The Man Who Was There
For fifty years, Hugh Aynesworth’s role has been simple: to tell it like he saw it.
Jake Silverstein: You have the distinction of being the only reporter who was there when President Kennedy was shot, when Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested, and then when Oswald was shot. How did that happen?
Hugh Aynesworth: I was the aviation and space editor at the time at the Dallas Morning News, and I didn’t have an assignment that day. I was drinking coffee with several of the reporters, commiserating over that horrible ad that the News had run that morning.
JS: You mean the infamous full-page ad attacking Kennedy that H. L. Hunt paid for?
HA: Well, it was his son Bunker who paid for most of it. But it was that crowd. They hated Kennedy, and they let everyone know about it. So we had some anticipation beforehand. We thought something embarrassing might happen. Around eleven o’clock, I decided to walk over and see the motorcade for myself. I ended up at the corner of Houston and Elm streets, and I was standing there when the motorcade came along. People were so excited. They were ecstatic. Everybody was saying, “Look how pretty Jackie is!” There was a black woman right behind me who shouted, “Oh, she’s wearing my dress! Lookee there!”
JS: The same dress?
HA: It was a similar color. The mood was just wonderful. I thought, “Boy, we just worried for nothing. This is going off so perfect.” And then I heard a shot. And a second, and a third. I knew it was the whine of a rifle even though I’m not a shooter. And then we didn’t know what to do. People went crazy.
JS: How long did it take for your journalistic instincts to kick in?
HA: Not very long. I saw a man right across from me sitting on a parapet, and he was gesturing at the [book depository] window. “Up there,” he said. “I saw him. I saw him.” I ran to him and tried to interview him, but when he found out I was a reporter, he got scared to death and asked two cops to take me away. I ended up at the depository building, where I heard the police radio report come in about Officer [J. D.] Tippit being shot in Oak Cliff. I thought, “Somebody shoots at the president here, and somebody shoots at a cop three or four miles away? It’s got to be connected.” I didn’t have a way to get over to Oak Cliff, but I saw two Channel 8 guys with a mobile unit, so I told one of them how the cop had been killed, and he said, “Get in.” We drove like mad men.
JS: And at that point, was it just bedlam on the streets?
HA: Oh, yes, it was. We went on to Oak Cliff and interviewed all the people there who had seen the shooter of the cop. There were six or eight good witnesses.
JS: So that’s how you got to the theater where they finally arrested Oswald?
HA: I heard that on a police radio, that there was a suspect in the Texas Theatre. So I ran like the devil. As I got up to the theater, I saw this woman crying, and she kept saying, “He’s in there. He’s in there.” And so I go in the theater. There were only maybe fourteen people in there. A couple of them were in police uniforms, coming up the two aisles, stopping people, frisking them. They finally got to Oswald, and they later told me he said, “Well, it’s all over now.” I couldn’t hear that, since I was probably fifteen feet away, but I saw them jump on him. It was pretty wild that whole weekend.
JS: You were undergoing a rapid transformation that weekend from an aviation reporter to a Kennedy assassination specialist. Generally speaking, how do you rate the job the press did in the days and weeks afterward?
HA: I think under the circumstances they did a pretty good job. If there’s any blame to be had, it’s on the officials of all the agencies, because they weren’t prepared for anything of this magnitude and they made very dire mistakes along the way. Public people, like the district attorney, the sheriff, the police chief, even J. Edgar Hoover, made terribly wrong statements. In the hours afterward, Hoover was trying to keep LBJ apprised of everything, and at one point, Johnson asked him, “How’d he kill the cop?” And Hoover said, “Well, he was coming out of the depository building and he ran into the cop and he killed him, and then he ran off to Oak Cliff.”
Or when they found the rifle, some county official said, “Hey, that looks like a Mauser.” Well, several press people heard him say Mauser, and it was reported it was a Mauser. Then later, we found out it was a Mannlicher-Carcano.
JS: Did you have a sense right away that the effort to separate fact from fabrication would become your life’s work?
HA: Oh, no. Of course not. I probably would have run from the scene.
JS: That night you met your first conspiracy theorist.
HA: He was sitting on my doorstep when I got home. He was a pitiful soul. He looked like a homeless person. He was blaming it on H. L. Hunt and some of the big industry people in town.
JS: You know, today only 24 percent of people believe that Oswald acted alone. Does that depress you?
HA: I don’t know that I’m depressed about it. We all love a mystery, and there have been so many people trying to make their careers out of it. It’s not surprising to me, really.
JS: Are there still questions that you haven’t been able to answer to your satisfaction about the assassination?
HA: You know, when we found out Oswald had been a defector to Russia—there had been very few at the time, and surely none of them were allowed to come home with a Russian wife. I wondered, how did he get the money? How did he do it? It took me several days to find out that his brother Robert had sent several hundred dollars. So that sort of satisfied me on that. There were other things that came up too, until I got ahold of the diary and saw some of the explanations in there. I’d hesitated to think he acted alone before that, but I haven’t since.
JS: You’re referring to Oswald’s personal diary, which you obtained.
HA: Yes, the diary was a big embarrassment for the FBI because they didn’t have any idea where I got it, and they still don’t.
JS: You’ve never revealed your source on that, correct?
HA: I have never revealed that, because it would have caused somebody, maybe more than one person, to lose their job. They just wanted the truth to come out.
JS: Do you have plans to ever reveal your source on that?
HA: No, I don’t.
JS: So on the fiftieth anniversary, you have no unanswered questions?
HA: Oh, I wouldn’t say that. I keep telling people that if you want to believe in a conspiracy, let’s look for it. Show me some fact of some kind.
JS: You do realize that when this article goes online, the comments thread is going to be full of people trying to do just that?
HA: Well, probably so. I’m sort of used to that.
JS: The characters involved in the assassination story are just incredible. From Oswald to Jack Ruby to Kennedy to Oswald’s mother—even people like Stanley Marcus. After fifty years of living with this story and working on it, who’s the character who remains the most compelling and interesting to you?
HA: Robert Oswald, Lee’s brother. He lives in Wichita Falls. He has always thought or known that his brother did it, and he’s raised two children that took some heat in school. I still stay in touch with him. He’s a fine fellow.