November 17th, 2013

The flight from Dallas

Today on CNN’s  Reliable Sources with guest host Frank Sesno, Director of the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, Chris Jones, reporter for Esquire, spoke to CNN about the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, and his Esquire article on time spent on Air Force One returning from Dallas.

A full transcript is available after the jump.

FRANK SESNO, CNN HOST:  In last’s month issue of “Esquire” magazine, writer Chris Jones pieced together an utterly riveting timeline of events from inside Air Force One on the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, from the moment the flight crew heard something had gone terribly wrong to the solemn removal of the casket, bearing President Kennedy’s body back at Andrews Air Force Base.

Chris Jones joins us now from Ottawa, Canada.

Chris, thanks very much.  I have to say, this was one of the most dramatic pieces of writing material I have ever read and in places I almost teared up as I was reading this.

That’s how powerful you have put something together here.  You build it around the pilot, Colonel James Swindal, whom you describe as handsome 46-year-old carpenter’s son from Alabama.

Why?

CHRIS JONES, “ESQUIRE” MAGAZINE:  I think writing about the Kennedy assassination is a tough trick.  It’s been so — not over covered but so covered and so dissected, I was looking for something new, maybe a window into that world that gave it a more human scale again and James Swindal is one of those small characters from that day that I thought people should get to know.

SESNO:  And you say he sat there on the tarmac with his roast beef sandwich as the president’s valet, George Thomas, another character you introduce, and you have this scene — lays out a carefully pressed shirt, polished pair of shoes, a lightweight blue suit for the next stop, Austin, a stop that would never take place.

JONES:  That’s — I mean, those moments of realization for me are some of the most dramatic parts of that day.  I think everybody who was alive then can remember how they heard.

And in this instance, it was just another day.  They were flying to Austin later that afternoon.  Like you say, George Thomas was laying out John F. Kennedy’s clothes for the trip to the Johnson Ranch and slowly this word trickled into that plane.

And you can imagine that day they had flown into Dallas and they had watched their president leave in a limousine, and now they’re hearing over their radios that he’s gone.

Swindal is listening to Charlie frequency on the radio, surrounded by $2 million of the highest tech communications gear on the planet.  Explain what he hears and what starts to happen.

JONES:  He can hear the Secret Service agents, so he can hear the motorcade as it’s winding its way through Dallas.

And what he immediately hears is the Secret Service agents saying to cover Johnson.  Everyone has code names.  All of the Secret Service agents have names like Daylight and Dagger.  And Johnson’s code name was Volunteer.

Swindal hears, “Cover Volunteer,” but he doesn’t know why.  He thinks at that moment that John F. Kennedy’s back — which is notoriously tricky;  he was wearing a brace that day — had gone out and that the motorcade had to stop and they were covering Johnson while it was paused.  He had no idea at that point of the gravity of the situation.

SESNO:  You walk us through a lot of things, the drama on the plane when they learn the news; the — George — the president’s valet, George Thomas, goes back to the room after he hears the president’s been shot and puts the clothes away.

Later, LBJ and Lady Bird arrive after this terrible thing has gone down.  Jackie comes back to the plane.  Of all the things that you learned about that took place on that plane, what was most striking and maybe disturbing to you?

JONES:  I mean, there’s a thousand different moments.  That’s a really good question.

I mean, I think the interactions between Jackie and Johnson and Lady Bird were fascinating to me.  The fact that both camps, the Kennedy camp and the Johnson camp, ended up on that plane, because the plane is for the president.

And depending on your point of view, both Kennedy and Johnson were the president at the moment.

The little human details, James Swindal, the pilot, breaking down as they fly over America.  Jackie’s — the blood on Jackie and her refusal to clean herself up, to take off the stockings that were still soaked with her husband’s blood.

(CROSSTALK)

SESNO:  (INAUDIBLE) I want them to see — she kept saying, I want them to see what they have done to Jack.

JONES:  She understood — there was radio transmissions between the plane and Washington that she would be coming off the back of the plane away from the cameras. 

And she made up her mind during that flight that, no, no, I want people to see what happened here.  And I think in some ways  that’s the appeal of this story for me.

I’m 39; I wasn’t alive when this happened, and for someone my age, these characters are almost mythological in some ways, almost unreal.  And there was a way — this was my way of making them human again.

SESNO:  Well, I will tell you, Chris Jones, you made them human.  I was in second grade and you took me back there and both there and here.  And it’s an amazing piece in “Esquire,” and I commend you for it and I recommend it to anybody who hasn’t read it.

Thank you so much.

JONES:  Thank you, Frank, very much.