Who was the first person to tell the world JFK was dead? It wasn't who you think...
The tear in the eye.
The break in the voice.
The glasses. Those thick, heavy glasses being taken off and then being put back on as the man behind them tried to keep it together on camera.
Walter Cronkite's fractured, emotional confirmation of President Kennedy's death that awful November afternoon almost a half-century ago is seared into the minds of those of us old enough to remember it. The passage of time has made it THE moment, the first time that a country learned it's young leader was a murder victim.
It was a Dallas TV anchor/reporter named Eddie Barker who got the scoop of a lifetime that afternoon, and very little credit for it the rest of his life.
Barker died this week, and it's too bad that he had to die before his guts, luck and effort that day are acknowledged. In 1963, TV and radio weren't go-to places for breaking news. It was still a newspaper world, one in which things weren't believed until they were seen in print. Barker was at the tip of the spear on November 22nd that year, proving the electronic media had the accuracy to go with their inherent speed.
Barker was at the Trade Mart--a Dallas convention center (it's still there today) where Kennedy was to speak at the end of his motorcade. Barker was live, awaiting the President's arrival, when things started going badly: why was Kennedy running late, and why were all of those Secret Service agents scrambling around?
Word started trickling out that there'd been "an incident", the bad news distilled to the point where it was obvious there'd been a shooting and that the President had been hit. How badly, no one knew--certainly not Barker, who was in no position to see the chaos swirling around the city from his perch near the podium.
Fate, good fortune and keen reportorial instincts then set in.
Barker was vamping on-air--filling time with what he knew while waiting for field reporters to flesh in the details. The CBS Network was on the air, too, with Cronkite doing more of the same. When Walter ran out of steam, the web would dip into Barker's local feed on KRLD (a CBS affiliate). Barker didn't know he was on the air nationally when he stopped his on-air commentary to respond to a tap on his shoulder. A man told him that Kennedy was dead--a man who Barker knew was a Parkland hospital doctor. The physician, upon hearing the news of the shooting, simply called the ER and asked what was up. They told him the President was dead. The doctor went straight to Barker who didn't think twice--he trusted his source, and his instincts.
Here's the story, in Eddie's own words:
And, here's how it looked on TV that afternoon. The "moment" happens at about 19:20 in.
That's a veteran, plugged-in local newsman, getting the jump on the world.
Dan Rather would later re-confirm Barker's exclusive and Cronkite's moment came off wire copy, printed seconds after the White House told reporters the news in a hospital classroom.
Barker would work through the weekend--in fact, CBS would set up shop in Barker's newsroom with Rather in charge, and it would be Barker who'd eject the network from his Dallas operation in a dispute over a network story about local school kids cheering the news of Kennedy's death. CBS made it sound as if the children were gleeful about the President's murder when, in fact, they cheered only upon hearing they'd be going home early. They yelled before they heard the reason why. Barker knew that, because he had kids at that school. The Rather/Barker split would mend, and Rather would be the one who'd come back to Texas for Barker's induction into a broadcast hall of fame years later. Tempers run hot during breaking news, and while bonds between reporters may bend during such situations, they seldom break.
Barker would go one to score an exclusive interview with accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald's widow--she liked the show that aired after Barker's nightly newscast and knew of Eddie, trusting him to tell her story the right way.
I got to meet Barker years later, during a convention in San Jose in the late 80's. It was like talking to history. Being the student of the JFK assassination that I am, I probably came off like a blubbering fan-boy. I hope I was able to convey my admiration, amid my starry-eyed exuberance.
Eddie Barker is gone, another witness to history who has left us. More and more of the folks whohad speaking parts that day 49 years ago are dying, taking their priceless stories with them. As the 50th anniversary approaches, let's relish those who were there who are still among us. Let's listen to what they have to say.
And, let's record every word, because each is gold.