“The Only Thing You Could Hear Was People Crying”

Casket of President John F. Kennedy in front of the U.S. Capitol/tiles/non-collection/J/JFK_lying_in_state1.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office The casket of President John F. Kennedy rests on a horse-drawn caisson in front of the U.S. Capitol.
“Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?” became a defining question for a generation of Americans stunned by the violent act which took the life of the 35th U.S. President. As the nation sought to come to terms with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Capitol prepared for a rare lying-in-state ceremony reserved for the country’s most distinguished citizens. Countless staff worked behind the scenes to quickly assemble a memorial service to honor a fallen President and to help a distraught nation mourn the untimely passing of a popular American leader.

On November 24 and 25, 1963, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Washington, D.C., to pay their final respects to President Kennedy. After a solemn procession from the White House to the Capitol which included a riderless horse and a 21-gun salute, military officers carried the President’s coffin from the caisson up the Capitol steps to the Rotunda, and placed it onto the same catafalque built for Abraham Lincoln’s lying-in-state ceremony nearly a century before. Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, and Chief Justice Earl Warren eulogized the deceased President. “He had deep faith, complete confidence, human sympathy and broad vision which recognized the true values of freedom, equality and the brotherhood which have always been the mark of the American political dreams,” McCormack observed. At the conclusion of the formal remarks, staff had the opportunity to pay their respects before the Rotunda was opened to the public. Some staff, however, had been busy preparing for the historical event.

President Kennedy's body in the Capitol Rotunda/tiles/non-collection/J/JFK_lying_in_state2.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office Inside the Capitol Rotunda, people paid their respects to the fallen President, while the media documented the historic event.
With little time to spare, and with the national spotlight on the lying-in-state ceremony, staff worked diligently to ensure that the momentous event went smoothly. Mike Michaelson, former superintendent of the House Radio-TV Gallery, was one of many House employees who contributed his expertise and knowledge to the organization of the event. In the new era of television, where media outlets could broadcast video to people across the nation, Michaelson attempted to balance facilitating the coverage of the lying in state with protecting decorum and dignity. Michaelson recalled that he also handled many logistical concerns for the media such as the location of lighting and cameras—an especially complicated task given the rigorous security in place for the ceremony. “I was down on the floor, in the Rotunda,” Michaelson remembered. “I made arrangements for the stands to be built. The [Capitol] Police looked to me for guidance. And I set things up with the liaison at the police department, at the Capitol.”

Another House staffer, Benjamin C. West, former superintendent of the House Press Gallery, echoed Michaelson’s hands-on approach for special events at the Capitol. Although not asked to assist with Kennedy’s lying in state, West spoke of the preparation required for the numerous congressional ceremonies he worked. “Right away you’re thrust into meetings with the Architect [of the Capitol]. ‘Will you use the historical Lincoln catafalque?’ ‘Will the press be in its usual location in the Rotunda?’—that sort of thing. You may have been schooled and experienced in the deed, but when it {snaps fingers} comes upon you once again, it’s just a shot out of the blue. You’ve got to drop whatever you are doing and give emphasis and priority to this unfolding event.”

The outpouring of grief brought about by the suddenness and manner of the President’s death, magnified the need for careful planning and flexibility for the lying-in-state ceremony. For instance, originally scheduled as a one-day event (November 24th) with a brief re-opening of the Rotunda before the procession to Kennedy’s funeral on November 25th, congressional leaders decided to keep the Capitol open all night to accommodate the larger than expected crowd patiently lined up in the cold hoping to pay their last respects. In order to keep the lines moving smoothly, additional staff answered the call to work through the night. George Andrews, one of those who volunteered to help, was a House Page and the son of two Representatives, George and Elizabeth Andrews of Alabama. More than four decades later, Andrews still remembered the eerie silence and the solemnity of the event. “The only thing you could hear was people crying,” he remarked. Cognizant of the historical significance of the assassination and its aftermath, Andrews reflected on the significance of this event in his life.

George W. Andrews III, Page, U.S. House of Representatives, and Son of Representatives George and Elizabeth Andrews of Alabama Interview recorded May 21, 2010 Transcript (PDF)

Most contemporary news reports estimated that a quarter million people filed past President Kennedy’s coffin in the Rotunda. For those in attendance, and for the millions more who watched on TV, it was an opportunity to say goodbye to a popular President, and for many, to an era of innocence.