Bells shatter a November morning

SACRAMENTO — Five bells rang, followed by the clack-clack of paper spewing from the Teletype. It was a bulletin.

“Dallas, Nov. 22 (UPI)—Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade today in downtown Dallas.”

Five bells for a bulletin. Ten for a very rare flash alerting editors and broadcasters to earth-shaking news. There were several flashes that day. One came soon after the initial bulletin.

“Kennedy seriously wounded perhaps fatally by assassin’s bullet.”


And about an hour later:

“President Kennedy dead.”

Bells? Teletypes? Flashes?

It’s striking how primitive communications were 50 years ago compared to today. And few of us can imagine what they’ll be like in another half century.

Hopefully people won’t still be staring at their plate while a lunch companion rudely plays with his so-called smartphone. But that subject’s for another time.

Most folks in their mid-50s or older remember where they were when the flashes from Dallas stopped them in their tracks. In California, it was late morning.

I was working at the state Capitol in the UPI bureau. That would be United Press International, which no longer exists as a major news service.

Our sworn enemy, the Associated Press, hangs on, although its reporter corps continues to dwindle as the news media decentralize into cyberspace.

There’s more information bouncing around these days, but much of it is unreliable and irrelevant. That’s also for another time.

In the battle for survival, AP won. But on that day 50 years ago, UPI kicked its butt. That is, Merriman Smith did.

“Smitty,” UPI’s veteran White House reporter, won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Kennedy assassination. He was riding in the press pool car of the presidential motorcade, squeezed in the front seat between the driver and a White House aide, when three loud cracks were heard. A gun buff, Smith instantly recognized the sound as rifle shots.

In the back seat were three other reporters, including the AP’s Jack Bell. Smith knew where to sit: with the car’s only telephone at his feet. He grabbed it and dictated the bulletin — then kept clutching the phone while Bell beat him on the back and wrestled for it.

UPI broke ahead of AP and kept pulling away. Smith capped his performance with a riveting, detailed wrap-up piece written aboard Air Force One flying back to Washington.

In the Sacramento bureau, we reporters huddled over the A-wire machine, waiting for the bells and devouring every word. We weren’t the only ones.

The little office soon flooded with politicians and legislative staffers. One I vividly remember was a former college roommate. He leaned through the door and mouthed the words: “Is it true?”

It struck me that nothing was true in those days unless the wire services said it was. Confirmation was on the yellow paper rolling out of Teletypes. There was no 24/7 cable TV news. No emailing. No tweeting.

CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was reading wire copy in his iconic announcement of Kennedy’s death, taking off his glasses and suppressing emotion.

In Washington, according to William Manchester’s book, “The Death of a President,” FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and other officials got their first word of the shooting from UPI Teletypes.

In Sacramento, annoyed by the humanity clogging our bureau to read wire copy, I grabbed a roll, hung it on a “spike” — basically a long nail embedded in a metal base — and duct-taped it to a wall outside. Then shut the door.

On the first floor, Gov. Pat Brown had been reading his own wire copy. He subscribed to both AP and UPI. The shaken governor decided to summon reporters into his private office. Back then, there was no Capitol press conference room.

A Times story the next day reported that Brown “had tears in his eyes and was biting his lips.” He called Kennedy’s death “a deep personal loss” and said “I only hope that his sacrifice may bring about a lessening of some of the hatreds not only in our own country but in the world.”

We all know what became of that hope.

Brown then sent his staff home for the day.

It was even a bigger personal loss for powerful Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, an Inglewood Democrat.

“Jess’ influence waned,” John Burton told me last week. Burton, a San Francisco Democrat who would soon be elected to the Assembly and ultimately become a congressman and later state Senate leader, remembered: “Jess had been the president’s guy in California. Then Jess was no longer the president’s guy.”

Unruh was Kennedy’s man in California because the president and his strategists considered Brown too soft politically, dating to what they regarded as bumbling at the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. Unruh was tough and reliable.

California Democrats began quarreling intensely after JFK’s assassination, largely because of Brown-Unruh rivalries and new President Johnson’s all-out escalation of the Vietnam War.

Unruh became emotionally attached to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign and was with him at the Ambassador Hotel when the second Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California primary.

It almost destroyed Unruh. “Most of what I did that summer was sit around and cry and drink — and I didn’t cry much,” he recalled, according to Bill Boyarsky in his biography “Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics.”

Unruh’s brooding cost Democrats control of the Assembly in 1968 and Big Daddy lost his speakership.

Everything changed after JFK’s assassination. Hope fell. Cynicism rose.

And 10 years later, all news bureaus were booted out of the Capitol. Legislative leaders confiscated our space for lavish offices under the guise of earthquake retrofitting.