Processing tragedy as a little girl: My case for JFK "griefporn"

The rebroadcast of assassination coverage taught lessons about journalism, politics, race and the country we became

Published November 25, 2013 5:51PM (EST)

St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C., during President John F. Kennedy's funeral, Nov. 25, 1963.     (AP)
St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C., during President John F. Kennedy's funeral, Nov. 25, 1963. (AP)

I learned how to spell “catafalque” 50 years ago this past weekend, as well as what it meant. “Catafalque: an ornamental structure sometimes used in funerals for the lying in state of the body.”

Also “cortege” and “caisson”; the heavy, foreign and eerily majestic words every American learned watching four days of network coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Since 1:30 on Friday I’ve watched as much as possible of the CBS “live” rebroadcast of that coverage. I’m addled by it, so bear with me. I wanted to know if I could grasp anything about how it felt to be 5, and learn the president had been assassinated in public, and to then spend three and a half days with my family watching all of the sorrow and horror and pageantry.  It opened a surreal window not just onto my family, but to American history, politics, journalism and race.

Just a few hours into that awful first day 50 years ago, CBS announced it would abandon its “entertainment” broadcasting through the weekend, and carry the news without commercials. At some point Saturday the new President Johnson made Monday a day of mourning, letting everyone off from work and school. That meant the CBS live feed is still going through this Monday, the day of Kennedy’s funeral Mass and burial at Arlington Cemetery. MSNBC posted its funeral coverage today, too.

Try to catch some of it. On Twitter someone trashed it as “baby boomer grief porn.” But I don’t think you had to live through it to get a lot out of it. From journalism to politics to gender and race, you see the way a modern country emerged out of loss.

* * *

The first thing that came back, oddly, was how much I liked the word “catafalque.” A precocious, parent-pleasing kindergartner, I was always asking about new words and how to spell them, then memorizing both immediately. CAT-a-falc. I remember asking my parents why it wasn’t pronounced ca-TALPH-a-cue, a combination of “catastrophe” and “barbecue.” I think I hoped my simple word questions could take their minds off the bad questions that were making my mother cry.

For me, watching the coverage felt like time travel, or finding an old home movie. Sometimes it was like my parents and grandmother and little brother were in the room with me; sense memories and memories beyond sense. I saw my mother in her tomboyish button-down shirt, a dull orange, brown and black, like November leaves underfoot. I’m not sure she changed all weekend. People smoked on television; people smoked in my house; it was hazy and claustrophobic and yet weirdly comforting, too. It’s the time of year when it starts getting dark abruptly early, scary-early.  That glowing box with the men talking quietly, where Walter Cronkite broke the news that the president died gently and, sadly, like a family friend, kept us company.

I don’t remember meals. I don’t remember going to Mass, although several Masses were televised that long weekend, which introduced the country to Catholic funeral pageantry. I remember going to bed later than my bedtime. Four days together in front of the television set was less a holiday than a convalescence, but I’m not sure we ever completely recovered.

The CBS rebroadcast didn’t reflect exactly what I experienced. We were a Huntley Brinkley family, so we were tuned to NBC. That also means we were among the millions who saw accused Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald shot, live, which only NBC broadcast at the time; CBS cut to the Dallas City Hall basement after the news of the shooting, and then quickly rebroadcast the murder, again and again.

Sometimes I resist our modern tendency to label so many of life’s unavoidable assaults a kind of trauma, but I found myself wondering: Are those of us who saw that on television PTSD victims? It reminded me that long before I tuned in to the wreckage of one World Trade Center building, only to witness the live destruction of the second, I’d experienced something similar but more intimate when Jack Ruby shot a bullet into Oswald’s stomach in 1963, while we were trying to learn more about the Technicolor assassination of the president. On Sunday, I knew it was coming and it was still awful.

Mostly what I saw Friday was shock and sorrow and people stepping up to what history handed them. The CBS broadcasters, even Walter Cronkite, didn’t entirely seem to know what they were doing, yet they also seemed to sense they were making history and changing broadcasting forever.

At times it feels more like playing journalism than journalism. Cronkite just talks; there’s no B roll to illustrate what he’s talking about. They don’t have IFBs in their ears; they get the news with a phone to the ear, or when someone hands them a piece of paper. There’s only paper; no prompter. No chit-chat between anchor and reporter. There are long periods of silence, as we watch people file past the president’s casket, or see the cortege creep from the White House to the Capitol and then back the next day. The silence may be inartful, accidental silence – they didn’t know they were supposed to fill the time with inane chatter! – but it feels intentional, and profound.

Sometimes frames of film roll by individually, and then roll back, like eyes rolling back in a head.

There’s so much wonderful Dan Rather, the Dallas reporter on scene, that it’s all the more outrageous that CBS left him out of its 50thanniversary commemorations. (This is the CBS of Lara Logan, not Walter Cronkite.) He’s boyish and tentative at the start; he grows into his role over the weekend. Talking about the crowd outside the hospital in Dallas, we hear an early Ratherism: “The butcher, the baker, the housewife, the candlestick maker, they’re all there …”

The other man who is clearly trying hard to step up is Lyndon Johnson. I’m ashamed now to remember how fully my parents disdained the cornpone interloper, that pretender to Kennedy’s role – and how quickly they tried to fight that feeling. My mother especially wanted us to know that you have to respect the presidency, not just the president. They warmed to Johnson over the weekend; they thought Kennedy would want them to. But at first it felt like he was moving to fill the president’s shoes too soon, which is of course ridiculous. He was doing what he was constitutionally required to do.

But watching now you sense that Johnson knows we all think he’s an imposter. Getting ready to deliver his first speech once the dead president’s plane touched down at Andrews Air Force Base that Friday night, he’s tentative. He puts his glasses on and off. He bobs and weaves before the microphones. Lady Bird moves up and then moves back, and then he brings her up next to him. It’s poignant, but it also feels like this is the insecure LBJ who couldn’t stand to be the guy who lost Kennedy’s war in Vietnam.

The new president speaks for just a minute; CBS can’t immediately get the sound right.  Harry Reasoner apologizes: the immediacy of live television, and its newness, means sometimes things don’t look or sound the way they should. He’s talking about the broadcast, of course, but he seems to be saying so much more.

* * *

The journalists and political aides and commentators and cops that weekend are almost uniformly white and male. If you see a woman, she’s probably present as somebody’s wife. But there are glimmers of the country we’re becoming.

Even Kennedy’s Catholicism is still a little exotic and unfamiliar, though the CBS newsmen treat it with respect. Robert Pierpoint, narrating the scene where Kennedy lay in state at the White House all that Saturday, explained that in addition to the catafalque, there was also a place to kneel beside the casket, so “occasional Catholic members of the president’s staff have a place to kneel and pray.” NBC adds a Catholic priest as a sort of color commentator to cover the funeral Mass.

We see the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall on an otherwise all-white-male panel discussion about where the country is headed in the post-Kennedy era. All weekend long, much is made of the fact that for the first time in history, a woman judge, Sarah T. Hughes, swore in the new president. Someone I didn’t recognize interviewed Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who shares stories of visiting Kennedy in the White House; his humor and his love of his family. Then the interviewer asks bizarrely: “There are those who say you did a lot to put him in the White House. Do you regret that in light of what happened?” King didn’t flinch; he was used to bizarre questions from white newsmen.

But if the panel discussions were white and male, the crowds that gathered outside Parkland Hospital in Dallas, and later outside the White House and inside the Rotunda to view Kennedy’s casket, were integrated. Late Sunday night I watched a young black boy, looking uneasy, mixed in between a white senior couple and two young white women, walking by the casket in the Rotunda, all paying their respects. Over and over, the visitors tell reporters, “It was the least I could do.” We all tried to do something.

All weekend long, the core questions about the nation’s future had to do with race and civil rights: Would Johnson continue what Kennedy had begun? There’s also an undercurrent of fear that JFK’s moves on race, however cautious and belated they seem now, somehow led to his murder. We are in the South, after all.  U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had recently been heckled and hit with a protest sign on a trip to Dallas. There had been some fear about the president’s visit, but it all went fine until it didn’t. A quarter of a million cheering people lined the motorcade route. Over that weekend Nellie Connolly, the wife of the Texas governor wounded in the attack, would tell reporters over and over that just before the shots rang out she’d said to Kennedy: “You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you, Mr. President.”

Of course most of the time the CBS anchors are quick to tamp down such speculation by repeating that the accused assassin, the scrawny, 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald, is a Communist and an “ultra leftist.” Reliving that weekend it was remarkable how quickly, even in modern broadcast’s infancy, CBS knew Oswald was a Communist who’d lived in Russia and worked with the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba committee. It’s still hard to believe that he was murdered in front of dozens of cops by a mob-friendly Jack Ruby. All of that could be true – 50 years later I know life can be just that random – but it’s clearer than ever to me why conspiracy theories persist.

This weekend I came to think that I’ve resisted delving into alternative theories about Kennedy’s assassination because it shattered my childhood; I don’t want to take the pieces apart. But watching this unfold again I felt angry that the U.S. government, and presidents from Johnson through Barack Obama, have resisted releasing the information, particularly CIA files pertaining to long-dead officials, that would let us know the truth.

* * *

Politics aside, the weekend marathon mostly brought back long ago lessons about family and grief. Sinking back into those sense-memories, I was surprised to discover that though they were not happy, they were weirdly comforting. It was my first death. We were suddenly vulnerable. My parents could die. (I don’t think would die was even a thought to me.) At 5 I think I saw Kennedy most clearly as a father, and the funeral as being about comforting children who’d lost theirs. My parents did what parents are supposed to do; they made it bearable.

Caroline Kennedy’s father left for work one morning and never came home. Weirdly, my father had quit drinking only the month before. There had been many nights waiting for him to come home; sometimes he just didn’t. But here he was: For four days straight my father was home with me, all because another little girl lost hers. The experience pulled my family together again; only this weekend I realized my sister was born almost exactly nine months later. Go figure.

To this day, though, I’m ambivalent about the way spectacle got us through. The catafalque, the caisson, the cortege, all carried us across the chasm of grief.  We all remember Jackie Kennedy modeling courage, yet vulnerable and fragile with her tiny children. The symbolic riderless horse, which bridled and bucked the whole way from the White House to the Capitol, looked lonely. “That horse showed as much spirit yesterday as John Kennedy in life,” Walter Cronkite mused the day of the funeral. But 50 years later it looked to me as if it was refusing to play its soothing, ceremonial role, and wanted to remind us that something was very wrong. On NBC someone got closer to the truth: “That riderless horse is still bucking, protesting what it has to do.”

Likewise little John Kennedy, who turned 3 that Monday, wouldn’t always play along either. He sometimes mugged and smiled for the camera; Cronkite tells us that the child complained he had nobody to play with the day after his father died. I think I felt then, and know I feel now, a mixture of admiration and revulsion at the salute forced by his mother that final day. What a brave little soldier. Except he was not a little soldier, he was a toddler who had lost his father. That Kennedy way of grief became familiar to me, and I later shook it off as uniquely and dysfunctionally Irish (though they were lace curtain Irish and we were decidedly not, and Jackie Bouvier was of French descent anyway).

By Monday I've realized I’m ambivalent not only about the stoic Kennedy way of grief, but about all the comfort our communal grieving gave us 50 years ago. On the fourth day of coverage you can watch the networks grow into their role as soother and explainer of tragedy; how quickly it turns into filling uncomfortable silence with platitudes. As the cortege rolls back to the White House the correspondents are talking more than they did along the same route even 24 hours earlier.

I found myself missing the amateurishness of Friday’s coverage, when Walter Cronkite on CBS and Frank McGee on NBC appeared comfortable with their inexperience, because who could expect to have experience with covering global tragedy on live television? Now, of course, we’re all very good at it. As a culture, we’ve learned to do spectacle too well; making real sense of loss and tragedy, less so.

By Joan Walsh