Dallas’s dark day lives again
JFK: The Lost Tapes takes television viewers back to November 22, 1963. In late 2011, the Philadelphia-based Raab Collection discovered a pair of quarter-inch open-reel audiotapes that had belonged to Major General Chester ‘‘Ted’’ Clifton Jr, the senior military adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Clifton, according to Arlington National Cemetery, where he is buried, ‘‘made arrangements with the White House to deal with military and national security affairs after the assassination’’.
He also had secured tapes comprising 2.5 hours of in-flight radio traffic transmissions among Air Force One, the White House Situation Room and Andrews Air Force Base. A copy of these was given to the National Archives last year and form the basis for this telecast – along with radio reports and police dispatches.
One of the most interesting parts of The Lost Tapes has to do with the lost tapes – in-the-moment audio snapshots of people under great stress relaying information, even when they had precious little to go on. These tapes form only a small part of the program, leaving viewers the impression that perhaps only routine business took place. The US archives have posted all 2.5 hours on their website.
There is something oddly comforting in the routine they convey, however: The head of government has been toppled, but pilots still have to calculate headings to get the plane back to Andrews Air Force Base.
The other tapes of that day reveal a considerable degree of professionalism on the ground, too. Hell has broken loose, but radio reporters can still find one last dime in their pocket to plug into a pay phone that miraculously appears out of the human chaos.
Police dispatches, too, are precise and to the point. Words, and emotions, are not wasted. Something terrible has happened at Dealey Plaza – send backup.
Nor were they given to speculation in those early moments. When someone at the Dallas Trade Mart – where Kennedy was scheduled to speak – asks the Dallas police chief, Jesse Curry, if the president might still keep his engagement, Curry says: ‘‘Very doubtful. Very doubtful.’’ The tapes offer the fleeting illusion that the long-ago moment is as fresh and immediate as yesterday.
JFK: The Lost Tapes: Thursdays 7.30pm; replays, various days/times, Discovery.
John F. Kennedy and wife Jacqueline just before the assassination in Dallas