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Special Keynote Address by Peter Mansbridge on the 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy's Assassination
To those of us in this room who are old enough, this date fifty years ago is frozen in our memories.
November 22, 1963.
The loss of innocence. The day the laughter died. The day everything changed. The day we remember exactly where we were when we found out.
All those cliches.
I was fifteen years old.
I was in high school.
I was no scholar of world affairs.
Yet I was deeply affected by the death of a young and engaging president of the United States.
Where were some of you that day?
Rob Nicholson, now Canada’s Minister of National Defense?
He was 11 years old.
He lived in Niagara Falls, Ontario… which is right on the border with the United States.
He couldn’t have missed what his neighbors were feeling, what we were all feeling.
Chuck Hagel, the American defense secretary?
He was 17.
Still in high school in Nebraska.
Senator John McCain.
He was 27 years old in November of 1963.
He was a naval aviator and had just finished a year on board the great aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise.
The murder of his commander in chief must have been a shock.
What about outside this continent?
Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s Minister of Defense.
He’d celebrated his bar mitzvah just a few months before the assassination.
13 years old. Welcome to manhood.
Andrew Murrison, the United Kingdom’s Minister for International Security Strategy?
He had no idea everything around him was changing so dramatically.
He was just two years old. Welcome to the world.
Because this is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, there has been a torrent of reflection in the last few weeks.
It would be foolhardy for me to think I could add something that hasn’t already been said.
Especially to this distinguished audience.
But I was asked to try and I will.
After all, we live in dangerous times. This room knows that all too well.
So I think that by looking back at how events unfolded fifty years ago, and comparing it to how things work today… we might appreciate how much has changed… or how little has changed… for both of us.
For those of you with responsibilities for national and international security…and for those of us in the media.
Let me take you back for a moment…to the dark of early evening .. At just about this exact time…fifty years ago tonight…
A Boeing c-137 Stratoliner had just landed at Andrew’s Air Force Base, just outside Washington D.C.
It was Air Force One.
John Kennedy’s coffin was on board.
So was the new president… Lyndon Johnson.
The coffin was unloaded.
Microphones had been set up on the tarmac so the new president could say a few words.
Johnson was subdued.
“I will do my best,” he said….
“That is all I can do.”
It had been just five hours since the shots were fired in Dallas.
In some ways, we’re still living with the fallout of those five hours.
In my business, television discovered why it had been created on that day.
Its power to amuse and entertain was nice… and it was profitable.
But television’s power to reveal and explain the world was so much more important.
And it was unique.
When a nation.. Or when the world.. Wants to be informed about something happening in the moment… there is only one place to turn.
And that’s why today responsible television news organizations sink heavy resources into making sure they are ready for times of crisis.
I don’t just mean the phony “breaking news” graphics that fill the screen every time a cat is stuck up a tree.
I mean serious coverage of serious news.
Those of you on the other side of television understand TV’s role as well.
When Lyndon Johnson stepped in front of the microphones that evening fifty years ago right now, he spoke for just 38 seconds.
But remember the context.
John Kennedy was killed at a time when the word terrorism was rarely used.
Now, it’s a rare day that we don’t hear it.
But the Kennedy assassination was so shocking… so scary… so out of the blue… that to us back then… it was terrorism.
It happened during the worst days of the Cold War.
Days when young kids like me had been trained to “duck and cover” under our school desks.
We worried that Kennedy was just the first of many government leaders who would be murdered.
We thought, as many in the world that night thought, that it was possible the Soviet Union was trying to de-stabilize the United States as a prelude to a first-strike nuclear attack.
That’s pretty terrifying. A moment, for sure, when international security was being put to the test.
So Johnson wanted Americans and the world to know that the US government was still functioning.
That an orderly, if very sad… succession had taken place in those five hours.
So he went on TV.
And ever since that weekend, leaders around the world have relied on television to speak directly to the people.
Here in Canada, in 1970, a Quebec cabinet minister was murdered by the terrorists who had kidnapped him.
That night, prime denounced “ a cruel and senseless act, conceived in cold blood.”
In 1984, at a party conference in Brighton, England, a bomb exploded in Margaret Thatcher’s hotel.
Just a half hour after she was brought to safety at a police station, she faced a TV camera and said, “life must go on as usual. The conference will go on, as usual.”
On September 11, 2001 President Bush faced the cameras three times before the end of the day. He said he wanted to calm the nerves of the country.
In 2004, train bombings in Madrid killed almost 200 people.
Both Prime Minister Aznar and King Juan Carlos made televised speeches.
In 2011, Norway faced its worst day since the Second World War… a bombing in downtown Oslo and a massacre of children just outside the city.
Prime Minister Stoltenberg went on television before the day was out.
Let me stay with the television theme.. Or at least the pictures theme.. For just a moment longer.
Fifty years ago, there was only one significant video of the assassination of john Kennedy.
It was an 8 millimeter film…less than 29 seconds long… taken by a private citizen named Abraham Zapruder.
It’s astonishing today to consider what happened to that film.
It was purchased by Life magazine and the public saw the film only as still frames… not as a moving pictures.
It was considered too shocking.
Doesn’t that seem like a quaint notion today?
Perhaps it’s too bad that almost nothing is considered too shocking today.
It seems incredible to realize that Zapruder’s film wasn’t seen on network television as a film… until 1975, 12 years later.
But perhaps the most astonishing thing about the film is what I already alluded to.
It stands alone.
How many cameras, smartphones, or tablets are pointed at a presidential motorcade today?
Some people make the case that everyone with one of those devices is a journalist.
Well actually, I don’t agree with that.
Abraham Zapruder was an eyewitness with a camera.
He never pretended to be a journalist.
Now, a real journalist working that day was Merriman Smith.
He worked for United Press International.
He was in a press car a few meters behind Kennedy’s limo.
There was a radio telephone in the car…a heavy, bulky forerunner, if you will, of the cell phone. And Merriman Smith was sitting right beside it.
Within seconds of hearing gunshots, Smith picked up the phone and dictated his story.
“Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas.”
Fifty years later… those eleven words hold up as one hundred percent accurate.
If only every journalist today could be as careful. Could be as accurate.
Just within the last year, there have been two major news events in the United States that attracted world attention and hours of live television news coverage.
The first was the shooting of school children in Newtown, Connecticut.
The second was the bombing at the Boston Marathon.
There were so many reporting mistakes, I think we’ve lost count.
Now some say journalists are making mistakes these days because they’re under more pressure.
And there’s more competition.
More pressure and more competition than reporting on a presidential assassination?
On this day in 1963, Merriman Smith was so determined to beat the Associated Press, that he wouldn’t hand over the only radio telephone to the AP guy.
The AP correspondent was literally punching Smith, desperate to pull away the telephone.
But Smith wouldn’t let go.
And he was certain that if he was wrong about what he was reporting… he wouldn’t have a job the next day.
I don’t think anyone was fired for making a mistake in Newtown or in Boston.
There seems to be a collective shrug of the shoulders, as if making mistakes is simply the cost of trying so hard to be first with news.
But who exactly made “being first” the most important goal?
How about just “being right?”
We, in today’s media, could learn a lesson from fifty years ago.
There’s another fact of our modern life that I think started on that November day in 1963.
And this is where I shift from the media.
It’s a very unhappy and unhealthy fact in any democracy.
The Kennedy assassination gave birth to the modern day art of the conspiracy theory.
For the first time, there was widespread unwillingness to believe what government was telling us.
Some say that started later.. With Vietnam…Or with Nixon during Watergate.
I don’t agree.
The Kennedy assassination came first.
And it’s in an entirely different category from the others.
It’s different because in this case, people won’t believe the government even when it is telling the truth.
Fifty years later, the official story remains that Lee Harvey Oswald.. Acting alone… shot and killed the President.
There are lots of movies and hundreds of books promoting conspiracy and I’ve read and seen almost all of them. I’ve also stared through the sixth floor window, been to all the various landmark spots that played a role that day, and talked to some of the witnesses who are still alive.
I am one of those who believe the conclusions of that official version.
The conspiracy theorists treat the official version as either the work of simpletons at best, or a deliberate whitewash at worst.
There’s been fifty years of conspiracy theories.
Men with umbrellas relaying secret signals to an army of shooters on the grassy knoll.
Accusations against Cubans, the Mafia, even Lyndon Johnson himself.
We could just laugh at it all.
But … it’s no laughing matter when people don’t believe their government.
The easy thing would be to dismiss the conspiracy set as nutbars.
But as we all know, the past fifty years have witnessed the growth of conspiracy theories around many other major stories around the world.
So while laughing would be easy, I think the harder approach would also be the wiser.
We should all be holding up a mirror to ourselves and ask, “why don’t they believe us?”
Have governments lied so often … hidden facts from the public …Spied on their allies, spied on their own citizens… that they deserve to be disbelieved?
Have journalists made so many mistakes in their rush to report, in the sloppiness of their work … that they deserve to be disbelieved?
The consequences are serious, and particularly serious when national security is at stake.
There are times when it falls upon government to call upon its citizens to make sacrifices for the common good.
The call may not come very often.
But when it does come, the health of a democracy requires that the people respond.
And they’ll respond only if they believe the messenger.
That messenger could be you – or it could be me.
Squandering the people’s trust is probably the worst thing any of us can do.
John Kennedy was an electric force.
His youth served to inspire a generation.
I’ve talked to politicians in governments around the world over my years, and I’ve been surprised by the number, of all political beliefs, who were energized, who were motivated… by Kennedy’s example.
Do we live in a better world today?
Do we live in a more just world today?
Do we live in a more secure world today?
I’m a journalist, so I just ask the questions.
I don’t answer them.
That one terrible day in 1963 stands out on the landscape of history.
Those of us who lived through it, know it in our bones.
Those of you born a little later must have caught some of the emotion in books and yes, through television.
It’s a day that set in motion important repercussions.
Repercussions that we still feel today.
Perhaps even in this room.
Perhaps even on this weekend.
I hope we can all learn from their fallout.
Thank you very much for the kind invitation and good luck with your discussions this weekend.
Because the world is watching.