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Listening In: Cronkite, Lady Bird On The Death Of A President

CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite announces the death of President John F. Kennedy.
CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite announces the death of President John F. Kennedy.

The image of Walter Cronkite taking off his glasses as he announced President John F. Kennedy's death on Nov. 22, 1963, is one that seems seared into our collective memory — even for those of us who weren't around to see it live.

Nearly 40 years later, Cronkite revisited that moment and the rest of that unsettling day in a piece that aired on All Things Considered on Nov. 22, 2002.

Cronkite's story is one of the many that we're looking back on as we mark the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. You can listen to his recollections — and three other compelling pieces from the NPR archives — below.

Cronkite Remembers

In his piece, Cronkite explores the disorienting period immediately after the shots rang out in Dallas. Incredibly, six members of Kennedy's Cabinet, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, were aboard a jet on their way to Japan when the president was shot — meaning we have recordings of real-time updates from the White House Situation Room in the form of ground-to-air radio traffic.

Cronkite weaves together those tense updates with his behind-the-scenes insight into how the media — and through them, the public at large — learned about what happened on that fateful Friday.

"Those whose jobs often involve great emotional stress develop an amazing stoic power to defer emotion — a power that momentarily eluded me," Cronkite recalled in the 2002 piece. "None had it more than the men who had to give aircraft 972 the news."

If you can't listen now, tune in to All Things Considered on Friday, when the show plans to rebroadcast Cronkite's fascinating report.

Inside The Trauma Room

While Americans were waiting for news about the president's condition in front of television sets and in planes flying over the Pacific, doctors at Parkland Hospital were trying unsuccessfully to save his life. In 2003, reporter Sarah Richards captured the memories of two doctors in Dallas that day — Red Duke and Robert Grossman. Duke was among the doctors caring for Texas Gov. John Connally, who was shot but survived, while Grossman was part of the team treating the mortally wounded Kennedy.

"I'll die not understanding why people persist in such tragic, irrational behavior," Duke told Richards about the assassination. "It makes no sense to me."

Warning: Parts of this report may be disturbing to some listeners.

Lady Bird Johnson's Haunting Diary

As the wife of the vice president in November 1963, Lady Bird Johnson was part of Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas. In an audio diary she recorded two or three days later, the new first lady recalled the race to the hospital after the president was shot and her encounter with Jackie Kennedy in a hallway there.

As NPR's Debbie Elliott said when excerpts of the diary were broadcast on All Things Considered on Nov. 19, 2006, Johnson provides "a more intimate view of history."

1963: The Last Year When...

In a twist on the traditional anniversary story, All Things Considered decided in 1983 to look not at the assassination 20 years earlier, but at what came before. In ways both serious and tongue-in-cheek, the show, then hosted by Susan Stamberg and Noah Adams, explored an age that seemed long gone.

If you have thoughts about how the Kennedy assassination changed you — or the United States as a whole — NPR's Linton Weeks is collecting stories on The Protojournalist blog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Erica Ryan