Kennedy witness speaks at Packard

WARREN Sid Davis could have been the first person to tell the world that President John F. Kennedy was dead on Nov. 22, 1963.

He was one of a few journalists talking to a local priest at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, and the priest told them, “He’s dead all right. I just gave him the last rites.”

He had a room on the second floor of the hospital and an open telephone line to his bosses at Westinghouse Broadcasting, but they decided to hold the story until Malcolm Kilduff, Kennedy’s assistant White House press secretary, made the official announcement a few minutes later.

That was one of several stories about Kennedy and the other presidents he covered that Sid Davis shared during a Trumbull Town Hall lecture Wednesday at Packard Music Hall.

As Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Davis was on the press bus about eight car lengths behind and directly in front of the Texas Book Depository.

“We could hear the shots more clearly because we were right underneath (the window),” he said.

There were no special protective features on the car carrying the president. There was a plexiglass protective bubble for the top, but Kennedy specifically said he didn’t want it used. And the Secret Service was riding behind the president instead of alongside him.

Hours later Davis was one of only three reporters on Air Force One when Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president, with Jacqueline Kennedy standing by his side. Davis said he could see blood stains and flecks of flesh on the young widow’s raspberry-colored suit, and he believes she made a conscious choice to be a part of that moment.

“She knew it was important for her to be in this picture,” Davis said. “It showed the strength of the Constitution, the continuance of government … she chose to leave her husband’s casket to show that government goes on.”

Davis covered nine presidents during his journalistic career. He said he believes most important moment of Kennedy’s presidency was his Cuban Missile Crisis speech, particularly the point that any missile launch by Cuba would result in retaliation from the United States against the Soviet Union. That tough stance surprised the Soviets and led to a peaceful solution.

“If anyone doubted the strength, integrity and intelligence of John Kennedy, this event proved them wrong,” Davis said.

He was the press pool reporter in the room when Kennedy delivered the speech. As the president was getting ready, Davis could see the copy of the speech shaking in Kennedy’s hand.

“Once the red light on the camera came on, he had ice water in his veins,” Davis said.

Before working for Westinghouse Broadcasting and later NBC, Davis got his start in Youngstown working at WKBN-TV. He displayed a photo from WKBN studios in 1956 that showed him talking with an actor named Ronald Reagan. Decades later, when he was President Reagan, Davis got the photo signed.

“He was as genuine as can be, just an unbelievably kind person,” Davis said.

When he was in charge of NBC’s White House bureau, Davis said his new secondary White House correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, complained that Reagan never would call on her at press conferences. Davis told her that First Lady Nancy Reagan wore a lot of red dresses, so maybe she should try to get his attention by wearing red.

At the next press conference, Mitchell wore red and was called on for one of the first questions. At the next press conference, she wore red, was called on early and was acknowledged by name.

“By the third news conference, all of the women were wearing red,” he said.