June 8, 2013

This week in TV: five days in June

Today, rather than my regular "This Week in TV Guide" feature, I'm going to focus on a specific series of days: June 4-8, 1968.  And I'll be dealing not only with television, but with radio as well.

It was the middle of the night when Robert F. Kennedy was shot following his victory in the California primary - arguably the biggest American news event ever to occur during the overnight hours.  Kennedy gave his victory speech at a quarter past midnight PDT - after 3am on the East Coast - and in those wee hours of the early morning, many people would get their first news of the shooting not from television, but from radio.*  In the days before 24/7 television, it's not hard to imagine people lying in bed with the radio on, unable to sleep, listening to a late-night music program when the news broke, and thereafter continuing to lay their in the stillness of the dark, listening to disembodied voices describing what had happened in far-away Los Angeles, unwilling or perhaps even afraid to turn on the lights, preferring the shelter of the night.  I wonder how many were able to go back to sleep?  I would have found it somewhat frightening to do so, myself.

*According to a contemporary poll, 56% first received the news on radio.  And most people didn't even find out until they'd gotten up that morning - less than 20% had heard the news by 5am EDT.

Frozen in time: the last image of Kennedy alive.  (KTLA)
In Minneapolis, Franklin Hobbs was hosting his popular overnight music program "Hobbs House" on clear channel WCCO-AM, and he presented wire-service reports until CBS came on the air with network coverage.*  One thing that stands out from these contemporary bulletins is how fresh in the memory the assassination of JFK still was - RFK is often referred to as "the brother of the assassinated President John Kennedy."  One report talked of Kennedy's eyes being "open but unseeing," and Hobbes - perhaps trying to keep things under control - cautions that this might be an "overly-dramatic" report.

*Those early reports had Kennedy being shot in the hip - I've never been sure if someone originally misunderstood "head" as "hip," or if they confused the wounds with those of one of the other bystanders who'd been shot.

As the primary results were close, television networks had stayed on the air far past their regular cutoff time, not calling the race for Kennedy until shortly before the senator's victory speech.  According to various sources, CBS had already ended their coverage at the time of the shooting; at NBC, Frank McGee, having received rumors, vamped for a few minutes, keeping the studio coverage live until the report could be confirmed.  ABC was in the process of signing off on their report in favor of Joey Bishop's show, when Howard K. Smith interrupted the closing credits to update people with the news.

WPIX in New York broadcast the single word "Shame"
for over two hours Wednesday morning while  RFK
underwent surgery.  
(WPIX/Corbis Images)
Kennedy underwent surgery early that Wednesday morning; expected to last less than an hour, it instead ran for almost four hours.  The networks maintained continuous coverage throughout the morning; in ABC's case, devoting Dick Cavett's morning talk show to commercial-free discussion of the breaking story.

It's a temptation to analyze coverage of RFK's assassination in light of that of his brother's five years ago, but there were significant differences.  Whereas John's death followed shortly after his shooting, Robert clung to life for over 24 hours, and his passing, like the shooting itself, came in the middle of the night.  Therefore, throughout Wednesday afternoon and evening, networks provided periodic medical bulletins and special reports, but not the saturation coverage that had accompanied the assassination of JFK.  Networks maintained a semblance of their regular programming, albeit with subtle changes: ABC cancelled a planned repeat of the murder mystery Laura, and on Thursday substituted episodes of The Avengers and The Flying Nun* that were deemed "too violent" with less controversial stories.  The Joey Bishop Show, like that morning's Cavett show, was devoted to commercial-free coverage of the story.

*The Flying Nun too violent?  Perhaps - in the episode in question, "A secret meeting of mobsters blows sky high when Sr. Bertrille is forced down in their midst."

Author Joe McGinniss claimed Ted Kennedy didn't write
his memorable eulogy for Bobby, but it was obviously
heartfelt nonetheless.  
(ABC)
Once Robert's death was announced, coverage again ramped up.  Kennedy's body was flown to New York later Thursday, where it lay in state throughout Friday in St. Patrick's Cathedral.  The funeral mass was held there on Saturday, and then the body was taken by funeral train to Washington, D.C. where he was buried next to John on Saturday night.

***

I mentioned earlier that I'd be focusing on radio coverage as much as that of television.  Although plenty of coverage exists on YouTube, an amazing treasure trove of radio coverage exists from CBS through their Minneapolis affiliate WCCO, and listening to hour after hour of this was something of a revelation to me.

I'm no stranger to the charms of radio, although the medium was certainly on the decline by the time of my birth.  Still, for someone who was raised on television, this CBS radio coverage is fascinating, and to my thinking strangely appropriate.  While television is a communal experience, radio tends to be much more personal, more one-on-one.  Television reporters talk at you, their words providing a backdrop to the dominant pictures, while radio reporters talk to you, and the effect can be far more intimate.*  And so, lacking the images that television could provide, radio reporters were forced to paint word pictures for their listeners, and these disembodied voices, speaking in that lonely darkness of Wednesday morning, create an unreal, almost surrealistic atmosphere.  Again, imagine listening to the reports as you lay in bed during those small hours, your bedside alarm clock silently glowing.  Perhaps you were agitated, you had to get up and walk around, slipping on your robe, trying to comprehend this latest horror in a year of horrors - as you looked out your window was the neighborhood shrouded in blackness, with only the radio voices breaking the dead night? Or did lights begin to snap on in houses up and down the block, as the news spread?  Did you share your agitation with others, or was your agony a silent and solitary one?

*As any baseball fan can tell you.

Leonard Bernstein conducts the Agagietto from Mahler's
Fifth Symphony
(Look Magazine/Paul Fusco)
This amazing collection of radio broadcasts continues throughout the early morning hours on Wednesday, to the announcement of Kennedy's death early Thursday morning, and the funeral and burial on Saturday.  Particularly interesting to me is an excerpt from Arthur Godfrey's CBS morning show on Thursday.  Then, as now in the wake of every tragedy, there were calls for tighter laws, for elimination of guns, for restrictions of freedom - and people will say that "there ought to be a law." But, Godfrey continues, "We can only hope and pray that reason will continue to prevail...the danger at hand, it seems to me, is that men of questionable purpose will find an excuse in what's happened to alter our system, to use our emotional state as a cover for rushing through some repressive laws that purport to cure the ills of society.  In my view it's not a time for hysterical action or pejorative oratory."  Godfrey was a master of communication, it's true, but even so it's difficult to imagine that a television commentator (other than, perhaps, Ronald Reagan), could make the same connection to an audience.

In much the same way, radio coverage of Saturday's funeral and burial provides a dimension different from that of television.  Without the fillers that TV pictures provide, the announcers were forced to describe the unfolding events, and during the many times when nothing at all was happening, their commentary provided nothing so much as an insight into their own hearts. During the funeral, covered on CBS radio by Douglas Edwards and Maury Robinson, the men struggle with the unfamiliar "new" liturgy of the Catholic Church (a hybrid between the old Latin Tridentine rite and the soon-to-be-revealed Vatican II Novus Ordo), all the while explaining the significance of the words and gestures occurring in front of them.

Cameras on the funeral train capture a passenger train
coming from the opposite direction, killing two people
lining the tracks in Elizabeth, NJ.  
(CBS/AP)
Without the pictures, the listener is forced to remember not the sights, but the sounds, of those events: the quivering voice of Edward Kennedy eulogizing his brother; the mournful strains of Mahler's Adagietto accompanying the procession of Kennedy youngsters as they brought the Communion offerings to the altar, the smooth, sad voice of Andy Williams singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as the pallbearers prepare to remove the casket from the Cathedral.  Amazingly, near the end of Kennedy's funeral, a news update informs us that James Earl Ray, accused of assassinating Martin Luther King a mere two months before, had been apprehended in London.

The funeral train taking Kennedy's body from New York to Washington was both a tribute and, in some respects, a fiasco.  Two people were killed in Elizabeth, NJ by an express train travelling in the opposite direction.  The train itself was almost five hours late, travelling slowly to afford the crowds, estimated at perhaps one million people, a better chance to view it.  It had been expected that the burial would occur early Saturday evening, and Major League Baseball had rescheduled the day's games to the evening, to start after the ceremony.  Instead, the first pitches were thrown as the train continued its slow progress; the actual burial didn't occur until after 10pm EDT.  On television the black-and-white remote images showed the train pulling into Washington's Union Station; on radio, one hears only the lonely ringing of the train's bell.  As the motorcade processes down Constitution Avenue to Arlington, a radio reporter apologizes for not being able to provide better coverage, but the darkness combined with the leafy canopy formed by the trees lining the street served to obscure her view.  George Herman, anchoring CBS' radio coverage, mentions the Kennedy people asking CBS to pass along a request to those lining the funeral route and listening to transistor radios that they light a match as the cortege passes by.

***

Hopelessly behind schedule and in near-total darkness,
the casket is brought to the gravesite next to JFK at
Arlington.  
(ABC)
I was eight years old in 1968, and I have more of a personal memory of Robert Kennedy's death than that of John's.  I watched the coverage the day through, not really understanding or appreciating what I was saying.  I was upset that the baseball game had been preempted, and as the day and night wore on I hung in there, waiting for the Bedtime Nooz, Channel 4's late-Saturday night satiric comedy news show.  When it did air, as the hour approached midnight, it was done straight, without humor.  Again, I was disappointed.

Watching and listening to the events from that week (covered in fascinating detail in this issue of Broadcasting magazine) has provided an opportunity to reflect on everything that happened, and how it was broadcast.  1968 had already been an eventful, grim year: the Tet Offensive, Eugene McCarthy's challenge to President Johnson and LBJ's subsequent decision not to seek reelection, the assassination of Martin Luther King, race riots, war protests, and now this.  Still to come was the tumultuous Democratic convention in Chicago and the election; one of the few bright spots was Apollo 8's memorable Christmas Eve trip around the moon.

As such, I think the American people were a more cynical lot, numbed somewhat to the events that seemed to cascade, one after another, throughout the year.  Whereas JFK's assassination was truly shocking, if not incomprehensible, by June of 1968 the assassination of Robert Kennedy was all-too believable.  And perhaps that's what made it such a deeply sad event for so many, for without the anesthesia of shock to cushion the blow, the emotions that had been rubbed raw were there for the taking.  It was so stunning, so unexpected, so quick.  I freely admit that I am not now and never have been a fan of the Kennedys; politically we're about as far apart as we could be.  But the events of that week in June worked on so many levels - the political, the personal, the familial.  And as the day drew to an end, and the country worried about what might come next, ABC's summary of the day - one of "stunning tragedy" and "unique, painful events" - combined the best of the elements we've discussed, picture and sound.  It was, indeed, a painful week.

6 comments:

  1. In June of 1968, I graduated from Oak Lawn Community High School.
    The ceremony was held on the evening of June 4.
    The previous night, my brother Sean, with whom I shared a bedroom, had his little TV on all night, following the Cal primary.
    Sean, a year older than I, had been campaigning for Gene McCarthy ("Clean For Gene"); he disliked RFK's "bandwagoning" his way to the nomination and was hoping for a different outcome.
    Along about 4am (Chicago time), I woke up and found that the TV was still on; Sean then told me "Bobby got shot", and then turned the set over to me. He went to sleep and I couldn't get back.
    That day, I had to go to OLCHS for my locker refund; the ceremony was still on for that evening. RFK was still lingering, and all the kids in this mainly Republican suburb were hoping he'd make it. Nixon vs. Kennedy had a certain appeal for those of us who were still little when the original was happening.
    That evening, the graduating OLCHS Class of '68 went through our paces just as we'd spent most of that week rehearsing them.
    We marched into the hall to Verdi's "Grand march" from Aida. Father Haney from our Catholic church in Hometown gave the invocation, adding in a prayer for RFK's recovery, After the diplomas were presented, a Protestant pastor from Oak Lawn gave a benediction, with his own RFK prayer.
    And then we all went home, and life went on.
    Until the next day, when RFK died, and everything came unglued.

    I often wonder what would have happened had Robert Kennedy survived and gotten the Democratic nomination.
    How close would that election have been?
    I remember the election that did happen, with Wallace taking four states, and Ohio and Illinois not being called until the next morning, and David Brinkley saying to Chet Huntley "I don't think we're going to get a President tonight".
    The '68 election was the closest we've come in my lifetime to a Presidential election getting thrown into the House of Representatives.
    Now that would have been chaos.
    Remind me to tell you about it some other time ...

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    Replies
    1. Excellent and intriguing comments, Mike. (And, by the way, thanks for carrying the combox while I was indisposed. Though I didn't get a chance to reply, your contributions were thoughtful and fun as always.)

      It is indeed interesting to speculate on what would have happened as RFK not been assassinated. In reading through some archived material, I ran across an article from the Toledo Blade quoting a national magazine survey from two weeks prior to the California primary (probably either Time or Newsweek) that had HHH at 1,279.5 delegates, just 32.5 short of clinching the nomination. This seems to jibe with several other contemporary accounts suggesting that RFK wouldn't have been able to capture the nomination even if he did win California.

      OTOH, as we saw in Chicago in August, anything could have happened at the convention. There could have been credentials challenges, rules suspensions, changed votes, riots on the floor (well, we had that anyway), and there could have been a groundswell that changed everything, or at least denied HHH a first-ballot victory. As you said, we'll never know. It's interesting to speculate, though.

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  2. In 1968, there was a wild-card factor which nobody mentions these days:

    The kennedy family had a long-standing relationship with Mayor Richard J. Daley's Democratic machine, dating back to its earliest days.
    Did you know that before he joined JFK's administration as head of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver (JFK's brother-in-law) had been manager of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago?
    That's just the most important connection.
    I'm sure you've read accounts of how Chicago vote counts were important in JFK's 1960 victory (and were the source of Republican demands for a recount).
    I've heard/read that Dick Daley didn't think much of Hubert Humphrey as a campaigner, and was among those quietly working behind the scenes to persuade RFK to come forward.
    Some believe that if Bobby had lived, Daley would have supported him over Humphrey and averted the riots - the rioters would have had their rationale taken away.
    But that's a "world of IF", isn't it?

    I now declare this to be "some other time" ...

    The last two states to be called in '68 were Ohio and Illinois.
    The final vote counts were razor-close - about one vote per precinct going the other way and HHH would have squeaked past Nixon and carried those states.
    If that had happened, no candidate would have had the necessary number of Electoral Votes to win.
    Thus the election would go to the House of Representatives for the first time in over 150 years.
    In that kind of election, each state gets one (1) vote, arrived at by a caucus of the newly elected Reps.
    This means that California's 30-some-odd reps get one combined vote amongst them, while the single at-large rep from,say, Wyoming gets one vote, equal to each of the other states' combined vote.
    I don't have the exact figures at hand, but if memory serves most of the House races went to Democrats, and in most large states they held a numerical majority.
    But those states included the four that Wallace carried: Democrats on paper, but would they have stuck with Wallace or gone with party loyalty?
    Meanwhile, the Vice-President would be chosen by the newly elected Senate, which wound up mainly Democratic.
    Their choice was between Muskie (one of their own, and a popular man on both sides of the aisle) and Agnew (the first term governor of Maryland, totally unknown at that time).
    How would that have turned out?
    Think about it ...

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  3. I'm a latecomer to this excellent Wayback Machine, but I want to mention a component of CBS Radio's coverage of Robert F Kennedy's assassination that doesn't seem to be represented here (apologies if it is and I missed it). It's a piece by CBS News Correspondent Bruce Morton, one of the best writers ever to work in broadcast journalism. This one-minute-51-second voicer is a prime example of his skill. His assignment on the morning of June 8, 1968 was pedestrian: trace the planned itinerary of RFK's hearse from Union Station in Washington to the gravesite at Arlington. Morton's piece, "The Route Echoes the Life," uses foreshadowing, spare but evocative imagery and a sense of rhythm to carry the listener to a haunting final line. I'm making a big deal out of it, but Morton doesn't. I've long used it as a model when I teach broadcast newswriting. It's here:

    otr.com/miscnews.html

    Enjoy

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    Replies
    1. Sorry--this is the correct link:

      otr.com/ra/news/morton.mp3

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    2. That's brilliant, Jeff. Thank you for sharing.

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