Sunday, November 11, 2012
“Oswald Has Been Shot” talk provided rare insight into Dallas’ darkest weekend
That's all stunned reporters could say: Oswald has been shot.
DALLAS The world will only ever know one Jim Leavelle, and that is precisely why the Sixth Floor Museum’s oral archiving project is so important. On Saturday, the 92 year-old Pearl Harbor veteran and retired Dallas PD homicide detective spoke to a sold-out audience as one of five panelists during the museum’s “Oswald Has Been Shot!” event. Moderated by WFAA-TV news anchor Gloria Campos, the panel described the day when local nightclub owner, Jack Ruby, put a fatal bullet in the side of John F. Kennedy’s suspected assassin, just two days after the president’s 1963 slaying.
With a tall cowboy hat, shined boots, and an innate sense of comic timing, Leavelle demonstrated, with a well-rehearsed hand gesture, the way a doctor at Parkland Hospital had used a scalpel to tap free the bullet lodged in Lee Harvey Oswald’s side on November 24, 1963. Already a respected detective late in his career, the then-43-year-old Leavelle had handcuffed himself to the prisoner to ensure Oswald’s transfer from the Dallas Police Station to the County Jail went off without issue. The city had, over the course of the previous two days, been in a state of utter shock and pandemonium, and the police station had been overwhelmed by an influx of death threats against Oswald.
“If they were going to come get him, they’d have to take me, too, and I wasn’t going to go willingly,” Leavelle said, describing his decision to handcuff himself to Oswald to audience laughter.
Against Leavelle’s better judgment, the chief of police agreed to a public transfer, which was highly unorthodox, but necessary, he ultimately decided, to absolve Dallas PD from any maltreatment of the already-hated suspect, who had been arrested for shooting a police officer.
Such set the scene for history’s first televised murder, an event that would forever change the face of journalism. Panelist Fred Rheinstein – who was a producer/director for NBC News in 1963, on assignment in Dallas from LA following the president’s assassination – said that weekend was the birth of live news coverage.
In fact, while Leavelle – made "famous, but not rich," by an iconic, Pulitzer Prize winning photograph shot by fellow panelist Bob Jackson – is a natural storyteller whose wit and wry humor charmed those in attendance, it was his fellow panelists, each covering the transfer for respective news media outlets, who presented some of the afternoon’s most interesting and unanswerable questions.
What are the ethical implications of showing – whether purposefully or inadvertently, as in the case of the Oswald shooting – live assassinations or executions? Where do the lines between solid reporting and sensationalism fall? And, is America less safe because of such intrusive exposure to very real cold-blooded violence?
Panelist Bob Huffaker – at the time a 27-year-old radio and television reporter for CBS affiliate KRLD, who provided commentary for the taped coverage of the shooting – described a growing sense of paranoia following those three dark days. The assassinations predated the heavy security systems now implemented in many public buildings, and he recalled imagining ongoing scenarios of violence in the following days while on assignment.
“We realized we were at the epicenter of a really dangerous situation,” he said.
Huffaker credits the event as what eventually inspired him to “do something more productive” with his life, and he quit broadcasting in 1967, pursued a Ph.D., and taught at UNT – never discussing his coverage of the Oswald assassination with students. That is not to say, however, that he hasn’t spent days, weeks, and months trying to make sense of that Dallas weekend in late-November, 1963. He explored his own thoughts on the watershed events’ role in professional and popular culture in a book co-authored in 2005 called When the News Went Live.
Each of the panelists have spent nearly 50 years trying to understand that weekend and the respective ways it forever changed both the news industry and the American zeitgeist. Bob Jackson, who shot the event’s most famous photograph, said that he has “mixed feelings” about having documented it. While the photo dutifully documents the coda to a troubling identity-crisis for America, it also records an event that could only be described as macabre in its invasiveness. Jackson said that, within a few years, he was receiving requests to use the photograph for T-shirts. He isn’t sure, he said, whether having taken the photo was a good thing.
On the other hand, Gary DeLaune – at the time the police reporter for Dallas radio station KLIF, who ran about an eighth of a mile back to the station to present a gasping, breathless report – said that having witnessed the event only reinforced his passion as a reporter.
“I was wet behind the ears and to think that I was able to cover it – it gave me confidence. I’ve never doubted my career again,” he said.
Fred Rheinstein agreed. Living in LA at the time, Rheinstein had received a call that the president had been shot and that he was on the next flight to Dallas, despite the fact that he neither had a jacket nor socks and Dallas was considerably colder than California that fall. Working with a haphazard crew of broadcast engineers from Fort Worth who he’d just met, Rheinstein lobbied hard for NBC to show the feed live. The transfer had been considered hardly newsworthy, but Rheinstein followed his gut feeling that it would be important for the American public to see Oswald live, and he pushed hard for the live feed.
“It probably saved my career,” he said before turning to Leavelle. “I just wish I’d met you then, Jim. I’d have felt a lot better about it.”
Perhaps few who witnessed the weekend of November 22, 1963 will ever "feel better" about it. But one thing remains clear, particularly for those who can now only experience it through recollection: Oral history projects and events like those the Sixth Floor Museum have provided are critical in younger generations' forming a comprehension of American identity.
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