The day his brother was shot in Dallas, Ted Kennedy had to tell his father the news, and wondered who was behind it. Case Closed: Oswald and the Assassination of JFK author Gerald Posner reports.
It was 12:45 in Washington D.C. on November 22, 1963. Teddy Kennedy, who had been a senator for less than a year, was presiding over the Senate, a thankless clerical job assigned to junior members. The chambers were almost deserted, but a few senators were debating a mind-numbing bill about federal library services. It was nearly time to break for lunch when the Senate’s press liaison officer, Richard Reidel, ran in out of breath, his face drained of color. Reidel bumped into Florida Senator Spessard Holland. He whispered to Holland the news that JFK had been shot in Dallas. Holland, who had leaned over to hear the message, bolted upright and his mouth opened in surprise. Reidel looked up to the podium where Teddy sat, signing some photographs for his staff to send to well-wishers in Massachusetts. He strode determinately up to Teddy, leaned over, and said, "The most horrible thing has happened. It's terrible, terrible.”
"What is it?" Teddy asked, looking up.
"Your brother. Your brother the president. He's been shot."
Teddy gasped. His body instinctively jerked backward in his seat. “No! How do you know?”
“It’s on the ticker. Just came in on the ticker.”
The man who had spent much of his life getting laughs for his role as the baby brother must have known intrinsically that Jack’s death permanently changed his standing and role in the family.
Teddy scrunched his papers, grabbed them with one hand, and without saying another word, sprinted from the Senate chamber. Years later he would later tell a friend that he remembered only some of the next several hours, it all seemed a surreal blur. In fact, he ran down the Capitol’s stairs debating with an aide whether they should take the subway or sprint back to his nearby office. Teddy didn’t initially know if Jack was dead or alive, or if the assassin who had shot his brother was part of a larger plot against the government or the Kennedys in particular. He wanted to make certain that his family was safe. Before he left the Senate, he bumped into CBS newsman Roger Mudd. Teddy was silent. “I don’t know anything. I just heard,” Mudd told him.
Milton Gwirtzman, an aide, took his black Mercedes to drive Teddy at high speed from the Capitol to the senator’s Georgetown home. There, as he had in the Senate building before leaving, he tried in vain to find a working phone line. Washington’s telephone system was so overstressed after the news broke of the president’s shooting that it had crashed. In a pre-cellphone era, the inability to make or receive calls heightened the fears that something larger and more nefarious was in the works.
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Teddy was desperate to reach Bobby. Bobby would know what to do. It took almost an hour before he got through to Bobby’s Hickory Hill home in a Virginia suburb. Bobby had himself been told about Jack’s shooting in a call from the Kennedy brothers’ archrival, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover’s call had been cold and formal: “I have news for you. The president’s been shot. It’s believed to be fatal. I’ll call you back when I find out more.”
Now it was Teddy’s turn to get the hard news. "He's dead," Bobby said bluntly. "You'd better call your mother."
With his sister Eunice, Teddy left for Andrews Air Force Base, where Air Force One was flying in from Dallas with JFK’s coffin, the blood-splattered Jacqueline, and the new president, LBJ. (Teddy was too sick to attend Eunice’s memorial service when she died this year on August 11.) From there, Teddy and Eunice took a jet to Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts to join the family. At Hyannis Port, it was Teddy who delivered the crushing news to his ailing 75-year-old father, the man whose life had been dedicated to making one of his sons president.
Sunday, two days after the assassination, JFK’s coffin was carried on a horse-drawn caisson to the U.S. Capitol to lie in state. That same morning in Dallas, nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot and killed JFK’s suspected assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, in the basement of the Dallas Police Department. Throughout that day and night, hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens lined up in Washington to view the president’s guarded casket. On Monday, November 25, dignitaries and heads of state from over 90 countries attended the state funeral.
Three days after that funeral, the Kennedys gathered at Hyannis Port for what was expected to be a somber Thanksgiving. Over that weekend, Teddy stayed up with friends one night, drinking and swapping bawdy tales about the party times with Jack. The next morning, his children's governess quit, confiding to Rita Dallas, Joe Kennedy's nurse, that she was appalled by Teddy's behavior. Dallas tried unsuccessfully to convince her that it was all part of a traditional Irish wake and that she should stay.
Of course, it was more than just grieving for Jack. The ninth of nine children, Teddy’s role in the family had been that of the court jester, the jokester who entertained friends and acquaintances with stories and jokes. The man who had spent much of his life getting laughs for his role as the baby brother must have known intrinsically that Jack’s death permanently changed his standing and role in the family.
Teddy looked to Bobby for guidance on what and who had killed their brother (I wrote a book about the subject, Case Closed). For decades, the official Kennedy family account was that Bobby was so devastated by his brother’s death that whenever he was pressed by colleagues as to why he wasn’t helping more into the investigation, he responded blandly, “Jack's gone and nothing is going to bring him back.” But thousands of previously classified documents that were released in the late 1990s show the real story was significantly more complex. Bobby’s pain was compounded by guilt—what had happened in Dallas was precisely what he was overseeing to happen in Havana to Castro. It was RFK, who, as attorney general, was the driving force behind the secret plot to assassinate Castro. On the very day that JFK was murdered, CIA agents had met with a disaffected Cuban official in Paris and delivered to him a pen filled with poison with which he was supposed to kill Castro. Bobby was wracked with guilt that Castro had learned of the Kennedy’s plots against him and used Oswald, a pro-Castro activist, to turn the tables in Dallas.
• The Daily Beast's Complete Kennedy Coverage: Tributes, Photos, and VideosBobby hid any information about the plots against Castro from the Warren Commission. And he also did not tell Teddy, who would not find out about them for more than a decade, when Senate hearings finally disclosed the truth. By the spring of 1964, months before the Warren Commission’s report was finished, Bobby had dispatched his own investigators and concluded that Oswald, though an avid Castro supporter, had acted alone and that Jack Ruby was a self-appointed vigilante. None of RFK's targets—the Mob, union boss Jimmy Hoffa, or Castro—had anything to do with the Dallas murder. That’s all the information he passed to Teddy. The youngest Kennedy had no reason to be brought into the highly classified intrigues that his older brothers had hatched.
Teddy had initially suspected the Mob in Jack’s death. But when Bobby concluded quietly that it was Oswald alone, he followed suit. After that, he did not need any confirmation that one man, armed with a cheap gun, could alone change the course of history. But he learned the lesson harshly once again, less than five years after JFK’s assassination.
On the night of June 4, 1968, when Bobby won the critical California primary in his fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, Teddy was in San Francisco and gave a speech thanking the campaign’s Northern California workers. Returning to his suite at the Fairmont hotel, he and his administrative assistant, Dave Burke, turned on the TV to watch Bobby’s victory speech from Los Angeles.
"Be quiet, be quiet!" someone was screaming on the television, trying to be heard above the pandemonium. "Everyone be quiet!"
"What the hell's going on?" Teddy asked Burke.
"I don't know," Burke said, trying hard to contain his sudden alarm.
"We'd better go there," said Teddy.
Teddy was silent on the private one-hour flight to Los Angeles. The following day, after it was clear Bobby could not be saved, his spokesman Frank Mankiewicz walked out of RFK’s hospital room and spotted Teddy standing in an adjoining, dimly lit bathroom. "I have never, ever, nor do I expect ever, to see a face more in grief," Mankiewicz later recalled.
Teddy’s face said it all. He knew he was now alone. The baby brother was now in charge; two assassins had forced him to become the head of the sprawling Kennedys.
Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach , will be published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.