Rather Recalls JFK Assassination

GENERIC Dan Rather reporters notebook

As Dan Rather prepares to end his 24-year tenure as anchor of CBS Evening News, he looks back some of the stories he reported through the years.

Jim Leavelle still has the demeanor of a police detective. He's still partial to white cowboy hats and, though retired, is still in demand.

"I've talked to schools from Maine to Wyoming," he says.

As CBS News Anchor Dan Rather reports, 41 years ago, this former cop's biggest case changed a nation when a young president was gunned down by a sniper on a Dallas street.

Two days later, Leavelle was there for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the sniper who'd killed President John F. Kennedy.

Leavelle was handcuffed to Oswald. It's a moment that he re-tells a dozen times a year.

It was a defining moment that shaped the nation, and changed the landscape of American media.

"Flash -- Here's a bulletin from CBS News ... three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade today in downtown Dallas."

The world's biggest story breaking at the very time television news was coming of age. Technology that, for the first time, took viewers live to where news happened.

Suddenly, news could be immediate, and CBS News was the first to report the unfolding tragedy.

Correspondent Dan Rather reported the story from "the corner window just below the top floor, where the assassin stuck out his 30 caliber rifle."

Rather was the first to report Kennedy had died, before the official confirmation of the president's death.

And there was Walter Cronkite, passing on Rather's update: "We just have a report from our correspondent Dan Rather in Dallas that he has confirmed that President Kennedy is dead."

And along with immediate information, there were now images, film and tape of news events as they occurred. One, the famous Zapruder film, captured the assassination in a series of horrific frames that CBS News and Rather were first to review and report in detail not otherwise possible.

"At that moment, when the president had his right hand up to the side of is face, he lurched just a bit forward," Rather reported. "It was obvious that the first shot had hit him."

It was the beginning of round-the-clock coverage - regular programming preempted to make way for news events, like the stunning Oswald killing. It was carried live, followed within hours by details about the latest tragic twist.

"It's difficult today to recapture the trauma and shock of the events over those four days in 1963," says Thomas Doherty of Brandeis University.

The assassination, and then the murder of the assassin, the sorrow were all carried nonstop, drawing the entire nation into a single community of grief.

Even four decades later, the events remain vivid to many Americans. Leavelle is still busy on the lecture circuit, the assassin's gun-nest is now a museum and the jail cell where Oswald was held may soon become a new tourist destination.

The legacy for today's television news was cemented by those days in Dallas.

"You do see television rise from this medium that people would often look down their noses at as a boob tube, or vast wasteland,'' says Doherty. "After the Kennedy assassination, everybody knew that television was the central arena for American culture and that in times of great tragedy it could actually rise to the occasion."