanks for your question. I think I liked pretty much the same books every generation of kids like. I liked adventure stories (Robert Louis Stevenson, etc.), and later I grew to love mystery stories (Sherlock Holmes by A. Conan Doyle). I also liked Mark Twain. I guess English was my favorite subject because I loved to read stories. But I also liked figuring out problems in math and was interested in history and science (though I wasn't so good in science). It can all be very exciting when you find out what you really like to learn. Thanks for sending a question.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Steve. Thanks for your question. I hope you enjoy the book. I had told the story to friends several times at dinner parties or whatever about sort of being in the center of things that day, so when a friend mentioned that a publisher was looking for such stories, I thought that maybe I should try to write it down. However, I wasn't sure everyone would be as interested in it as my friends. I was glad to find out that some were interested, and I hope that it can convey to a whole new generation of readers for whom Kennedy is a figure from ancient history what that day meant to us who were then young and starting out in life.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Cindee. Thanks for your question and comment. It actually went pretty far. I learned later that because of the time differences in parts of the country, the report came just as afternoon papers in the Rocky Mountain time zone were putting their Extra! editions to press. I believe it was on the front page of the Denver newspaper and some others in that time zone. As I mentioned in the book, I was not told why I should find out where Lyndon Johnson was. I only learned later (it may have even been the next day) what had happened. It was a lesson I always remembered later in my career, though. That if I wasn't 100 percent sure of my information, not to file a story about it. It seems too many reporters are quick to report rumors as news in these days of modern communication. The story about Johnson simply got started because someone had seen him go into one of the emergency rooms and then didn't see him for a while afterward. It was because the Secret Service was guarding him so closely. But some reporter exercised his imagination a little too much and thought the vice-president had suffered a heart attack. Thanks again.
Wilborn Hampton: Hi, Gary. Thanks for the question. I'm not sure how The New York Times "touted" Posner's book. I presume through a review in The New York Times Book Review, since the news pages are not given to "touting" much of anything. If it was in the NYT Book Review, then it was the opinion of an independent reviewer. However, I must confess that I've not read Posner's book so can't comment on any of its specific contentions. My own dismissal of the conspiracy theories hinges primarily on common sense and logic and what I know about what happened that day (and the days just before the assassination). As for whom you should trust, I would always go with your own common sense and what seems reasonable. Thanks for joining us.
Wilborn Hampton: Once again, thanks to all of you for sending your questions. I've really enjoyed being able to chat with people from around the country and even overseas. It's astonishing to me to realize yet again how those shocking events 34 years ago still captivate our collective imagination.
Posted May 15, 2000
Kennedy Assassinated! The World Mourns. by Wilborn Hampton. This book is a reporter¿s account of the assassination of president Kennedy. The beginning of the story starts off in Dallas, Texas, where president Kennedy is going to make a major speech. This trip was for the purpose of improving relationships between members of the Texas political establishment. The mood of the story is one of hope and anticipation. The presidential motorcade was traveling throughout the streets of Dallas to the Trade Mart building for Kennedy to make his speech. Shots rang out and the whole perspective of the story was changed. Bill Hampton is a reporter who gives the behind the scenes look at how the press covered the shooting of the President. The major problem is the lack of information the reporters are receiving. Bill Hampton was a graduate of the University of Texas who then went on to work as a reporter for U.P.I and the Associated Press. He does a really good job telling the reader how the whole news team felt when they heard the news about the President being shot. It was an interesting look of a major tragedy from a reporter¿s point of view. I really don¿t think there are any flaws in this book, other than the main character talking to a lot of people which is hard to follow. I honestly don¿t like to read, but in this case this book caught my eye. When I first picked the book up I thought it was a story of how President Kennedy died. When I read the first page, I realized that it was told by a reporter who covered this story. This really changed the way I looked at this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.