Born in Savannah, Georgia, on February 10, 1913, he was a life-long newspaper reporter. However, he was probably most famous for the news that he flashed to the UPI wires while a passenger in a car in the John F. Kennedy presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963 when the President was assassinated. This was the first news of the attack on the President.
He died at his home in Washington, a suicide victim, on April 13, 1970 and was granted burial in Section 32 of Arlington National Cemetery (next to his son) by special permission by the Commanding General of the Military District of Washington.
The following was written by Unipresser Patrick J. Sloyan for the May 1997 issue of the American Journalism Review:
The 20th Century's finest performance by one reporter on a breaking news story ended as Merriman Smith of United Press International stood and tucked in his shirttail. He had pulled up his shirt to show me the welts on his back from the flailing fists of Jack Bell of the Associated Press. Oddly enough, the bruises were proof that it was Smith — not Bell — who had administered an unforgettable beating.
It was the night of November 22, 1963, in the UPI Washington Bureau. There is a global generation of men and women who froze, gasped, and forever remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing on that day 34 years ago. It was when the first news came that President John F. Kennedy was fatally wounded by gunfire in Dallas, Texas.
I can fix the moment the world became breathless: 12:39pcst. That is nine minutes after a bullet shattered the young president's brain. The time — 39 minutes after noon, central standard time in Dallas — comes from a copy of the A-wire of UPI. More than a year later, after hearing from hundreds of witnesses, the presidential commission headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded that Kennedy was shot at precisely 12:30 P.M. Nine minutes later, Walter Cronkite and other anchormen ripped the report clacking out at 60 words per minute from the UPI machine in their offices and relayed it to the world. They were riding an emotional roller coaster set in motion that day by Smitty. Almost everyone called him that except President Dwight Eisenhower who always struggled with Smith's old Georgia family name. “Well, Merriman,” Ike would say.
The UPI coverage of the Kennedy assassination was unparalleled in the history of journalism because of one man. Albert Merriman Smith, UPI's White House reporter, dominated the most important spot news story since Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. These two events became indelible in the American psyche as nothing else in the 20th Century. December 7, 1941 was truly shocking but, in journalistic terms, little more than a government statement to the wire services. Foot speed was most important in reporting such proclamations.
The end of World War II was announced by President Harry S. Truman in his office. There was no live television broadcast. Instead Smith raced to his phone in the White House with the other wire service reporters. He slipped, fell, broke his collarbone, got up and dictated a flash. Medical care came after he was finished.
In UPI protocol, the flash designation preceding a few cryptic words on the wire was reserved for only for what were known as earth shakers.
“Flash — FDR dead,” was a flash Smith handled in 1945 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia. Earth shakers were tough on everyone involved — the switchboard operator, the dictationist, the slot editor and the teletype operator, who was called a “puncher.”
A mistake by anyone in the chain could break the link with the world and end in journalistic disaster. It was up to the puncher to ring 15 bells to alert editors around that globe that UPI was sending news that would stun everyone. Stories preceded by “Bulletin,” got five bells and contained a single paragraph of what was certainly an important story. “Urgents,” with a two or three paragraph top of a good story, also got five bells. Like anything, the flash was sometimes overused.
Editors knew that a major news development was coming but, when it actually happened, used the flash. For instance, the demise of an ailing statesman or baseball star was anticipated but the death was flashed.
The assassination of the young, handsome, witty Cold Warrior in Dallas contained the shock of Prince Diana's premature end in Paris. But in terms of importance, Di's death was a global tremor while Kennedy's was off the Richter scale of news.
The day Kennedy was killed required perception, accuracy, speed and judgment that Smith displayed while relishing the fire of competition. Smith did not merely beat Jack Bell, the opposition. That day in Dallas, Merriman Smith burned the Associated Press to the waterline. And delighted doing it.
It was a time that has almost vanished now with UPI just about gone and wire service competition at a low ebb. In those days, a few seconds or a 1 minute beat ahead of the AP was something of a victory. There was no mulling at a typewriter. A breaking story came off the top of the head, rolled off the tongue and through the fingers of dictationists who had the dispatched ripped away by the slot editor after every paragraph.
Twice each day, the Washington Bureau of UPI where I worked on November 22, 1963, posted an accounting of competition. Major dailies were surveyed across the nation and around the world to see whether UPI or AP was preferred by editors. There were two distinct reports for newspapers–morning (AMS) and afternoon (PMS.). For radio and television clients, the radio wire was refreshed constantly for the rip and read set.
New York headquarters that prepared the daily accounting would single out reporters who were “ahead” on a breaking news or a writer who produced an “admired” first paragraph. Defeats were also noted where we were “late” or had an “awkward” writing job. Slow, awkward or inaccurate reporters had a way of vanishing from the payroll after about their third mishap. No easy riders at UPI.
Some attribute Smith's triumph that day in Dallas to luck. But Bob Clark of ABC News saw it as Smith's relentless competition. Clark was in the Kennedy motorcade that day in Dallas, six cars from the president's open limousine. Clark, Smith and Jack Bell of the AP were riding in the wire car, a black sedan owned by AT&T, one of the favors Ma Bell offered the media in those days. The biggest favor was the radio-telephone in the front seat. It might have been the AP's turn that day to sit in front, closest to the phone. The seat was supposed to rotate between UPI and AP each day. But Smith would routinely grab the seat closest to the phone.
“The wires were supposed to take turns but Smitty would intimidate the younger AP reporters,” said Clark, who use to be in the front seat rotation while covering the White House for International News Service (INS). “Smitty was always looking for an edge.”
Smitty was 50 that day, some gray in his hair and his mustache which tended to divert the eye from his pockmarked cheeks. There was only a hint of drawl left in his gravely voice used to embellish all kinds of tales. His presence was enough to silence a younger AP man who thought it was his turn in the front seat. But Jack Bell was no youngster. He was 59, a contemporary with almost white hair and a manner as sour and cantankerous as Smith was extroverted and sunny.
Smith and Bell despised each other. Smith traced the start of often nasty competition to covering New York Gov. Thomas Dewey's presidential campaign. Smith was sent from his White House beat to cover the GOP candidate in the 1948 race who was favored to oust President Truman. Bell was already in Albany when Smith arrived. Jim Haggerty, Dewey's press secretary, later recounted how Bell warned that Smith was a Truman supporter sent to do a hatchet job on Dewey. “Bell tried to cut me out every way he could,” Smith said .
Smith struck back by being the first reporter to use a wire recorder. Suddenly, Smith's reports on Dewey included large block of quotes from his speeches. Bell had only the traditional paraphrase of the candidate's comments along with perhaps a three or four word phrase in quotes. When AP headquarters wanted to know where Smith was getting all the quotes, Bell could only seethe. Smith loved new gadgets, particularly if it involved communications.
The biggest news stories are worthless unless they can be relayed to the A-wire. So there was no discussion of who was supposed to be in the front seat when the Kennedy motorcade left Love Field with an elaborate police escort. Smith just grabbed it and Bell got in back, sitting next to Clark who was representing the networks while riding in the wire car as the broadcast pool reporter. Bell probably did not know enough to protest. Bell was a political writer, not a White House regular. Kennedy's trip to Dallas was a political one, designed to make peace between warring Democratic factions in Texas. Bell was looking for nuance and angles that he skillfully crafted into thoughtful dispatches that could run on the AP wire days later.
Smith, by contrast, was gathering the more mundane for what promised to be a mildly interesting spot story. But when the wire car pulled into Dealey Plaza, Smith was the first to recognize the sounds.
“We heard the first shot and somebody said, ‘My god, that must be a police backfire,'” Clark said. Then two more sounds came. It was Smith who concluded they were gunshots. “I was certain it was gunfire,” Smith said that night. He had a collection of rifles and a .357 magnum revolver. He would sometimes visit the pistol range used by Secret Service agents to show a newsman could shoot, too.
“Smitty was a gun fancier,” Clark said. “We knew he was an expert. He said, ‘Those were shots.'” Time suddenly was in slow motion. Clark instantly understood the dilemma facing Smith and Bell. “It was a very difficult moment: All we knew was that those were shots but what the hell do you file?”
They were too far back. Clark estimated the presidential limousine was 80 yards away. Smith saw a flash of pink, probably Jacqueline Kennedy's suit, but nothing more. Two minutes went by before Smith picked up the radio-telephone. The motorcade picked up speed then raced away. Smith told the operator to connect him with the Dallas bureau of UPI.
“He was dictating to his office in Dallas,” said Clark. “He was having trouble. Those radio-telephones were often staticky (sic). Smitty was repeating. He was trying to get one sentence off. I can still remember what he said.”
Around the world, editors heard five bells and a bulletin precede on the UPI machine:
- UPI A7N DA
- PRECEDE KENNEDY
- DALLAS,NOV.22(UPI)–THREE SHOTS WERE FIRED AT PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S
- MOTORCADE IN DOWNTOWN DALLAS.
Chicago's UPI Bureau had been filing a murder trial report when Dallas grabbed the A-wire and sent Smith's bulletin. Chicago tried to resume sending but UPI New York interceded with a terse order in wirese:
‘BUOS -UPHOLD-DA IT YRS' . That meant all bureaus stay off the
A-wire. Dallas, it is yours.
In every newsroom, editors looked at the AP A-wire teletype that always sat next to the UPI machine. There was no hint of what was unfolding in Dallas.
The wire car had begin to pick up speed as Kennedy's motorcade headed on to the freeway for the nearest hospital, Parkland. No one in the car knew where they were going but Smith was still on the radio-telephone.
“Bell is beginning to realize that Smith is driving an ax through his skull by getting anything off from the wire car,” Clark said. “Jack got pretty upset.” He demanded the phone as the motorcade hit 60 miles an hour. Smith bent over in the front seat with the phone. “I told Bell they couldn't hear me clearly,” Smith said that night, beaming at his own duplicity.
“They can't hear me,” Smith told Bell, according to Clark. “I'm asking them to read it back.”
“Give me the goddamn phone,” Bell yelled. He leaned over the seat and took a swipe at the phone. Then, Bell began pounding Smith's head and back. Clark recalls only one or two blows. But Smith, doubling his body over the handset, kept the phone from Bell until the car pulled up at the hospital emergency entrance.
When the car halted, Smith said he flung the phone at Bell and jumped out. As Smith headed for the hospital emergency entrance, he said he heard Bell on the radio-telephone saying, “No one knows if there was any gunfire.” In the AP Dallas Bureau, staffers remember only a cryptic call — “This is Jack Bell…” — before the line went dead.
Clark joined Smith as they hustled to the presidential limousine. Kennedy was stretched out lifeless in the bloody rear seat. Smith saw a dark stain spreading down the right side of his dark gray suit. Jacqueline Kennedy was holding her husband's head in her lap. “Jackie shielded the wound in his head,” Clark said. “We were standing two feet away.” Texas Gov. John Connally was conscious but moaning. Men were yelling for stretchers. Women were sobbing.
Smith knew Mrs. Kennedy's Secret Service agent, Clint Hill. It was Hill who jumped on the rear deck of the presidential car after the shooting, telling her to sit-down. He clung to the rear deck throughout the ride to Parkland. Now, he was taking off his coat and leaning over the limp president.
“How badly was he hit, Clint,” Smith asked.
“He's dead, Smitty,” Hill replied.
Smith raced into to the hospital emergency room. He burst in the cashier's cage and grabbed the phone. “How do I get outside?” Smith demanded. “The president has been hurt and this is an emergency call.”
“Dial nine,” said the shaken cashier. Smith dictated what turned out to be a slightly awkward flash from UPI Dallas. Editors saw an urgent addition to his first bulletin interrupted mid-word:
- KENNEDY SERIOUSLY WOUNDED
- PERHAPS SERIOUSLY
- PERHAPS FATALLY BY ASSASSINS BULLET
That flash was later a source of second-guessing but only by wire service reporters. Why not: Secret Service Agent says Kennedy dead?
“I would have had a trouble composing as responsible a flash as Smitty did if a Secret Service man had told me he was dead,” Clark said. “But he was conservative and that's part of being a great wire service reporter, which Smitty was.”
But that is picking fly dung out of black pepper. Smith kept nothing back. No sooner has the flash cleared than Smith was rolling with a bulletin first lead on a story that editors could put on the front-page:
- UPI 9N
- 1ST LEAD SHOOTING
- DALLAS, NOV.22(UPI)–PRESIDENT KENNEDY AND GOV. JOHN B. CONNALLY OF
- TEXAS WERE CUTDOWN BY AN ASSASSIN'S BULLETS AS THEY TOURED DOWNTOWN
- DALLAS IN AN OPEN AUTOMOBILE TODAY.
- ë MORE JT1241PCS
- UPI A10N DA
- LST ADD LST LEAD SHOOTING DALLAS(9N DALLASXXTODAY
- THE PRESIDENT, HIS LIMP BODY CRADLED IN THE ARMS OF HIS WIFE, WAS
- RUSHED TO PARKLAND HOPSITAL. THE GOVERNOR ALSO WAS TAKEN TO PARKLAND.
- CLINT HILL, A SECRET SERVICE AGENT ASSIGNED TO MRS. KENNEDY,
- SAID, “HE'S DEAD,” AS THE PRESIDENT WAS LIFTED FROM THE REAR OF A WHITE
- TOURING CAR, THE FAMOUS BUBBLETOP, FROM WASHINGTON. HE WAS RUSHED TO
- AN EMERGENCY ROOM IN THE HOSPITAL.
- OTHER WHITE HOUSE OFFICALS WERE IN DOUBT AS THE CORRIDORS OF THE
- HOPSITAL ERUPTED IN PANDEMONIUM.
At about the same moment — 12:41 P.M. — AP moved its first bulletin. But, to a limited audience. The wire was on a split and the Dallas earthshaker had only a regional distribution until it was relayed on the A wire by AP New York. Bob Johnson, the Dallas bureau chief at the time, wrote it based on an eyewitness account of Kennedy getting shot by AP photographer Ike Altjens who snapped an historic series of photographs in Dealey Plaza.
DALLAS,NOV.22(AP)–PRESIDENT KENNEDY WAS SHOT TODAY JUST AS HIS
MOTORCADE LEFT DOWNTOWN DALLAS. MRS. KENNEDY JUMPED UP AND GRABBED
MR. KENNEDY. SHE CRIED, “OH,NO.” THE MOTORCADE SPED ON.
There was nothing of Hill's verdict that Kennedy was dead, Connally's wounding or the hospital scene.
William Manchester, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, was awed by Smith's performance which he recounted in his book, “The Death of a President.” Eleven minutes after Kennedy was shot, UPI was giving editors a usable dispatch more than 500 words long. Smith was dominating those early moments with speed and accuracy while Bell and the AP seemed to fall apart. Bell's first effort, based on the grisly emergency room entrance scene along with comments by Kennedy's aide, Kenneth O'Donnell, were ruined by a grief-stricken AP puncher. On the AP wire, the aide's name came as “Kenneth Oí;$9,,3)),” and bloodstained was, “blood stainezaac rbmthing.” Kennedy's body came out, “he laaaaaaaaaaa.”
“The wire service war of seconds had grown to minutes and AP was falling farther and farther behind,” Manchester wrote. “That was only the beginning. All afternoon the AP was a source of misleading and inaccurate reports.”
One bogus AP dispatch said Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson had been wounded. But UPI had quite a different version of Johnson's activities. Smith was still filing when reinforcements sent by Jack Fallon of the Dallas bureau arrived at Parkland. Smith filed his second flash of the day after the formal announcement by deputy White House Press Secretary Malcom Kilduff:
“President John Fitzgerald Kennedy died at approximately 1 o'clock.”
Smith was still filing. “The doctors were getting ready for a very interesting news conference,” he said. But Rufus Youngblood came up and alerted him: “Smitty, the president wants to go back to Washington.” Youngblood was Johnson's Secret Service agent and it took Smith a beat to realize that the man dead in the emergency room was no longer president.
Jiggs Fauver, of the White House transportation office, told Smith a three-man pool was getting ready to leave–now. Smith told his UPI colleagues he was leaving with Johnson for Washington and alert UPI Washington. Outside, a panicky Kilduff had already left in the wire car, leaving the pool stranded. Smith pleaded with a police officer to take him and two other men in a squad car. With siren shrieking, Smith and reporters representing broadcasters and newsweekly magazine raced to Love Field.
But there was no one from AP. Bell refused the same offer to be in the Air Force One pool and remained dictating in the hospital.
Inside the Boeing 707, it was hot and dim. The shades were drawn and the door closed when Johnson, with the blood-stained Jackie Kennedy next to him, was sworn in as president. Smith counted 27 people crammed into one spot on the plane. The words and the color of the historic moment were captured in a dispatch that Smith pounded out on a White House typewriter aboard Air Force One. Sidney Davis of Westinghouse Broadcasting, a pool reporter for radio and television, was getting off. Smith handed Davis the typewritten dispatch along with the Dallas bureau phone number.
“Sid, would you please dictate this to my office,” Smith asked. Davis, who had to stay with the story in Dallas, agreed and waved as the gangway was pulled away from Air Force One. As the door closed, Smith could see a leg-churning AP reporter racing for the plane. Too late. The AP had only a brief fill from Davis who was in a rush.
“Now, let's get airborne,” Johnson ordered. Four engines screamed as the plane pulled away. Smith smiled to himself. UPI had the swearing in and events on the somber ride home until 7 p.m. EDT. Then AP used the pool report by the news magazine reporter, Charles Roberts of Newsweek.
At dinner in the National Press Club, Smith recounted the day and the grim flight back to Washington. Johnson kept coming to Smith to tell him the presidential schedule after they landed at Andrews Air Force Base.
“He treated me like I was a member of his staff,” Smith said, finishing his coffee. I sat spellbound with the UPI Overnight editor, Bill Umstead. Smith's next move was being plotted by Umstead.
It was near midnight and Smith was not finished. Now came the overnight, the second-day version of events that was an eye-witness account. It began:
- BY MERRIMAN SMITH
- UPI WHITE HOUSE REPORTER
- WASHINGTON,NOV.23(UPI)–IT WAS A BALMY, SUNNY NOON AS WE MOTORED
- THROUGH DOWNTOWN DALLAS BEHIND PRESIDENT KENNEDY.
Umstead read the 1,000 word dispatch and handed it to his deputy, Frank Jackman. It was spotless. No typing errors. Umstead had only to mark the start of paragraphs. “You've got to know when to leave it alone,” Umstead said.
Months later, Smith came into the bureau and confided some news — from the editor of the Cleveland Press. “Louis Seltzer just called me,” Smith beamed. “I won the PP.” A week later, the formal Pulitzer Prize award cited Smith's overnight dispatch.
Smith frequently showed up in the Bureau at night. Sometimes it was with a celebrity in tow. I still remember meeting Abe Burrows who did the lyrics for, “Guys and Dolls.” Even before Dallas, Smith was something of a celebrity. His book, “Thank you, Mr. President,” was a bestseller. Now, however, he seemed to be on Jack Parr's. “Tonight” show more often along with some spots on daytime television.
One night, Smith came by after a farewell party for the press and an aging former President Truman.
“Jack Bell got really drunk,” Smith said. “When Harry said this will be our last meeting, Bell started sobbing and yelling, ‘No, no, Harry.'”
Saying Jack Bell was drunk was really the pot calling the kettle black. Today, Smith would be called an alcoholic but then he just drank too much as did many in Washington. On any given day, the president, most of the Senate and too many people at UPI drank too much. The stress, strain and boredom of covering the White House produced heavy drinkers and bad marriages. Smith would end up weaving, slurring, disappearing. Years before Dallas, drinking too much got him temporarily yanked from the White House that he began covering in 1941.
When he was sober, as he was the day in Dallas, it was often with help — from the White House physician's pill bottles.
He vanished on me one day when I was the slot editor. Johnson was on the verge of picking Sen. Hubert Humphrey as his Vice Presidential candidate in 1964. When I finally tracked him down by phone, Smith said he was sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom and hung up. Later than night, he was thrown off Air Force One for yelling at the president. “King Corn,” Smith called Johnson.
On another day, Smith walked in the president's footsteps as Johnson toured a pocket of poverty in an Applachian hollow to promote his Great Society program. Johnson knelt beside a grimy youngster plainly overwhelmed by the White House entourage. I was just like you, Johnson told the lad. Go to school, work hard and someday you can be just like me, Johnson said. As the president rose amid whirring cameras, Smith sidled up to the little hillbilly and said: “Bullshit, kid, you'll always be poor.”
Still, Johnson doted on Smith, even gave him the nation's highest civilian award in 1967, the Medal of Freedom. Smith was the first and, judging from current mutual disdain, probably the last reporter to get such an award from a president. Perhaps Johnson was influenced by Vietnam. Smith's son, Merriman Jr., an Army helicopter pilot, was killed that year when his chopper crashed near Saigon.
Smith's first marriage, it lasted 29 years, had ended the year before. The new wife was a slim blonde, an architect from California. They lived in an Arlington, Va., house that looked as if it has been wheeled in from Malibu. He still went hunting with me now and then. It was the spring of 1970 and we sat peering for woodchucks in Virginia pastures. He talked about being pursued by the Internal Revenue Service. “They want $25,000,” he said. He might as well said $20 million.
We were supposed to go hunting the week he killed himself. He used his .357 Magnum while sitting in the bathtub. He was 57.
Jack Bell outlived Smith by five years. There was no mention of Dallas in his 1975 AP obituary. But he could not outlive what happened in Dallas. “I should have yanked the goddamn phone out of its socket,” he would tell colleagues.
When Bell retired from the AP in 1969, he took a job writing a political column with Gannet Newspapers. During one campaign, Bell wound up going to dinner in Philadelphia with Gene Gibbons of the UPI Washington Bureau.
It was the 1972 presidential primary season. Malcom Kilduff, the Kennedy spokesman that day in Dallas, was working for one of the contenders in the Pennsylvania primary. Gibbons' brother, Charlie, a local newsman, was along for the dinner with Bell. The mention of Kilduff's name got Charlie talking about Dallas.
“What a story,” said Charlie. “I was in our office hanging over the wire machines. There was the first bulletin on the UPI machine. Nothing on the AP. Then there is a flash on UPI. Nothing on the AP. Then there is another bulletin on UPI. Still nothing from the AP.”
Gene kept kicking his brother beneath the table but it did no good. “I couldn't shut him up,” said Gibbons, now senior correspondent for the Reuter Washington Bureau.
Still, like Charlie, few remember Jack Bell being there Nov. 22, l963 in Dallas.
Merriman Smith is the one you remember.
- DATE OF BIRTH: 02/10/1913
- DATE OF DEATH: 04/13/1970
- BURIED AT: SECTION 32 SITE 823
- ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard