In 1963 I was the night police reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the newspaper in the town where I grew up. I was 26 years old, made $115 a week, and worked the late shift: six o’clock in the evening to two-thirty in the morning. I hung out with cops, emergency-room nurses, barmaids, and other creatures of the night. Like most young reporters who covered crime, I considered myself a superb investigator, more cop than journalist. I wore a snap-brim hat, hoping I’d be mistaken for a detective, and when someone made that mistake, I never corrected him. The stories I covered were an endless series of car wrecks and murders, the hours were awful, and the pay was low, even by Texas-newspaper standards. I thought it was about the best job anyone could ever have.
But when I heard that President Kennedy was coming to Fort Worth, I wasn’t entirely happy about it. In those days presidents didn’t travel nearly as much as they do now, so it was big news for my hometown but bad news for me. The political reporters would handle Kennedy, and they would not need any help from me. For a reporter, there’s nothing worse than being in the middle of a big story that someone else is covering. I was more than a little irritated.
Kennedy and his entourage flew into Fort Worth late on a Thursday evening, and assignment or no, once we had put the paper to bed early Friday morning, I hustled over to the Press Club, which was open late to accommodate the traveling White House press corps. The party was well under way when I got there, around two in the morning, and for me this was as good as it got. There I was, chatting up reporters I had known only by their byline: Merriman Smith of United Press International, Tom Wicker of the New York Times, and a dozen more.
Kennedy had come to Texas to mend some fences in the Democratic party and to raise money for the 1964 campaign. After a speech in Houston, he had flown to Fort Worth to spend the night and attend a chamber of commerce breakfast before taking a ten-minute flight to Dallas for a parade and a luncheon speech. The tour was to end with a huge fundraising dinner in Austin. Governor John Connally had convinced Kennedy that only in Austin, the state capital, could you get people from the rest of the state to come to a fundraiser. People from Houston wouldn’t go to San Antonio for a fundraiser, Connally told Kennedy, and people from Fort Worth damn sure wouldn’t go to Dallas. He was right about that. When Amon Carter was running the Star-Telegram, he made a point of taking a sack lunch when he had business in Dallas, claiming he did not care for the city’s restaurants. Dallas repaid the courtesy when Fort Worth renamed an airport between the two cities Amon G. Carter Field. Dallas residents declined to use the airport, in large part because of the name, and it eventually failed.
The visiting reporters at the Press Club had no interest in our airports, of course. What they wanted to know about was a local after-hours joint called the Cellar. The Cellar had no liquor license, but if you were a friend of the owner, a former stock-car racer named Pat Kirkwood, the drink of choice, grapefruit juice spiked with grain alcohol, was on the house. It was not the drinks, however, but the fact that the Cellar’s waitresses wore only underwear that had given the place some notoriety, and the notoriety had apparently spread as far as Washington. Phil Record, the Star-Telegram’s night city editor, and I were appointed to guide our visitors there. It must have been quite an evening: I remember that we stayed long enough for some of the Easterners to see their first Fort Worth sunrise. A group of off-duty Secret Service agents had joined us, and in months to come there would be congressional hearings into whether the experience had left them as alert as they should have been in Dallas.
Having no assignment that day, I could afford to sleep late, which was my normal practice. My father had died when I was in college, so I still lived at my mother’s house, helping her make a home for my brother, Tom, and my sister, Sharon. Tom had been ten when Dad died and Sharon fifteen, but by the time Kennedy came to Texas, Tom was in high school, and it was he who shook me awake, shouting, “Kennedy has been shot! You’d better get to work!” Tom had been allowed to miss school that day, and he and Mother had driven into town early to see the president as he emerged from the breakfast. As Kennedy walked out of the Hotel Texas and toward his car, Tom was one of the last people in Fort Worth to shake his hand.
I dressed as quickly as I could, grabbed my black felt hat, and roared off in my Triumph. As I parked in the lot near the Star-Telegram office, the radio confirmed the worst: The president was dead. It was as if someone had hit me with a hammer. At once I was stunned, hurt, and embarrassed—stunned because such violence was unthinkable in those days, hurt and embarrassed because it had happened in my home state. Why did something like this have to happen, and why did it have to happen in Texas?
As I made my way inside the Star-Telegram building, lines of people two and three across were already surrounding it. The Kennedy assassination would be the first story that the entire nation would watch together on television, and because of it, television would soon replace newspapers as the way most Americans got their news. But when Kennedy was shot, people still really didn’t believe the news unless they saw it written