“Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer wrote the below as an introduction to Poynter’s book, “The Kennedys: America’s Front Page Family.” The book begins in January 1960 when John F. Kennedy declared his candidacy for the presidency and ends with the 2009 death of Ted Kennedy, as does Schieffer’s introduction.
I spent most of the day Ted Kennedy died asking those who knew him how someone who had such a zest for partisan politics could become so adept at building bipartisan coalitions that had produced so much meaningful legislation.
The best answer came from former Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole who told me, “Kennedy had this way of saying the most partisan things but saying it in a way that you never thought he was talking about you personally.”
As I drove home that night after reminiscing about Kennedy on the “Evening News,” it occurred to me that I had been writing and asking questions about one Kennedy or another for most of my professional life.
From the 1960s until now, the Kennedy family dominated American politics and captured America’s imagination as no other family ever has.
Year after year, there was always a story to be done about the Kennedys — from tragedy and triumph to scandal and stories of great compassion. These stories became a saga marked by a string of political yarns, family tragedies, weddings, divorces and funerals and Americans never tired of hearing or reading about them.
I never met John Kennedy but I would become a footnote of sorts to the awful events that befell the young president on that trip to Texas in 1963.
I was the night police reporter at my home town newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in those days and Kennedy had made a breakfast speech in Fort Worth before going to Dallas on that fateful day. When we got word he had been shot, I raced to the office and within minutes heard the radio bulletin: the president was dead.
There was total bedlam in the newsroom. Editors were hollering at people to “get to Dallas and call us when you get there.” Every phone was ringing. I grabbed one, only to hear a woman caller ask, “Is there anyone there who can give me a ride to Dallas?”
“Lady,” I shouted, “We’re not running a taxi service and besides, the President has been shot.”
“Yes,” the voice responded, “I just heard it on the radio and they said my son is the one they’ve arrested.”
It was Lee Harvey Oswald’s Mother.
I jotted down her address and assured her I would be there shortly to take her to Dallas.
The paper’s auto editor Bill Foster was test driving a Cadillac so I commandeered Foster and his sedan and the two of us took her to the Dallas police station.
In those days, we never told people who we were unless they asked and since I always wore a snap brim hat, the Dallas cops assumed I was a young detective when we told them we had brought Oswald’s mother from Fort Worth. When I asked a detective chief if she could talk with her son, I was stunned when he agreed and we were ushered into a holding room off the jail.
As we waited for Oswald to be brought in, I knew I was on the verge of the biggest story of my life — a chance to question the man who had been charged with killing a president.
Alas, it was not to be. After six hours in the police station, an FBI agent finally did what someone should have done when I arrived. He asked who I was, and was not amused to discover I was a reporter. He told me to leave immediately, seemed in a mood to kill me and said something to that effect.
I never got that scoop but over the years there would be more stories to write about the Kennedys.
Kennedy’s brother Robert would later die at the hands of another assassin and shortly after I joined CBS News in 1969, Ted Kennedy drove his car off the Chappaquiddick bridge. As the rookie in the Washington bureau, one of my first assignments was to track down those who had been with him that night and convince them to talk about it. I was never able to do that, nor did anyone else, but the episode would dog Kennedy for the rest of his life. In the years to come, memories of that night would fade but never be entirely forgotten.
As time passed, Americans would watch Ted Kennedy became the family patriarch, the one who walked the nieces down the aisle during the best times and got the nephews out of trouble during the bad times. When John Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash, it was Ted Kennedy who gave yet another eulogy at yet another Kennedy funeral.
I would come to know and cover Ted Kennedy first as an unsuccessful presidential candidate and later as one of the senate’s shrewdest negotiators and most effective leaders. I interviewed him countless times in capitol corridors and on “Face the Nation.” There was always something to ask a Kennedy about because whatever the news, one of them always seemed to be involved in some way.
Ted Kennedy’s death ended a career in which he was responsible for a mountain of legislative achievements — reforms touching on everything from women’s rights, to treatment of the disabled to health insurance for children. It was a remarkable legacy but just one chapter in a family saga that had fascinated Americans for more than half a century.
It is famously said that newspapers are the first draft of history and it is the first draft of the Kennedy story has been assembled in this book — the newspaper accounts that recorded the Kennedy story as it happened.
It is a story marked by tragedy, despair and man’s inhumanity to man but in the end it is a story of hope and resiliency and it is all here, not fiction as it sometimes reads, but reality as it was recorded by those who were there when it happened.