Dan Rather, a young reporter for CBS News, was the first to report that President John F. Kennedy was dead.
Not waiting for the official announcement, Rather said he had collected enough information from a hospital official, a doctor and a priest to convince himself that Kennedy was dead.
“If I were working the police beat, I would conclude that what we have is a dead man,” Rather said. “So when New York asked me over an open line, what’s the situation, I said, ‘he’s dead.’ And the next thing you know, the radio is playing the Star Spangled Banner and announcing the president was dead and said I had said so.”
Talking on the National Press Club’s “The Kalb Report” through the prism of a half-century since President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, two veteran CBS correspondents who were reporting that day – Rather in Dallas and Marvin Kalb in Washington – examined what happened that day and its impact on the nation.
The program, which took place on Nov. 22, the actual anniversary of the assassination, was co-sponsored by University of Maryland University College, and attracted an audience of nearly 500 people, including UMUC President Javier Miyares and Provost Marie Cini.
Kalb noted that while CBS Radio News ran with Rather’s report, CBS Television News and Walter Cronkite waited 12 or 15 minutes for the official report before announcing it to the nation.
“It took an enormous amount of guts on your part,” Kalb said. “I would have been terrified, scared to death to put out a report that the president of the United States was dead unless I was absolutely certain.”
Rather replied, “You would not have had time to be terrified. When you’re a pro, when the emotional earthquake happens, or the sledgehammer hits your heart, your reportorial instincts kick in. You’re not thinking about your emotions. You’re not thinking about what the consequences would be. I never had any doubt.”
Kalb said he was reporting from the State Department when he heard the radio report that the president was dead.
“I remember the way it hit me,” he said. “This sledgehammer emotionally. I was not sure I could go on the air at that time. What I did, I walked around the State Department, maybe twice. It took 10 minutes plus before I was composed enough to get on the air. You had a professional responsibility to tell people what you knew.”
Despite all of the books, movies and television shows that have conjured conspiracy theories about the assassination, both Rather and Kalb believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
“No one has convinced me there was a conspiracy,” Rather said. “This is America. We love to doubt as well as to know. My own belief is that beyond a reasonable doubt, there was one shooter and one gun. I think Lee Harvey Oswald was the shooter.”
But what was the first thought that popped in your mind when Jack Ruby shot Oswald? Kalb asked.
“Incredible, almost unbelievable that the assassin has been assassinated in the police department; you couldn’t make this up,” Rather said. “I understand the doubts about Ruby. He was a local nightclub operator known to police. He had some Mafia connections.
“But if the Mafia were looking for a hit man, I would suggest that Ruby would be one of the last people,” he said. “But there are hundreds of books that take a different view.”
Kalb said that as the CBS diplomatic correspondent, he was amazed by the wealth of information about Oswald that was released on the afternoon of the shooting. Oswald had been in the Soviet Union, he returned with a Russian wife and child. He might have visited the Soviet embassy in Mexico City.
“So if you were sitting there as the CBS diplomatic correspondent, and our bureau chief says to you, ‘what is the foreign angle?’ The circumstantial evidence certainly pointed to the Russians, who Kennedy had bested the year before in the Cuban missile crisis,” Kalb said. “But there was no evidence.”
Added Rather, “My guess is 50 or 500 years from now, if anyone discusses the Kennedy assassination, they will be having a discussion just like we have now.”
What would have happened if Kennedy had not been assassination but re-elected in 1964?
Rather said it was not certain Kennedy would have been re-elected, and if he had, Rather doubted that the civil rights legislation passed during the Johnson administration would have made it through in a Kennedy administration.
“For not one minute do I believe Kennedy would have pulled forces out of Vietnam,” Kalb said, “because deep down, Kennedy was in his foreign policy, anti-communist, anti-Soviet. He would not have wanted on his tour of duty to have the record say that under Jack Kennedy South Vietnam fell to the communists.”
The “Kalb Report” is a joint project of the National Press Club’s Journalism Institute, University of Maryland University College, George Washington University, Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, and University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
It is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.