Posted: 9:46 pm Thursday, November 21st, 2013
By Jamie Dupree
Fifty years ago, it was just another Friday. On November 22, 1963, my father had walked the one block home from his job on Capitol Hill to eat lunch with my mother, who was just days away from giving birth to her first child.
After having his lunch, my dad was enjoying a little down time on the couch, listening to the radio. That’s when the news arrived from Dallas, Texas.
“KENNEDY SERIOUSLY WOUNDED PERHAPS SERIOUSLY PERHAPS FATALLY BY ASSASSINS BULLET,” read the bulletin on the UPI wire that was quoted by newscasters around the nation.
As soon as he heard the report, my father bolted out the door, running down C Street, S.E. to the Cannon House Office Building, where he worked for a member of Congress from Illinois.
“We heard the news on the radio. It was all horrible news,” my mother remembered. “Jim quickly went back to the office.”
As my dad rushed towards the Cannon building, a cab pulled up with Ted Henshaw, a future Clerk of the House, and my father’s friend and drinking buddy, John Mahoney, who worked with Henshaw at the Democratic National Congressional Committee.
“As we were walking up the steps to the building, your father came running down the street and he said to me – and I will never forget,” Mahoney said – ‘The president has been shot, perhaps fatally!’”
Back then, there weren’t walls of televisions in every office. But in Mahoney’s office, there was a teletype machine that brought in news from around the world.
“We all tore into the office of course and sure enough, there it was – Merriman Smith had filed a story for UPI,” said Mahoney.
“We literally tore the subsequent bulletins off the tape before they made it on the air,” my father said.
Like news of Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks, November 22, 1963 was seared on the memory of many of my father’s fellow aides on Capitol Hill.
“I was in the cafeteria having lunch and someone ran in and said, “The President’s been shot!” and all hell broke loose,” said Abe Boni, a longtime friend of my parents.
“I jumped up out of my chair – I don’t know where the hell I thought I was going – but I jumped up,” Boni said many years later, like it was yesterday.
When the news broke, Roll Call newspaper founder Sid Yudain was downtown at the time, in a most peculiar place for any reporter.
“I was in the ladies room at the Meridian Hill Hotel, which was the hotel for girls at that time,” said Yudain, who had been out to lunch with the hotel owner, a real estate mogul who ran ads in Roll Call.
There was no men’s room, so the manager took him to the ladies room and locked the door.
“The next thing I know, his name was Goldberg (the manager), and he came in banging on the door and said, ‘You better get out of there! JFK has just been shot!’”
Yudain scrambled back to Capitol Hill, stopping first for a drink and to watch the television at the 116 Club, a local political watering hole on the Senate side that most people probably still don’t know even exists.
“Then I went to (Speaker) McCormack’s office,” said Yudain, but staffers would not let him in at first because of stepped up security for the Speaker in the aftermath of the assassination.
Earlier, one of Yudain’s reporters had found the Speaker – standing by himself – in the House Press Gallery, doing the same thing my father was doing across the street, reading the reports coming in on the newspaper wire machine.
But things didn’t stay calm for long for the Speaker, or the Congress.
“I remember the state of panic,” said Mahoney, who also was drawn to the Capitol in the immediate aftermath of the news.
“I saw the Secret Service flooding the Hill and they came to get Speaker McCormack,” said Mahoney.
“I saw him, he was absolutely ashen, I mean he was white panic in his face, and I will never forget that. It left me cold.”
“This was Mr. Confidence, he ran the House like some piece of machinery and all of a sudden there he was in the arms of the Secret Service,” said Mahoney.
The view from outside the U.S. was also interesting, and that came in a late 1963 letter to my father from his college friend Larry Russell, who recounted what it was like to get the news overseas.
Russell was working at the U.S. Embassy in Algeria, where he worked for the State Department as a top aide to Ambassador William J. Porter.
“I can add nothing to what your own thoughts and reactions must have been and will not try. In the cold, bleak dawn of another day, however, you might be interested in knowing what this sort of thing does to a small segment of the President’s staff overseas.
I was attending a cocktail party for Walter Reuther at the Ambassador’s residence when the U.P.I. called to give the old man (the Ambassador) the news of the attempt. He took it rather calmly, came back to the main room and announced it to us all, and the party went on. The Ambassador then excused himself and went upstairs to turn on his radio (he is a HAM operator), dragging me along with him. He tuned in on a broadcast direct from the States, left me to listen and returned to his guests.
It was thus that I had the very unfortunate job of bringing the final news to the old man. They were fairly good friends, the Porters hailing from Massachusetts and having a summer home very near that of the Kennedys, and the Ambassador took it like a blow to the stomach. He then had to announce the news to his guests, and the party broke up. Then the Ambassador wept. That was certainly my most difficult moment.
You can’t imagine what Kennedy meant to the career Foreign Service officer, particularly the men like Bill Porter who knew him personally.
To my father, it was obvious what Kennedy meant. Years later, there were still pictures of Kennedy in my dad’s office.
In a note to his friends three years ago, it was clear there was still pain.
“The effect on this still somewhat idealistic Congressional aide who had been privileged to know and work with some of the top Kennedy people, was devastating,” my father wrote; “things never seemed to have that same brightness and élan again.”
The next few days after Kennedy was assassinated, hundreds of thousands converged on the U.S. Capitol to pay their respects, as they filed through the Rotunda in the bitter November cold.
“I wanted to go there, but Jim wouldn’t let me stand in the cold,” my mother remembered years later, noting that she was days away from giving birth.
“It was a horrible time for everyone,” she said.
Writing this story in recent days also brought a realization of a different kind, as several of the people I had gathered quotes from about what happened on November 22, 1963 – aren’t around anymore.
Our family friend John Mahoney died a year ago this weekend, my mother died back in August, and Roll Call founder Sid Yudain passed away in late October.
This past week, another friend of my parents from their Capitol Hill days died, Jean Gilligan, who had been my mother’s first roommate here in Washington, D.C. in 1959.
A staunch Republican from South Dakota, Gilligan came to Washington first to work for her uncle, GOP Rep. Gardner Withrow of Wisconsin.
Soon after my mother arrived in Washington to work for Rep. Keith Thomson (R-WY), a common friend introduced her to Jean as they were grabbing lunch in the Longworth cafeteria; “Hey, you ought to meet this girl from Wyoming.”
Gilligan was the perfect partner in crime for my parents, Mahoney, Yudain and many others, as they enjoyed years of parties with their Capitol Hill friends – Gilligan could knock down a Carling Black Label faster than most of the men in the halls of Congress, and later in life she often went golfing and bowling with me and my parents.
As the priest noted at Gilligan’s funeral earlier this week, most people who work here refer to it as “The Hill” – and it is certainly a community for those who work in the Congress.
Evidence of that was on display at Gilligan’s wake, as former House Minority Leader, Rep. Bob Michel (R-IL) dropped by – Michel turned 90 years old earlier this year.
It was another glimpse back in time on Capitol Hill this week for my family. Thankfully, most days were better than November 22, 1963.