Many hotshot national news hounds who covered the murder of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas 50 years ago today long ago became part of assassination lore — from Tom Wicker’s extraordinary first-day story for the Times and Dan Rather’s man-from-Mars earphone feeds for Uncle Walter, to Bob Schieffer’s taxi service exclusive interview with assassin mom Marguerite Oswald and Robert MacNeil’s bizarre search for a phone in the Texas School Book Depository.
Among the list of journalists who built careers on the JFK assassination, however, the most famous one you’ve never heard of is 82-year old Hugh Aynesworth.
Far more than the others, it is the local Dallas reporter Aynesworth whose sustained work — and several inadvertent screw-ups — has shaped the assassination and its aftermath, both as a news story, and as an historic narrative.
From a series of first-day scoops he delivered to his editors at the Dallas Morning-News through several books and a terrific, new online one-hour documentary he produced featuring interviews with reporters, photographers and lawmen on the scene that day, he’s spent five decades working the “assassination beat,” the repository of more first-hand knowledge of the event than any journalist living or dead and the primary source of vast amounts of derivative coverage.
As author Philip Shenon describes him in “A Cruel and Shocking Act,” a newly-published, superb and essential investigation of the Warren Commission:
Aynesworth had many gifts as a reporter, including a phenomenal memory, a polite, aw-shucks manner, and a slow, soft-speaking style that encouraged people to trust him. Despite a boyish face, he was a big man who knew how to defend himself. He had a scar that ran from his throat to one ear, the result of an encounter with a knife-wielding assailant who broke into his home in Denver when he worked there as a reporter for United Press International. An admiring Texas reporter once said that the scar made Aynesworth “look like a cross between Andy Hardy and Al Capone.”
Where the hell’s my notebook? On Nov. 22, 1963, Aynesworth was employed as his paper’s space and aviation reporter, then a glamor beat, and not assigned to the coverage of the President and First Lady’s visit to Dallas. He had strolled to Dealey Plaza on his lunch hour just to see the motorcade, but immediately started interviewing witnesses after shots were fired – despite a lack of some basic reporting tools:
He had no notepad, so he grabbed a utility bill from his back pocket. He had no pen either, so he paid a child on the street 50 cents for his “fat jumbo pencil, like the ones kids used to use in early grade school.” A tiny plastic American flag dangled from the eraser.
Over the next few days, Aynesworth was a whirl – extremely resourceful, lucky and good.
Moments after the shooting, he leaned in to eavesdrop as a Dallas cop interviewed Howard Brennan, a craftsman who was the first witness to report seeing a man with a rifle in the sixth-floor window of the book depository; monitoring the scanner on a police motorcycle, he heard about the shooting of Officer J.D. Tippet, had a hunch it was related to the JFK killing, and rushed to the scene in time to witness Oswald’s arrest inside the Texas Theatre; he assigned himself to go to Dallas police headquarters on Sunday morning to watch the alleged assassin being transferred, and was standing 15 feet away when Jack Ruby murdered Oswald.
Hey, we’re in Houston, we’ll print anything: In the weeks, years and decades that followed, Aynesworth kept piling up scoops, from the first interview with Marina Oswald to reporting on the assassin’s Moscow diary.
He sometimes heard from reporters less enterprising than himself, pleading for help, trying to run down leads or gather some background. One of the more annoying was a purported competitor named Lonnie Hudkins, from the Houston Post, who pestered him with calls.
The month after the murders, Aynesworth decided to play a practical joke on Hudkins, when the Houston reporter called and asked if his Dallas colleague had heard anything about Oswald being a paid FBI informant. Oh sure, Aynesworth replied, doesn’t everyone know that? For good measure, he said that he assumed Hudkins had Oswald’s official FBI confidential informant number, then read off some figures from a paper on his desk.
To his shock, the Post ran a Page 1 story headlined “Oswald Rumored as Informant for U.S.,” under Hudkins’s byline on January 1, 1964, strongly suggesting the rumors were true (which they were not) and reporting Oswald’s hush-hush double secret FBI number. When the story reached Washington, Chief Justice Earl Warren promptly ordered the staff director of the commission investigating the assassination to confront FBI director J. Edgar Hoover directly about the claim. Hoover, insulted, humiliated and ever-eager to play the bully, hit the roof, then quietly ordered his agents to stop cooperating with the commission:
Only later would Aynesworth learn, to his astonishment, that his practical joke on a competitor created the Warren Commission’s first great crisis – and forever ruptured the commission’s relationship with the FBI.
On the conspiracy beat: From the first hours after JFK’s shooting, Aynesworth also was beset and besieged by every manner of conspiracy theorist, eventually including New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who invited the reporter down for an exclusive briefing and look inside his three-ring circus investigation.
Garrison got more than he bargained for. By then a Newsweek correspondent, Aynesworth was the first to call out Garrison’s inconstant and crackpot theories and extra-legal methods, including his responsibility in the death of one of the D.A.’s targets. His May 15, 1967 piece began:
Jim Garrison is right. There has been a conspiracy in New Orleans – but it is a plot of Garrison’s own making. It is a scheme to concoct a fantastic “solution” to the death of John F. Kennedy and to make it stick; in this case, the district attorney and his staff have been indirect parties to the death of one man and have humiliated, harassed and financially gutted several others.
Aynesworth’s interactions with conspiracy buffs were not always so heroic.
In December 1963, he got a call from Mark Lane, the New York lawyer whose “Rush to Judgment” would later jump-start the still robust JFK conspiracy industry, and agreed to meet with him in Dallas.
When Lane began hectoring Aynesworth with a batch of factually challenged assertions about the day of the assassination, the reporter told him he knew Lane was wrong because he had hard copies of all the witness statements to the Dallas P.D., which had been leaked to Aynesworth by a friendly cop.
Lane asked if he could borrow the documents, the better to get the full truth; to his ever-lasting regret, Aynewsworth agreed. Surprise, surprise, Lane not only never returned them, as he’d agreed, but also began flourishing them at news conferences, complete with his original interpretations, using them to establish his credibility as an assassination expert with secret sources.
“I was very naïve,” Aynesworth would say later. “I made mistakes. I helped create the monster of Mark Lane. There’s no doubt about it.”
Our special coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination continues tomorrow with some personal recollections from Calbuzzers, Calbuzzards and Consultanate members.