Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 20, 2013

'He was truly a beloved president': Former Speaker recalls ride in JFK motorcade

By Sally Sexton
CNHI News Service

WEATHERFORD, Texas — The name Jim Wright is known in wide political circles, from Texas all the way to Washington D.C.

Once the mayor of this Fort Worth suburb, Wright was later elected to Congress and then named Speaker of the House, serving under eight presidents in total.

But it was while serving under John F. Kennedy in 1963 that one incident forever changed his world.

"It was a marvelous day in Fort Worth," Wright, now 90, said of the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, when he greeted Kennedy in Fort Worth, one of his many stops in Texas as he prepared for his next presidential campaign. "It was an emotional high seeing our president, hearing him and his speech at the [Fort Worth] Chamber of Commerce breakfast. There was optimism and upbeat hope."

Following the breakfast, Wright, Kennedy, Texas Gov. John Connally and others hopped aboard Air Force One to for the 13-minute flight from Carswell Air Force Base to Love Field in Dallas.

"While on board, the president asked Gov. Connally and myself to come and sit with him in his private quarters," Wright said. "He asked us to explain for him the pushes that led to the development of Fort Worth and Dallas, and why the two towns were are different as they were.

"We were doing our best to tell him what we knew and what we could put together on that subject. Shortly after when the plane landed, the president looked at us and said, 'We must consider this conversation this afternoon on the way to Austin.'"

It would be the last conversation Wright and Kennedy would have.

"That day was an emotional roller coaster," Wright recalled. "Before it was over, it had us all down in the lowest level of despondency."

Traveling in the sixth car in the presidential motorcade headed through downtown Dallas, Wright followed the others along the 10-mile route, heading to the Trade Mart, where the president was to speak at a luncheon.

"I was pleasantly surprised at the turnout of all the people on the streets," Wright said. "It was a great welcome from a multitude of people through the streets of Dallas."

Wright saw the president's car turn off onto Elm Street and, just a few minutes later, heard the first gunshot.

"My first instinct was that it was the backfire of a car," he said. "And then I heard the second one and I said, 'Doggone it, some goofy guy is trying to fire a 21-gun salute!' But when I heard the third shot, I realized that the cadence was just off so I knew it wasn't that."

At the time, Wright's car had passed beneath the window where Lee Harvey Oswald was said to be standing with his gun.

"I didn't see him, but there were several others in the motorcade who claimed he was leaning out with the rifle in his hands," Wright said.

As Wright's car headed toward the freeway and to the scene of the shooting, he saw a secret serviceman running beside the president's car, which was carrying JFK, wife Jackie and Connally, and dive inside to push the president down.

"Then the car shot forward, and I saw Ms. Kennedy leaning against the backseat looking out of the back of the car," Wright said. "The secret serviceman was pulling her back into the seat and we followed the car to [Parkland Hospital.]

"When we got there, I saw people helping carry the president inside and also helping Connally, who had been shot also."

A few minutes later, someone came out to announce that Kennedy had passed.

"A man came up to me with a microphone and wanted me to make a comment, but I just couldn't express myself," he said. "I've been in war, been overseas, been in combat missions, and that was bad, but something about this was just devastating.

"I've never experienced anything quite like that."

Three days later, Wright attended the Requiem Mass held for Kennedy at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C.

"He was so vivacious and full of life and upbeat. He truly was a beloved president," Wright said. “" truly believe that Kennedy may have been the most inspirational of all of our presidents.

"It's very hard to believe that it has been 50 years."

Sally Sexton writes for The Weatherford (Texas) Democrat.