Bookshelf is a monthly column examining printed matter relating to television. While I love watching TV, I also love reading about it, from tie-in novels to TV Guides, from vintage television magazines to old newspaper articles. Bookshelf is published on the second Thursday of each month.
“America’s Long Vigil”
Special Section, TV Guide Volume 12, Number 4 (Issue #565)
First Published January 1964
Published by TV Guide
I’ve reviewed complete issues of TV Guide in the past, during the first incarnation of Bookshelf. This review is different. It examines a special section of the January 25th, 1964 edition of TV Guide titled “America’s Long Vigil.” It was an attempt to craft a written account of the visual, the four days of television coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination, its aftermath, the murder of his alleged killer, and his funeral.
The intent of “America’s Long Vigil” was, as explained in the “As We See It” editorial at the start of the issue, “to help viewers recall their own reactions as they saw this history [the assassination] being made, and to provide them with a permanent reminder of their television experience.”
Cover, January 25th, 1963 TV Guide – Copyright 1964 Triangle Publications, Inc.
Published only two months after the assassination, “America’s Long Vigil” is remarkable not for its breadth (although at 27 pages, it is incredibly long by TV Guide standards) nor its scope (it is not, as it claims, an actual hour-by-hour account). No, what is so exceptional about this special section is that it was able to be published at all.
Compiling “America’s Long Vigil” must have been an incredible undertaking. Credited to Dwight Whitney and his research assistant Sara Pentz, “America’s Long Vigil” required TV Guide to send reporters and photographers to view hours and hours of videotape from all three networks — heavy, two-inch Quad videotape on massive video tape recorders — and pour through official broadcast logs, hundreds of photographs and other documentation.
January 25th, 1963 TV Guide, Pages 20 & 21 – Copyright 1964 Triangle Publications, Inc.
The special section begins on Page 19 with a statement from President Lyndon B. Johnson:
Television’s remarkable performance in communicating news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the events that followed was a source of sober satisfaction to all Americans.
It acted swiftly. It acted surely. It acted intelligently and impeccable taste.
On that unforgettable weekend in November, 1963, television provided a personal experience which all could share, a vast religious service which all could attend, a unifying bond which all could feel.
I take this opportunity to add my voice to those who already have recognized television’s historic contribution.
This is followed on Page 20 with an three-page introduction that places the four days of television coverage in a historical context, noting that while most people in big cities knew of President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, there were those in more rural areas who didn’t hear the news for days. There was no chance of that with Kennedy’s assassination. Television spread the news instantly across the country within minutes and for the next four days “the American people were virtual prisoners of an electronic box.”
From the introduction:
Thus what happened on the television screen became in every sense an epic drama four days long, in which the viewers were not so much spectators as participants. The insistent commercial, the thin, strident melodrama and the pleasantly foolish prattle of the quiz game had suddenly been stilled, as a blizzard stills the clamor of the bi city. No pat endings here. In their place came the endless images of human frailty, dignity and grace, until it seemed the spirit could absorb no more.
After an interruption for the programming pages, the “permanent record” begins. It is a day-by-day account rather than hour-by-hour look back ta those four fateful days in November, starting with Walter Cronkite’s initial bulletin breaking into As the World Turns at 1:30PM Eastern on Friday, November 22nd and ending somewhat vaguely four days later on Monday, November 25th following Kennedy’s funeral.
Some exact times are given for each day, allowing for a rough chronology to unfold. At 2:32PM on Friday, two priests say Kennedy is dead. At 2:38PM, Cronkite’s historic announcement confirming the President’s death. At 7:30PM, viewers got their first good look at Lee Harvey Oswald.
January 25th, 1963 TV Guide, Pages 36 & 37- Copyright 1964 Triangle Publications, Inc.
There are photographs, too. Both large and small. Dozens of black-and-white photographs taken from the network videotapes. The first CBS bulletin. NBC’s David Brinkley describing President Johnson’s swearing in. A police officer holding up Oswald’s rifle. Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby. John-John’s famous salute. The White House flag at half-mast.
Here’s the final paragraph:
For if nothing else had happened during the Four Days, the medium had gained a new sense of what it could do, if pressed. Moreover, it had shown that it did indeed deserve to be called, as Ron Cochran had put it, the window of the world. And that the window was capable of encompassing not just life’s trivia, but the deepest of human experience.
As someone who wasn’t alive when President Kennedy was assassination, who didn’t watch the coverage unfold in November 1963, “America’s Long Vigil” does an incredible job describing what took place on television over those four days. On the cover, TV Guide declared it “a special section you will want to keep.” I am sure tens of thousands of people did.