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Letter: Whence the Horror?

To the Editor:

Before the environmental movement even had a name, some of us were laying the groundwork.

I was in Washington working as a ghostwriter for then Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall. Nov. 22 was uncommonly quiet. The president was out of town. My boss, the secretary, was on a plane with other Cabinet officers, heading to a meeting in Japan. I took advantage of the lull to have a relaxed lunch with an office colleague, Jim Reston.

As we sauntered from the restaurant back to the Interior Department building, Reston stopped at a cobbler on Pennsylvania Avenue to pick up his repaired shoes. The street was empty. The cobbler’s eyes were large. “He’s been shot!” the cobbler exclaimed. “Who?” Reston asked. “The president,” the cobbler blurted. We sauntered no more, but ran toward Interior, our duty station, our bunker at a time of unimaginable threat and disaster.

As Reston and I ran into the building, others were pouring out, dazed. We learned that the president was more than “shot.” He was dead. Whence this horror? I made my way up to the secretary’s suite on the sixth floor where other staff were milling around in the corridor. I pulled open the big door to the secretary’s office. “Come in,” I said, knowing that we would draw strength from being in our boss’s sanctum, and we needed all the strength we could get.

Whence the horror? Was this an international plot? Was the Mafia getting even? Was Texas crazy? Most centrally, we speculated on the safety of our boss, Stewart Udall, because his mission was ours. To whatever extent he was in jeopardy, we were, too. We talked and cried and watched the news. Some of us said the 23rd Psalm. Gradually, we departed with unbearable sorrows to the solace of families, also grieving.

Jim Reston’s father was James “Scotty” Reston, Washington bureau chief of Th e New York Times, and his ensuing column spoke for us all: “America wept tonight, not just for the dead young president, but for itself.”

Sharon F. Francis

Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior

1961-1965

Charlestown