Cover Story

11/22/63: A day that changed America

COVER STORY: A young European journalist remembers the day of JFK's assassination, the odd fascination with finding "the real killer," and the loss of innocence that continues today

Issue: "The Kennedy Assassination," Nov. 22, 2003

Four decades after covering the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I have the uncanny feeling as if all this had happened yesterday. To be sure, my own pecking order of the main players in this extraordinary event has changed. In retrospect, the most disagreeable figure was Marguerite Oswald, the mother of Kennedy's assassin. Lee Harvey Oswald was barely buried when she tried to milk the press for money: "Boys, I am a businesswoman," the former nurse told reporters visiting her house in Fort Worth. "Your papers are making a lot of money out of this, so why should I be left out?"

On the other hand, Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade has since become my favorite figure in this affair, partly because this big cigar-chomping Texan became the "Wade" of Roe vs. Wade 10 years later, partly also because on the 20th anniversary of Kennedy's murder he informed me that he was busy evangelizing among the condemned. "Even though I can't save the body of these convicts many of whom I had sent to death row," he said, "I can still guide them to the faith that will save their souls."

Wade is dead now. But the stunning occurrence that gave him international prominence-he tried Lee Harvey Oswald's killer Jack Ruby-is still fresh in my memory. I was 27 years old then, a very young political correspondent in the New York office of Germany's Springer Foreign News Service; we reported for the newspapers and magazines of Europe's biggest publishing house.

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Like most people who were around then, I remember exactly where I was on that Friday, Nov. 22. It was my day off. I was in my apartment stretched out on my sofa, only half paying attention to the black-and-white TV set I kept running even when I was supposed to relax. Suddenly, I saw Walter Cronkite on the screen, tears in his eyes. He announced that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas and, later, that he had died in Parkland Memorial Hospital.

I realized that my colleagues in the office were already handling the running story; so I decided to do sidebars. I raced downstairs, hailed a cab and traveled past clusters of shocked New Yorkers holding portable radios to their ears. We rushed up to Harlem to gauge reaction in the black community. This was, after all, the era of the Civil Rights Movement, and Kennedy had been a hero to many African-Americans. They piled by the hundreds of thousands into their houses of worship. At Adam Clayton Powell's Abyssinian Baptist Church, the largest in the country, there was hardly standing room left. I shall never forget the intensity of the singing and wailing I heard in this magnificent sanctuary that afternoon.

I rushed to my office at Rockefeller Center, and then wrote and wrote until dawn. This was the time of Germany's economic miracle, and our newspapers found themselves swimming in hard Deutsche Marks. This explains a perplexing telex that came in just as we were about to go home for a nap. The message read, "Pack $100,000 into your suitcase at once, fly to Dallas, and find the real killer," signed ... , editor in chief of the largest mass-circulation paper on the Continent.

This made little sense to us and at any rate, where would you find $100,000 in New York at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning? But to Dallas I went, via Washington where Kennedy's coffin had just landed, followed with amazing swiftness by the world's leaders paying homage to the slain president. I remember talking at length with Berlin's governing mayor Willy Brandt, whose city had been divided two years before, only eight months after Kennedy had taken office. We reminisced about the president's visit to this former German capital, a status it has regained in 1990, and about Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech with which he had won every West German's heart.

I took a Braniff flight down to Dallas. While in the air, the pilot informed us of the next bizarre turn of events in that city: Jack Ruby, owner of a modest Dallas strip joint by the name of Carousel Burlesque, had just shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the city's police headquarters. Now I wished for a brief moment I'd had that $100,000 on me; this was too odd a story; there must have been some sort of a conspiracy. Perhaps money would help here. Or would it?

This was the assumption of most European reporters flooding into Dallas and creating havoc in the offices of the Dallas Morning News until the management of this hitherto hospitable newspaper kicked all of us out, lest we hindered its publication with our bodily presence. Speculation was rife. Surely, this must have been a vast right-wing conspiracy. It had just become fashionable for European journalists to take a slight left-wing turn, and hence it seemed highly unlikely that a Communist such as Oswald, a former resident of Minsk in the Soviet Union if you don't mind, could have been the sole culprit, perhaps sent by Fidel Castro or Nikita Khrushchev, two unsavory gentlemen Kennedy had just stared down a year earlier during the Cuban missile crisis (which, by the way, had brought me to the United States in the first place).

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