Former ‘Monitor’ writer Bill Sanderson tells the story of another writer: the one who broke the JFK story

  • UPI Newsman Merriman Smith accompanies President Kennedy on March 16, 1961. More than two years later, he’d be the first to report on JFK’s assassination. AP file

  • In this Nov. 25, 1963 photo, 3-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr., salutes his father’s casket in Washington, three days after the president was assassinated in Dallas. Widow Jacqueline Kennedy (center) and daughter Caroline Kennedy are accompanied by the late president’s brothers Sen. Edward Kennedy (left) and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. AP file

Monitor staff
Published: 11/21/2016 10:30:51 PM

Merriman Smith got the scoop that day in Dallas 53 years ago today.

Not Walter Cronkite, the famed TV news anchor, as many of you probably think. And certainly not Smith’s main rival at the Associated Press, a man named Jack Bell, who used his fists in a vain attempt to take from Smith the only means of communication the two reporters had while John F. Kennedy sat four cars ahead of them, a bullet in his head.

It was Smith, aka Smitty, of course, whose reporting for the now-defunct United Press International informed Cronkite that JFK had been shot and killed in 1963. And it’s Smitty whose own personal story fell through the cracks and landed on the desk of New York Post editor Bill Sanderson, a former writer for the Monitor and the author of a new book called, Bulletins from Dallas: Reporting the JFK Assassination.

“I know there have been thousands of books written about (the shooting and subsequent conspiracy theories), but I was surprised no one had dug into this guy’s story before,” Sanderson told me by phone last week. “No one has ever done this. I spoke to people who were there about stuff they didn’t even know about.”

Sanderson will talk about Smitty and his own experience piecing the book together on Dec. 13 at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications in Manchester. The event is presented by retired Associated Press writer David Tirrell-Wysocki, an old-school reporter who still carries a notebook in his back pocket.

The United Press International, forever known as UPI, and Associated Press, still referred to as the AP, once formed an alphabet soup of information, and the rivalry between the two wire services was ferocious.

That was never more evident than on Nov. 22, 1963, when UPI reported news of the shooting and JFK’s death fast and accurately, thanks to Smitty. Meanwhile, the AP and its reporter on the scene, Bell, in the same car as Smitty at the time, got burned.

That’s the basis of Sanderson’s book. The two writers were in what was known as the wire car, four cars from Kennedy’s open limousine as the motorcade snaked through downtown Dallas. The lone form of mobile communication anywhere in sight was a two-way radio phone, sitting in the front seat.

In those days, UPI and the AP were supposed to rotate seating, back seat and front seat, giving each news agency fair access to the phone up front. Getting the story first meant everything, and getting to the phone did, too.

And while it’s not clear whose turn it was that dark day, Smitty had the front row seat, as he often did, boxing out Bell. Bell was not the AP’s deadline political writer, instead covering the Senate with analysis and think pieces. That day, though, he apparently asked and got permission to fill in for the regular beat writer.

“He asked to ride in his place,” Sanderson explained. “I think that was Jack’s mistake of the day, because he was a guy who did not cover much breaking news, and Smitty was a gunslinger. He was going to get the story first. It could have been AP’s turn to sit by the phone that day and either Jack Bell didn’t know or didn’t care and Smitty gets in the front seat of the car. He would always get in the front seat of the car.”

At 12:30 p.m., three successive shots rang out, later determined to have come from the Texas School Depository, located behind the line of cars, off to their right.

At that moment, during those historical seconds, Smitty’s background with guns told him what was going on.

Not firecrackers. Not a car backfiring.

Gun shots.

“Smitty was a gun nut,” Sanderson said. “He owned guns and he knew right away.”

Plus, Smitty had the presence of mind to react, the coolness to slow the world down while everything everywhere crumbled around him, a skill based on instincts that is hard to teach.

He reached forward, grabbed the phone, called the UPI bureau in Dallas and, with no confirmation, told the man on the other end news that, if inaccurate, would have gotten him fired.

It was the lead to an updated version of his story:

“THREE SHOTS WERE FIRED AT PRESIDENT KENNEDY’S MOTORCADE IN DOWNTOWN DALLAS.”

Done. The toothpaste was out of the tube.

That’s when the wire-service rivalry surfaced, one that would have made FOX and MSNBC proud. From the back of the car, Bell demanded the phone and started punching Smitty in his back to get it.

Smitty did everything he could to keep the phone from his competitor. He leaned forward and tucked himself under the dashboard and pretended as though he couldn’t hear the UPI-bureau journalist on the other end, asking him to repeat back what Smitty had told him.

Meanwhile, those in the wire car saw that something wasn’t right up ahead. Smitty later said he saw a flash of pink, which was probably First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, wearing her well-known suit that day, moving to comfort her mortally wounded husband. Then they saw the limo burst from the line and demanded their driver follow along.

“They pull up to Parkland Hospital and Smitty has been on the phone the whole time,” Sanderson said. “He then gets out and tosses the phone to Jack Bell and Bell puts a call into the AP Bureau and says, ‘This is Jack Bell,’ and the phone goes dead.”

History has since speculated as to why the phone didn’t work. Did tricky Smitty fool with it to increase his advantage over Bell?

Anyway, while Bell fooled with the phone, Smitty sprinted to the presidential limo, before hospital attendants had even arrived, before, even, anyone really knew the full extent of what had happened.

Smitty peaked in and saw the president and his wife.

“His description is better than anything I can tell you,” Sanderson told me.

So I looked up Smitty’s second-day account:

“The president was face down on the back seat,” Smitty wrote. “Mrs. Kennedy made a cradle of her arms around the president’s head and bent over him as if she were whispering to him.

“I could not see the president’s wound,” Smitty continued. “But I could see blood spattered around the interior of the rear seat and a dark stain spreading down the right side of the president’s dark gray suit.”

From there, Smitty asked a Secret Service agent about Kennedy’s condition and was told, “He’s dead, Smitty.”

Smitty then ran into the hospital, begged for a phone and dictated the 50-word piece, quoting the Secret Service agent, that alerted Cronkite, who told the nation that JFK had been assassinated.

From there, Sanderson’s description of how UPI embarrassed the AP that day continues with Smitty bumming a ride from a cop and racing to the airport to witness the swearing-in of new president Lyndon B. Johnson aboard Air Force One.

Bell was still at Parkland Hospital.

Smitty won the Pulitzer Prize.

“It was an inside look at how people felt that day,” Sanderson said. “The piece holds up today.”

Smitty’s story ended seven years later, when he committed suicide at age 57. Well liked by colleagues (except for one), Smitty was a hard drinker whose son had been killed in Vietnam. He failed many times to stop drinking, and Sanderson said he might have suffered from mental illness.

I asked Sanderson if Smitty believed JFK’s murder was a conspiracy, or that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

“Smitty never had any regard for conspiracy theories,” Sanderson told me. “He despised them. He never had any doubt. He never had any use for anyone who said otherwise.

“He’d just tell people, ‘I was there.’ ”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)


Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.



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