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Novak: Kennedy's death 'something I'll never forget'

Rowland Evans, left, and Robert Novak at the White House in 1963.
Rowland Evans, left, and Robert Novak at the White House in 1963.

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•On Saturday, see "CNN Presents: 'President Kennedy Has Been Shot'" at 8 p.m. EST. 

•Then stay tuned at 9 p.m. EST Saturday for a "Larry King Live" interview with Nellie Connally, the last surviving passenger of the Kennedy presidential limo.  
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CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta talks with Dr. Robert Grossman, one of the physicans who worked to save Kennedy's life in 1963.
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The book 'Remembering Jack' offers photographer Jacques Lowe's intimate portraits of Kennedy and his family.
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CNN's Jeff Greenfield on U.S. optimism in the days before the assassination.
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Dan Rather, who covered John F. Kennedy's trip to Dallas for CBS, describes what he saw and heard.
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On the Scene
Robert Novak
John Fitzgerald Kennedy

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- On the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, CNN contributor and syndicated columnist Robert Novak was a 32-year-old journalist working in Washington with fellow columnist, the late Roland "Rowly" Evans.

Novak recently visited Kennedy's grave and the eternal flame memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. He shared his memories of November 22, 1963.

NOVAK: Rowly and I were having lunch at the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel with the director of the Goldwater for President campaign and Sen. Barry Goldwater's press secretary.

We had finished the lunch and all four of us got in the same cab and as we got in the cab we heard the news on the radio that the president had been shot. And Goldwater's press secretary -- Tony Smith -- blurted out, "Oh my God, I'm afraid the Birchers did it," meaning the radical right-wing John Birch Society.

We went to the National Press Building where we had an office. We had a Sunday column that had already moved on the wires -- just sort of light items. We killed that column and immediately wrote a column to try to convey what this travesty meant to the country, even though we didn't have the slightest idea what it did mean.

Our office was one floor below our home paper's office, the New York Herald-Tribune. The Tribune had one correspondent with President Kennedy in Dallas. They were going to send a whole bunch of people to the hospital for a death-watch and as they prepared to go to Dallas, the words came out on The Associated Press ticker, "The president is dead."

We didn't have a chance to watch television coverage of the assassination that day. We were on the phone to politicians and we were reading the AP wires trying to change our column for Sunday and write a column for Monday.

The first thing, after we finished the Sunday column, we went up to the 12th floor of the press building and got a good stiff drink at the Press Club bar.

It was absolute shock. People could not relate to it. It was something that crossed any party lines or ideological lines, whether you liked Kennedy or didn't like him, people were just in a state of shock.

I don't believe anybody really thought of this as a conspiracy. You've got to remember, this was a different time in 1963. You didn't think in terms of conspiracy or plots or terrorism. Everybody pretty well took it at face value that this was a one-man operation by Lee Harvey Oswald.

Everybody was amazed how quickly the assassin was found and incarcerated. Nobody suspected it was anybody else.

And the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald on television -- I was watching it in my home on Capitol Hill and it was absolutely like something out of a very bad movie. But nobody that I knew thought that Jack Ruby shot Oswald to quiet him. They thought of Ruby as some kind of a nut.

In the aftermath of the assassination, Mrs. Kennedy was fantastic. She was stoic. She was dignified. Before the tragedy, she was considered a little flighty -- with that finishing-school accent. But afterward she became a totally different person -- a figure of great admiration by the American people, which she was until her dying day.

When Kennedy's body was lying in state at the Capitol, I went with my wife to the Capitol Rotunda to see the body and waited for a long time. Thousands and thousands of people came into town without any place to stay -- not to gawk or to sightsee, but just to show their grief.

I'm from Joliet, Illinois, but I hardly knew the mayor of Joliet at the time -- Maurice Berlinsky. But he knew I was from Joliet and he called me. He had no place to stay. He had no appointments with anybody, but he just felt he had to pass the coffin of the slain president.

The funeral procession through the streets of Washington -- your heart was in your mouth. The image I shall always remember is the heads of state walking through the streets of Washington.

I can remember it as if it were today: French President Charles de Gaulle, standing about 6-foot-4, and about two feet from him was Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, standing at about 5-feet tall -- and I couldn't believe that these people were walking through the streets.

Even then, the notion of security had started to come up and I think de Gaulle had been told he was such a prominent figure that he shouldn't walk in the streets. He said "nonsense."

He didn't have a good relationship with President Kennedy, but as a fellow president and a fellow warrior in World War II, he wanted to pay his respects. And he didn't care about warnings that he might be assassinated in the streets of Washington. But even then the police were very much afraid with all those celebrities walking in the streets.

I think the assassination of John F. Kennedy had a profound affect on America. I don't think America was ever the same. The images have been blurred since then, and I think the sense of history by Americans is so poor that there's very little remembrance or recollections or historical teaching of what happened in those days. But I can tell you, for those who were there, it was something I'll never forget and it's emblazoned in my memory.

CNN Producer Bob Kovach contributed to this report.


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