A Day Hard to Imagine

Senators Recall the Aftermath of Kennedy’s Death

Posted November 19, 2003 at 6:15pm

For Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), it’s the whispers and muted sniffles that he remembers hearing when the body of the slain president lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda 40 years ago.

“I’ve been to the Rotunda quite often,” said Inouye, who was a freshman Senator when President John F. Kennedy was killed.

“But to see hundreds of people there and the only sound you hear is sniffling and shuffling of feet — and no voices — it’s an eerie sound,” recalled Inouye. “It’s hard to imagine that.”

For the 79-year-old Inouye, the sights and sounds of the days surrounding the assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, are still a vivid memory.

“On the day of the assassination I happened to be standing and reading the [Associated Press] wire service,” Inouye said, noting that he remembers seeing the stark words — “The president has been shot” — scrolled out on a sheet of paper.

Later Inouye joined then-Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) and many other Members at Andrews Air Force Base for the sad duty of greeting new President Lyndon Johnson and the late president’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, along with the casket of the slain president.

Like Inouye, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) is one of the few current lawmakers who was in office at the time of the assassination. Byrd also remembers where he was when he first heard about the assassination.

“I remember a group of Senators, including myself, who gathered to watch the television,” Byrd said. “A great pall of sadness was over all as we watched, not knowing that President Kennedy had died. I have never seen a more dark, sad day in the Senate than was that day.”

A casket containing Kennedy’s remains was brought to the Capitol on a horse-drawn carriage before a crowd of 400,000 people, according to an article in the Nov. 27, 1963, edition of Roll Call.

“I looked out of my window and saw history march by,” noted Roll Call columnist Bernard Yudain. “The vista from an office building is hardly the place you expect to see one of the most awesome spectacles of the age … the muffled drums; the majestic marching trips, the horse drawn caisson are real.”

The body was then taken to the Rotunda, where it lay on public display from the afternoon of Nov. 24 until the morning of the 25th, when it was removed for burial.

“On the day the body lay in state, Members of Congress went there before the public,” Inouye remembers. “Afterwards I stood on the side and I was watching when Mrs. Kennedy and the children came in.”

Inouye, who said that he isn’t usually someone who chokes up easily, had to rush out of the Rotunda. “It was too much,” he said.

Upwards of 250,000 people braved the damp nighttime cold to view the flag-draped coffin.

“It was jammed-packed with people,” said Don Ritchie, the associate Senate Historian. “There were long lines of people all through the night.”

The Capitol ceremonies presented one of the biggest challenges of the day for the Capitol Police — given the size of the crowd, the long hours and the fact that the assassination sparked so much concern about security.

“They were still a patronage police force, so it was much more of a strain on them,” Ritchie said of the Capitol Police.

Most Capitol Police officers were on duty for a 32-hour stretch starting at 6:45 a.m. Nov. 24 and lasting through 3:15 p.m. Nov. 25, according to Roll Call. No major incidents were reported.

After Kennedy’s body was removed, work in Congress soon went back to normal, when President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress on Nov. 27, 1963.

“There was a great sense of getting on with work,” Ritchie said. “There were a lot of tributes to the president, but also concern for a thorough investigation.”

Inouye has similar memories. “As far as I recall, we started working that Monday,” he said. “We wanted to finish the unfinished business.”

For Byrd, despite the vivid memory surrounding Kennedy’s assassination, the primary recollection of that day should go beyond the “nightmare of the tragedy.”

“I believe that our principal recollection should be what President Kennedy meant to America and the world — the pride we felt in having John F. Kennedy as president of the United States,” Byrd said.

“Although he was with us as president but three short years,” he added, “I do not fear contradiction when I say that the United States is a greater country today because of John Kennedy.”