TV relives the day JFK died. CBS special is also a landmark in the annals of TV journalism
New York — Four Days in November: The Assassination of President Kennedy CBS, tomorrow, 9-11 p.m. Anchor: Dan Rather. Executive producer: Perry Wolff. Many observers believe that television came of age in 1963, with coverage of the John F. Kennedy assassination and its aftermath.
Now, as a sort of climax to various programs marking the 25th anniversary of that event - some tasteful and others sleazy - CBS is presenting its commemoration.
The program is made up of highlights from the network's 53 hours of reporting. It all adds up to a fitting tribute to JFK and to the overwhelming and riveting competence of CBS News, as it reported the events with taste and reverence and without any vestiges of crass commercialism.
Under the skillful hands of veteran producer Perry Wolff, the anniversary program gets off to a startling beginning, with the announcement by Walter Cronkite that interrupted broadcast of ``As the World Turns'' on the day of the shooting:
``Here is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded....''
Then it proceeds to correspondent Dan Rather's confirmation of Kennedy's death, the return of his body to Washington, D.C., the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, reactions of world leaders to the loss of a president, and scenes of many of them marching in the funeral.
Just about every heartbreaking memory is recaptured, including footage of the assassination, which was not shown on CBS at the time, and the haunting figure of Jacqueline Kennedy with young John and Caroline at the funeral. There's also footage of happier times in a biography of JFK organized quickly by CBS after the shooting.
Young Dan Rather was serving as Dallas correspondent for CBS in 1963; the contrast between his callow competence then and the mature sagacity projected by Mr. Rather today is striking.
Also included are original reports by then-anchor Cronkite and by Harry Reasoner, Charles Collingwood, Roger Mudd, and others.
After the funeral footage airs on this special, Rather brings the story up to date, tracing the lives of the central figures in the national tragedy. Then he concludes with an upbeat observation about the fifth day, ``a day we haven't shown.''
``On Tuesday, America went back to work,'' Rather observes. ``The Constitution of the United States provides for the orderly transition of the presidency, and that's what took place. So, it is Tuesday I often think of. Two hundred million people went about their business, and America continued on course.''
Speaking with the press last week over breakfast at New York's 21 Club, Rather said, ``The Kennedy assassination was the greatest mystery and the greatest tragedy of the American century. Ritual, as we know from Joseph Campbell, is a very important part of bonding. ... The assassination of Kennedy and the four days in November represent one of this nation's greatest bonding rituals....
As for what the makers of the program hope to accomplish, Rather noted that ``our median age'' in the United States ``is now 30; so many TV viewers were either not yet born or were too young to remember'' the events surrounding the assassination. ``Our goal was to put together a museum piece, something which somebody 200 years from now can look at and know what it was like.''
At the time of the assassination, Rather was a two-year veteran of CBS News, which was in the process of combining its Atlanta and Dallas bureaus into one New Orleans bureau. He quickly dropped his managerial duties and took to the air to report the happenings.
``You can see some very interesting signs of the times if you examine the footage closely now,'' Rather says. ``The police cordoned off the area after the Oswald assassination, and there is one scene in which a reporter with a camera says, `Joe, please move,' to a policeman who is blocking his view. In those days, reporters and policemen saw themselves as brothers. It was later that they became angry brothers.
``And if you look closely at the remote from the Trade Mart, it is the black waiters who early on knew what happened and stood there with their handkerchiefs to their eyes. By 1963, President Kennedy was seen, after Martin Luther King, as the emerging champion of civil rights.''
Rather is one of the people who believes TV journalism did come of age in 1963. ``Before that time, most people didn't regard TV journalism as real journalism; ... even the people in it had inferiority complexes about their role in news. But we - and the country - found out that we could do real hard reporting, that we were as good as anybody practicing journalism. That day the standard went up and never came down.''
Rather is proud that his country was able to transfer power so smoothly to the new President. ``The world admired us more at that moment than at any time other than the American Revolution or at the conclusion of World War II,'' says Rather. ``We took this kind of tragedy and didn't miss a step in the transfer of power under the worst circumstances.''
Since network TV has become much more cost-conscious today than in 1963, one wonders how present-day CBS would cover such an event. Twenty-five years ago, the network canceled four whole days' worth of commercials, and all regular programming. At night, symphony orchestras played classical music. As we finish breakfast, I ask Rather if CBS would cancel all commercial programming now.
He ponders the question. ``It would - for something like this,'' he says. ``Don't forget, it was a TV-wide action in 1963. However, the spectrum is so much wider now - with cable and so many independent stations - I'm not sure everybody would do it. But certainly the three commercial networks would.''
And with our newly elected vice-president-elect, could we count on as smooth a transition?
Rather refuses to be drawn into controversy. ``Check, please!'' he calls, smiling, to a nonexistent waiter, as he stands up to leave.
``Four Days in November'' is a timely reminder of how America survives tragedy. It is loaded with violence and the effects of violence, but it is also a record of how the American people - including the CBS crews - managed to bear the sadness with dignity and to carry on.