An award-winning journalist with more than thirty years experience as a reporter and editor in Washington covering Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House, Owen is also the author of the newly released November 22, 1963: Reflections on the Life, Assassination, and Legacy of John F. Kennedy (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.95). He cites that fateful day and its aftermath as the catalyst for his professional career in journalism and public policy. He’s been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street journal, Los Angeles Times, and International Herald Tribune as well as on CNN.com and Huffington Post. Owen makes his home in Seattle, Washington.
Published last month, November 22, 1963 has been received warmly by critics and contemporaries alike. Kirkus called the book “A mostly reverential compendium of voices touched by the promise and spirit of John F. Kennedy’s presidency—and the shock of his death … All walks of life are represented in this immense cross section of Americans’ grief and groping for comprehension.” Further, Bob Schieffer of CBS News praised, “Dean Owen did what a lot of reporters seem to have forgotten how to do these days, he asked the people who were there that awful day what they saw and how they felt. This is a must-read for anyone who wants a better understanding of what happened on the weekend that America lost its innocence. A terrific read.”
From the publisher:
As the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination draws near, the events of that fateful day will undoubtedly be on the minds of many throughout the world. Here Dean Owen curates a fascinating collection of interviews and thought-provoking commentaries from notable men and women connected to that notorious Friday afternoon. Those who worked closely with the president, civil rights leaders, celebrities, prominent journalists, and political allies are among the nearly one hundred voices asked to share their reflections on the significance of that day and the legacy left behind by John F. Kennedy. A few of the names include:
- Tom Brokaw, a young reporter in Omaha in 1963
- Letitia Baldrige, former Chief of Staff to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy
- Congressman John Lewis, sole survivor of the “Big Six” black leaders who met the president after the March on Washington in August of 1963
- Cliff Robertson, Academy Award–winning actor who portrayed JFK in PT 109
- Rev. Billy Graham, evangelist
- Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
- Walter Mondale, U.S Sentaor in 1984
- Bob Schieffer, CBS News reporter
Now, Dean R. Owen offers his own reflections on JFK’s life, death, and legacy …
1) What inspired the idea for NOVEMBER 22, 1963 – and how do you feel that this book differs from the others that are available on the subject?
In December of 2010, I turned 55, 10 years from the symbolic milestone of 65, and began wondering about my legacy. As noted in the preface of the book, I decided to return to the tragic event that prompted my fascination with the news media. I compiled a list of about 100 people I wanted to interview about John Kennedy and started calling them.
This book differs from most others because it offers readers personal insights from a wide range of people: close friends, civil rights leaders, White House and Administration staff, journalists, celebrities and others who knew John Kennedy as well as those with fleeting, but fascinating encounters with him. As a result, I think the book will appeal to a wide range of individuals – from those who read Foreign Affairs or The New York Times, to those who prefer USA Today and People magazine.
2) JFK’s death had a profound effect on you. Please tell us how that fateful day helped to shape your own career path.
Even though I was only 7, I was enthralled by the coverage of the assassination and funeral, watching television and reading my two local newspapers, The Hayward (California) Daily Review and The Oakland Tribune. In fact, in the photo on the inside back flap of the book, I am holding the newspaper from that day – I saved it for 50 years.
The events that weekend left an indelible impression on me and were the catalyst for my fascination with journalism how the media shape public opinion. Some say television news came of age that weekend with mostly minimal commentary from reporters and network anchors As Tom Brokaw remarks in book, “The television set was, if you will, the centrifuge for the country. Everybody drew from it in some fashion.”
I started thinking about journalism as a career, and those thoughts were enhanced by a curiosity about people. Starting in the seventh grade, journalism, by far, was my favorite subject in school. In 1979, I graduated from the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley, where undergraduates were required to do a second bachelor’s degree, a recognition that just knowing how to write well was not sufficient in a competitive job market. This was four years after President Nixon resigned and many students in J-schools wanted to emulate Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
3) Tell us about the collaborative process. How did you go about compiling the personal reflections that comprise this book? And to what do you credit the fact that many individuals have spoken out for the first time publicly?
As noted previously, I started calling people in January of 2011. I prefaced each request for an interview with a brief explanation, usually no more than two minutes, saying I would not ask the person any questions about assassination conspiracy theories or Kennedy’s sex life because more than enough has been written about both topics. In addition, each person would have the opportunity to review, edit and approve a transcript of the interview. Many of those I called do not use email, so I wrote letters and later followed up to schedule interviews by phone.
Those “ground rules” – and polite persistence – helped me secure several of the interviews. I think many people appreciated the opportunity to reflect in their own words on John Kennedy’s life, assassination and legacy. In turn, I wanted readers to have a wide range of observations about this man from people with varying backgrounds without sensationalizing him or this tragic event in American history.
4) So much has been written of Kennedy’s life and death. How do you feel that this reflects upon journalism (both positively and negatively) – and what books would you consider essential reading?
Indeed, the extraordinary number of books on John Kennedy – a brief review of Amazon.com indicates more than 500 – reflects the best and worst of journalism today. At its best, print and broadcast journalism offers fair and balanced reporting and seeks to educate and enlighten. At its worst, it portrays poorly researched or ill-informed opinions as facts. There are books and films on John Kennedy that represent both extremes, as well as many somewhere in between.
My top five books on JFK are:
- The Making of the President 1960 by Theodore H. White
- John F. Kennedy, President by High Sidey
- An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963 by Robert Dallek
- JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President by Thurston Clarke
- Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Vincent Bugliosi
I forgot, there’s a sixth: November 22, 1963: Reflections on the Life, Assassination and Legacy of John F. Kennedy by Dean R. Owen.
5) In your opinion, what is JFK’s legacy – and how do you think that may have differed had his presidency not been cut short?
Kennedy’s legacy is that of a young and extraordinarily charismatic leader who was brilliant, witty and who inspired many Americans to pursue public service, though not necessarily politics, as a career. He also was quite flawed.
At 43, John Kennedy was – and still is – the youngest man elected to the presidency. (As Helen Thomas notes in the foreword to my book, Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the presidency at age 42 after William McKinley’s assassination.)
Kennedy set a new standard for presidential press conferences, especially in the use of television. In that regard, he transformed the way all political figures communicate to their constituencies. He also demonstrated how a president can grow in the job – witness the distinction in presidential decision-making between the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
His flaws include how concerned he was about his age and his image, as well as the way history would judge his administration. Lee White, Special Counsel to the President, comments in my book:
John Kennedy did not go peacefully over that little hump of turning forty. I remember the event even today. Sometimes we joke or make gags about turning forty, but he was not joking. I don’t quite know why, but I know damn well that he was not happy. I was not aware as others were about his medical and physical problems. He might have thought, Wow, I’ve been going uphill and now I’m going downhill.” But it was a rude awakening, especially for a hot dog like he was.
His legacy certainly would have been different had he lived and served out his first full term and, if re-elected in 1964, a second term. How it would have been different, I choose not to speculate. Tragically, we will never know.
With thanks to Dean R. Owen for his generosity of time and thought and to Lauren Burnstein of Skyhorse Publishing’s Publicity Department, for facilitating this interview.