The 20th century's finest performance by one reporter on a breaking news story ended as Merriman Smith of United Press International stood and tucked in his shirttail. He had pulled up his shirt to show the welts on his back from the flailing fists of Jack Bell of the Associated Press. Oddly enough, the welts were proof that it was Smith – not Bell – who had administered an unforgettable beating.
It was the night of November 22, 1963, in the UPI Washington bureau. There is a generation of men and women around the world who froze, gasped and forever remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing on that day 35 years ago. It was when the news first came that President John F. Kennedy had been fatally wounded by gunfire in Dallas.
I can fix the moment the world became breathless:
12:39 CST. That's nine minutes after a bullet shattered the young president's brain. The time – 39 minutes after noon, central standard time in Dallas – comes from a copy of the A-wire of UPI. More than a year later, after hearing from hundreds of witnesses, the presidential commission headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded that Kennedy was shot at precisely 12:30 p.m. Nine minutes later, Walter Cronkite and other anchormen ripped the report clacking out at 60 words per minute on the UPI teletype machine in their offices and relayed it to the world. They were riding an emotional rollercoaster set in motion that day by Smitty. Almost everyone called him that except President Dwight Eisenhower, who always struggled with Smith's old Georgia family name. "Well, Miriam," Ike would say.
The UPI coverage of the Kennedy assassination was unparalleled in the history of journalism because of one man. Albert Merriman Smith, UPI's White House reporter, dominated the most important spot news story since Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. These two events became indelible in the American psyche as nothing else in the 20th century would. December 7, 1941, was truly shocking but, in journalistic terms, little more than a government statement to the wire services. Foot speed was most important in reporting such proclamations. The end of World War II was announced by President Harry S. Truman in his office. There was no live television broadcast. Instead Smith raced to his phone in the White House with the other wire service reporters. He slipped, fell, broke his collarbone, got up and dictated a flash. Medical care came after he was finished.
According to UPI protocol, the flash designation preceding a few cryptic words on the wire was reserved only for what were known as earthshakers. "Flash – FDR dead," was a classic flash in 1945 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia. Earthshakers were tough on everyone involved – the switchboard operator, the dictationist, the slot editor and the teletype operator, who was called a "puncher." A mistake by anyone in the chain could break the link with the world and end in journalistic disaster. It was up to the puncher to ring 15 bells to alert editors around the globe that UPI was sending news that would stun everyone. Stories preceded by "Bulletin," got five bells and contained a single paragraph of what was certainly an important story. "Urgents," with a two or three paragraph top of a good story, also got five bells. Like anything, the flash was sometimes overused – editors knew that a major news development was coming but, when it actually happened, used the flash. The demise of an ailing statesman or baseball star, for instance, was anticipated, but the death was flashed.
The assassination of the young, handsome, witty Cold Warrior in Dallas prompted the same kind of shock as Princess Diana's premature death in Paris. But in terms of importance, Di's death was a global tremor while Kennedy's was off the Richter scale. The day Kennedy was killed required perception, accuracy, speed and judgment that Smith displayed while relishing the fire of competition. Smith did not merely beat Jack Bell, the opposition. That day in Dallas, Merriman Smith burned the Associated Press to the waterline. And delighted in doing so.
It was a time that has almost vanished these days with UPI nearly a memory. Back then, a few seconds or one minute ahead of the AP was something of a victory. There was no mulling at a typewriter. A breaking story came off the top of the head, rolled off the tongue and through the fingers of dictationists who had the dispatches ripped away by the slot editor after every paragraph. Twice each day, the Washington bureau of UPI where I was at work on November 22, 1963, posted an accounting of competition. Major dailies were surveyed across the nation and around the world to see whether UPI or AP was preferred by editors. There were two distinct reports for newspapers – morning and afternoon. For radio and television clients, the radio wire was refreshed constantly for the rip and read set. New York headquarters, which prepared the daily tally, would single out reporters who were "ahead" on a breaking news story or a writer who produced an "admired" first paragraph. Defeats were also noted where we were "late" or had an "awkward" writing job. Slow, awkward or inaccurate reporters had a way of vanishing from the payroll after about their third mishap. No easy riders at UPI.
Some attribute Smith's triumph that day in Dallas to luck. But Bob Clark of ABC News saw it as Smith's relentless competitive spirit. Clark was in the Kennedy motorcade that day, five cars from the president's limousine. Clark, Smith and Bell of the AP were riding in the wire car, a black sedan owned by AT&T, one of the favors Ma Bell offered the media in those days. The bigger favor, though, was the radio-telephone in the front seat. It might have been the AP's turn that day to sit in front, closest to the phone. The seat was supposed to rotate between UPI and AP each day. But Smith would routinely grab the seat closest to the phone. "The wires were supposed to take turns, but Smitty would intimidate the younger AP reporters," says Clark, who used to be in the front seat rotation while covering the White House for International News Service (INS). "Smitty was always looking for an edge."
Smitty was 50 that day, some gray in his hair and mustache, which tended to divert the eye from his pockmarked cheeks. There was only a hint of a drawl left in his gravelly voice used to embellish all kinds of tales. His presence was enough to silence a greener AP man who thought it was his turn in the front seat. But Jack Bell was no youngster. He was 59, a contemporary with almost white hair and a manner as sour and cantankerous as Smith was extroverted and sunny.
Smith and Bell despised each other. Smith traced the start of their often nasty competition to covering New York Gov. Thomas Dewey's presidential campaign. Smith was sent from his White House beat to cover the GOP candidate who was favored to oust President Truman in the 1948 race. Bell was already in Albany when Smith arrived. Jim Haggerty, Dewey's press secretary, later recounted how Bell warned that Smith was a Truman supporter sent to do a hatchet job on Dewey. "Bell tried to cut me out every way he could," Smith recalled.
Smith struck back by being one of the first reporters to use a wire recorder. Suddenly, Smith's reports on Dewey included large blocks of quotes from his speeches. Bell had only the traditional paraphrase of the candidate's comments along with perhaps a three or four word phrase in quotes. When AP headquarters wanted to know where Smith was getting all the quotes, Bell could only seethe.
Smith loved new gadgets, particularly if they involved communications. The biggest news stories are worthless unless they can be relayed to the A-wire. So there was no discussion of who was supposed to be in the front seat when the Kennedy motorcade left Love Field with an elaborate police escort. Smith just grabbed it and Bell got in back, sitting next to Clark, who was representing the networks while riding in the wire car as the broadcast pool reporter. Bell, who was a political writer, not a White House regular, probably did not know enough to protest. Kennedy's trip to Dallas was a political one, designed to make peace between warring Democratic factions in Texas. Bell was looking for nuance and angles that he skillfully crafted into thoughtful dispatches that could run on the AP wire days later.
Smith, by contrast, was gathering the more mundane for what promised to be a mildly interesting spot story. But when the wire car pulled into Dealey Plaza, Smith was the first to recognize the sounds. "We heard the first shot and somebody said, 'My god, that must be a police backfire,' " Clark recalls. Then two more bangs came. It was Smith who concluded they were gunshots. "I was certain it was gunfire," Smith said that night. He had a collection of rifles and a .357 magnum revolver. To show a newsman could shoot, too, he would sometimes visit the pistol range used by Secret Service agents.
"Smitty was a gun fancier," Clark says. "We knew he was an expert. He said, 'Those were shots!' " Time lapsed into slow motion. Clark instantly understood the dilemma facing Smith and Bell. "It was a very difficult moment: All we knew was that those were shots. But what the hell do you file?" They were too far back. Clark estimated the presidential limousine was 80 yards away. Two minutes went by before Smith picked up the radio-telephone. The motorcade picked up speed then raced away. Smith told the operator to connect him with the Dallas bureau of UPI. "He was dictating to his office in Dallas," says Clark. "He was having trouble. Those radio-telephones were often staticky. Smitty was repeating. He was trying to get one sentence off. I can still remember what he said." Around the world, editors heard five bells and a bulletin on the UPI machine: " UPI A7N DA PRECEDE KENNEDY DALLAS, NOV. 22 (UPI) – Three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas. JT1234PCS." Chicago's UPI bureau had been filing a murder trial report when Dallas grabbed the A-wire and sent Smith's bulletin. Chicago tried to resume sending, but UPI New York interceded with a terse order in wire-ese: "BUOS -UPHOLD-DA IT YRS." Translation: All bureaus stay off the A-wire. Dallas, it is yours. In every newsroom, editors looked at the AP A-wire teletype that always sat next to the UPI machine. There was no hint of what was unfolding in Dallas.
The wire car began to pick up speed as Kennedy's motorcade headed onto the freeway for the nearest hospital, Parkland. No one in the car knew where they were going, but Smith was still on the radio-telephone. "Bell is beginning to realize that Smith is driving an ax through his skull by getting anything off from the wire car," Clark says. "Jack got pretty upset." Bell demanded the phone as the motorcade hit 60 miles an hour. Smith bent over in the front seat with the phone. "I told Bell they couldn't hear me clearly," Smith said that night, beaming at his own duplicity. "They can't hear me," Smith told Bell, according to Clark. "I'm asking them to read it back."
"Give me the goddamn phone," Bell yelled. Bell leaned over the seat and took a swipe at the phone, according to Clark, who doesn't recall a rougher exchange between the two wire service reporters. Smith recounted how Bell began pounding his head and back. Smith, doubling his body over the handset, kept the phone from Bell until the car pulled up at the hospital emergency entrance. When the sedan stopped, Smith said he flung the phone at Bell and jumped out. As Smith headed for the emergency entrance, he said he heard Bell on the radio-telephone, saying, "No one knows if there was any gunfire." In the AP Dallas bureau, staffers remember only a cryptic call – "This is Jack Bell.." – before the line went dead.
Clark joined Smith as they hustled to the presidential limousine. Kennedy was stretched out lifeless, in the bloody backseat. Smith saw a dark stain spreading down the right side of his dark gray suit. Jacqueline Kennedy was holding her husband's head in her lap. "Jackie shielded the wound in his head," Clark says. "We were standing two feet away." Texas Gov. John Connally was conscious but moaning. Men were yelling for stretchers. Women were sobbing. Smith knew Mrs. Kennedy's Secret Service agent, Clint Hill. It was Hill who jumped on the rear deck of the presidential car after the shooting, telling her to sit down. He clung to the rear deck throughout the ride to Parkland. Now he was taking off his coat and leaning over the limp president. "How badly was he hit, Clint," Smith asked. "He's dead, Smitty," Hill replied. Smith raced into the hospital emergency room. He burst into the cashier's cage and grabbed the phone. "How do I get outside?" Smith demanded. "The president has been hurt, and this is an emergency call."
"Dial nine," said the shaken cashier. Smith dictated what turned out to be a slightly awkward flash from UPI Dallas. Editors saw an urgent addition to his first bulletin interrupted mid-word: FLASH FLASH Kennedy seriously wounded perhaps seriously perhaps fatally by assassins bullet JT1239PCS.... That flash was later a source of second-guessing but only by wire service reporters. Why not: Secret Service Agent says Kennedy dead? "I would have had trouble composing as responsible a flash as Smitty did if a Secret Service man had told me he was dead," Clark says. "But he was conservative, and that's part of being a great wire service reporter – which Smitty was." And Smith kept nothing back. No sooner had the flash cleared than Smith was rolling with a bulletin first lead on a story that editors could put on the front page: UPI 9N BULLETIN 1ST LEAD SHOOTING DALLAS, NOV. 22 (UPI) – President Kennedy and Gov. John B. Connally of Texas were cutdown by an assassin's bullets as they toured downtown Dallas in an open automobile today. MORE JT1241PCS
UPI A10N DA 1ST ADD 1ST LEAD SHOOTING DALLAS (9N DALLAS XX TODAY. The president, his limp body cradled in the arms of his wife, was rushed to Parkland Hospital. The governor also was taken to Parkland. Clint Hill, a Secret Service agent assigned to Mrs. Kennedy, said, "He's dead," as the president was lifted from the rear of a white touring car, the famous 'bubbletop' from Washington. He was rushed to an emergency room in the hospital. Other White House officials were in doubt as the corridors of the hospital erupted in pandemonium. MORE At about the same time – 12:41 P.M. – AP moved its first bulletin, and then only to regional clients. At the time AP Dallas' main wire was on a split, reaching only as far as Denver. To get the earth-shaking news to the rest of the world it was delayed until it was relayed by New York. Bob Johnson, the bureau chief at the time, wrote it based on an eyewitness account from AP photographer Ike Altgens. There was nothing of the hospital scene or Hill's declaration that Kennedy was dead.
Eleven minutes after Kennedy was shot, UPI was giving editors a usable dispatch more than 500 words long. Smith was dominating those early moments with speed and accuracy while Bell and the AP seemed to fall apart. Bell's first effort, based on the grisly emergency room entrance scene along with comments by Kennedy's aide Kenneth O'Donnell, were ruined by a grief-stricken AP puncher. On the AP wire, the aide's name came as "Kenneth O';$9,,3))," and bloodstained was, "blood stainezaac rbmthing." Kennedy's body came out, "he laaaaaaaaaaa." "The wire service war of seconds had grown to minutes and AP was falling farther and farther behind," wrote former Baltimore Sun reporter William Manchester in his book, "The Death of a President." "That was only the beginning. All afternoon the AP was a source of misleading and inaccurate reports."
One bogus AP dispatch said Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson had been wounded. But UPI had quite a different version of Johnson's activities. Smith was still filing when reinforcements sent by Jack Fallon of the Dallas bureau arrived at Parkland. Smith filed his second flash of the day after the formal announcement by deputy White House Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff: "President John Fitzgerald Kennedy died at approximately 1 o'clock." Smith was still filing. "The doctors were getting ready for a very interesting news conference," Smith said. But Rufus Youngblood came up and alerted him: "Smitty, the president wants to go back to Washington."
Youngblood was Johnson's Secret Service agent, and it took Smith a beat to realize that the man dead in the emergency room was no longer president. Jiggs Fauver of the White House transportation office told Smith a three-man pool was ready to leave – now. Smith told his UPI colleagues he was departing for Washington with Johnson. He said to alert UPI Washington. Outside, a panicky Kilduff had already left in the wire car, leaving the pool stranded. Smith pleaded with a police officer to take him and two oýher men in a squad car. With siren shrieking, Smith and reporters representing broadcasters and newsweekly magazines raced to Love Field. But there was no one from AP. Bell refused the same offer to be in the Air Force One pool and remained dictating in the hospital. Looking back, Smith said his decision was made out of habit. "You always follow the football," he said, referring to the black leather suitcase containing the codes used to authorize nuclear warfare.
Inside Air Force One, a Boeing 707, it was hot and dim. The shades were drawn and the door closed when Johnson, with the bloodstained Jackie Kennedy next to him, was sworn in as president. Smith counted 27 people crammed into one spot on the plane. The words and the color of the historic moment were captured in a dispatch that Smith pounded out on a White House typewriter aboard Air Force One. Sid Davis of Westinghouse Broadcasting, a pool reporter for radio and television, was getting off. Smith handed Davis the typewritten dispatch along with the Dallas bureau phone number. "Sid, would you please dictate this to my office?" Smith asked. Davis, who had to stay with the story in Dallas, agreed and waved as the gangway was pulled away from Air Force One. As the door closed, Smith could see a leg-churning AP reporter racing for the plane. Too late. The AP had only a brief fill from Davis, who was in a rush. "Now, let's get airborne," Johnson ordered. Four engines screamed as the plane pulled away. Smith smiled to himself. UPI had the first exclusive account of the swearing in. AP used the pool report by Charles Roberts, a Newsweek reporter. Smith dictated details from the somber return trip when Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
At dinner that night at the National Press Club, Smith recounted the day and the grim flight back to Washington. Johnson kept coming to Smith to tell him the presidential schedule after they landed at Andrews. "He treated me like I was a member of his staff," Smith said, finishing his coffee. I sat spellbound with the UPI overnight editor, Bill Umstead, who was plotting Smith's next move. It was near midnight, and Smith was not finished. Now came the overnight, the second-day version of events, an eyewitness account. It began: BY MERRIMAN SMITH UPI WHITE HOUSE REPORTER WASHINGTON, NOV.23 (UPI) – It was a balmy, sunny noon as we motored through downtown Dallas behind President Kennedy. Umstead read the 1,000-word dispatch and handed it to his deputy, Frank Jackman. It was spotless. No typing errors. Umstead had only to mark the start of paragraphs.
"You've got to know when to leave it alone," Umstead says. Months later, Smith came into the bureau and confided some news from the editor of the Cleveland Press. "Louis Seltzer just called me," Smith beamed. "I won the PP." A week later the formal Pulitzer Prize award cited Smith's overnight dispatch. Soon Smith seemed to be on Jack Paar's "Tonight" show more often, along with some spots on daytime television. One night, Smith came by the bureau after a farewell party for the press and an aging former President Truman. "Jack Bell got really drunk," Smith said. "When Harry said, 'This will be our last meeting,' Bell started sobbing and yelling, 'No, no, Harry.' "
Saying Jack Bell was drunk was really the pot calling the kettle black. Today, Smith would be called an alcoholic, but then he just drank too much, as did many in Washington. On any given day, the president, most of the Senate and too many people at UPI drank too much. The stress, strain and boredom of covering the White House produced heavy drinkers. Smith would end up weaving, slurring, disappearing. Years before Dallas, drinking too much got him temporarily yanked from the White House beat that he began covering in 1941. When he was sober, as he was the day in Dallas, it was often with help of medication from the White House physician.
He vanished on me one day when I was the slot editor. Johnson was on the verge of picking Sen. Hubert Humphrey as his vice presidential running mate in 1964. When I finally tracked him down by phone, Smith said he was sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom and hung up. Later that night, he was thrown off Air Force One for yelling at the president.
Smith walked in the president's footsteps as Johnson toured a pocket of poverty in an Appalachian hollow to promote his Great Society program. Johnson knelt beside a grimy youngster plainly overwhelmed by the White House entourage. "I was just like you," Johnson told the lad. "Go to school, work hard and someday you can be just like me," he said. As the president rose amid whirring cameras, Smith sidled up to the little hillbilly and said: "Bullshit, kid, you'll always be poor." Still, Johnson doted on Smith, even gave him the nation's highest civilian award in 1967, the Medal of Freedom. Smith was the first and, judging from current mutual disdain, probably the last reporter to get such an award from a president.
Perhaps Johnson was influenced by Vietnam. Smith's son, Merriman Jr., an Army helicopter pilot, was killed that year when his chopper crashed near Saigon. Smith's first marriage of 29 years had ended the year before. His new wife was an architect from California. They lived in an Arlington, Virginia, house that looked as if it had been wheeled in from Malibu. But we still went hunting together. It was the spring of 1970, and we sat peering for woodchucks in Virginia pastures. He talked about being pursued by the Internal Revenue Service. "They want $25,000," he said. By UPI standards it was a phenomenal sum.
We were supposed to go hunting the week he killed himself. He used his .357 Magnum while sitting in the bathtub. He was 57. Jack Bell outlived Smith by five years. There was no mention of Dallas in Bell's 1975 AP obituary. But he could not outlive what happened in Dallas. "I should have yanked the goddamn phone out of its socket," he would tell colleagues of his back seat ride in the wire car.
When Bell retired from the AP in 1969, he took a job writing a political column with Gannett Newspapers. Bell wound up going to dinner in Philadelphia with Gene Gibbons of the UPI Washington bureau during the 1972 presidential primary season. Malcolm Kilduff, the Kennedy spokesman that day in Dallas, was working for one of the contenders in the Pennsylvania primary. Gibbons' brother, Charlie, a local newsman, was also there. The mention of Kilduff's name got Charlie talking about Dallas. "What a story," said Charlie. "I was in our office, hanging over the wire machines. There was the first bulletin on the UPI machine. Nothing on the AP. Then there is a flash on UPI. Nothing on the AP. Then there is another bulletin on UPI. Still nothing from the AP." Gene kept kicking his brother beneath the table, but it did no good. "I couldn't shut him up," says Gibbons, now senior correspondent for Reuters' Washington bureau.
Like Charlie, few remember Jack Bell being there November 22, l963, in Dallas.
Merriman Smith is the one you remember.
Patrick Sloyan, Newsday's senior Washington correspondent, was a UPI reporter from 1960 to 1969.