One Perspective: Learning to work in a damaged world

 C. Fraser Smith, The Daily Record Newswire

My first real newspaper story would be a presidential assassination: total immersion with all the drama of deadlines and death. Editors at The Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J., sent me out to ask people how John F. Kennedy’s death affected them personally.

Late the next day, I headed for Washington.

There would be a public wake at the Capitol. I wanted to be there. Kennedy had seemed to embody the promise of a new day. Not Camelot, which struck me then as an ex post facto dream constructed on the spot. Not that. Instead, a new day in which authority obeyed automatically would fade quickly away.

I remembered the hatless Kennedy’s inauguration, his bearing, his sharp profile in the bright, frigid air, the angular force of his words.

I remembered 87-year-old Robert Frost, seeming confused as he stood to read his inaugural poem. Later, I learned Frost had been blinded by the sun and then stymied by a stalled teleprompter.

His effort, titled “Dedication,” seemed rambling and unfocused, dashed off on deadline. Its last words, though, were to be more poignant later: Kennedy’s election, Frost said, promised:

“… A golden age of poetry and power

Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.”

Not even an hour. What kind of country was I living in? Why hadn’t I noticed how much violence there was in the world?

I described my trip to Washington to a few of my friends in the newsroom on Monday morning. Ron Semple, the city editor, overheard.

“You ought to write something,” he said.

Write something? For the newspaper? I was the newest kid on the block, brand new to the paper. I had never written anything more than a “short” or a feature about the last 15-cent haircut. And now it was suggested I might write something about the death of a president?

Part of me, most of me, was living life outside my job, way outside. The two were separate and distinct. I went to Washington as a mourner, as a private citizen, not as a reporter. (This would change, of course. Life and work would merge.)

I wrote what I remembered.

I stood in a line that ended, by the time I got to Union Station, at Lincoln Park several miles east of the Capitol. It was after midnight. People walked slowly and, for the most part, silently for the next five or six hours, moving through the Hill neighborhood’s dark, flag- and already crepe-shrouded houses. A few people came out their front doors and onto the sidewalk to join us.

We reached the Capitol grounds about 6:30 a.m., the sun rising behind us. We climbed the expanse of white marble steps.

Had a president of the United States really been assassinated? It must be so. I looked around the grounds still wrapped in dark shadows, hoping for some orientation, some image I recognized. Where had Kennedy taken the oath? Where had Frost tried to read his poem? Oh, yes, it was on the west front of the building, a lifetime away from that morning with its message of death now confronting us.

And then there was a brief moment of communion with a flag-covered coffin. (I had been to funerals infrequently: when my father died at 52 and later when a friend from high school was killed in car crash. I had not gone to wakes or funerals in the small North Carolina town where I grew up. But I had no sense of how people acted at such public events — certainly when presidents were the deceased. I had gone because I thought I should go as an American who could get there with ease.)

The casket stood in the center of the grand Capitol Rotunda. An honor guard, its members representing the various armed forces, was as lifeless seeming as the body it guarded. They stood at attention, perfect mimes with rifles pointed toward the great dome. There was an almost frightening stillness. Along with my growing acceptance of what had happened, I kept expecting some movement. There was nothing. Only silent solemnity. There was no easing the reality.

The people walked by slowly, passing within a car’s length of a promise that could not be kept. This was not a movie, not a play, not some painful bit of fiction. There was sobbing, heart-crossing, blown kisses.

And then we were gone each in turn, passing back into a damaged world.

The reality of what had happened hung in the air to be grieved over and assessed.

My piece did not run. I had not spoken to anyone in the long line of mourners, a fatal lapse in City Editor Semple’s mind. I hadn’t interviewed anyone, I told him, because I didn’t think I was working.

“You’re always working,” he said.

Silly me.


C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM.