DC at Night

DC at Night

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Day The President (And Our Innocence) Died

It is said that everyone who was alive in 1963 remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed. And while all may have memories, some memories are more dramatic than others. Take those of former PBS news anchors Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. At the time, MacNeil was a young NBC TV reporter covering the presidential trip to Dallas. Lehrer was a young staffer for one of Dallas' local newspapers. Last night the former long-time hosts of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour appeared at a special Newseum program to recount their memories of the JFK assassination they both covered. Here is what they remember about that fateful Dallas day 50 years ago that changed their lives and all of America forever.
Jim Lehrer (on left) and Robert MacNeil at their anchor desk
Lehrer
At the time, Texas Democrats were politically divided. Republicans didn't exist. It was very much a mixed blessing that the president was coming to Texas. There was concern that there would be some right wing event that would mar the visit. Earlier, someone had spit on Lady Bird Johnson when she and her husband Lyndon had visited Dallas. Now, Dallas officials wanted to put their best front on for the country and the Kennedys. There was excitement, but there was also a lot of anxiety about the visit.

MacNeil
The Kennedys were looking forward to the 1964 campaign. This was a campaign trip. Kennedy was going to give a speech (an advance copy of which we in the press saw) that was going to blast his expected GOP opponent Barry Goldwater for the attitudes he was espousing. It was also a trip to mend political fences in Texas. But there was that anxiety. We were told that the Dallas police force was so nervous about the visit that they had authorized a kind of citizens arrest process ...

Lehrer
That's not true. I was writing about security for the Kennedy visit and the police were anxious but they didn't make any special provisions like that.

MacNeil
Well, that's what we were told.

Lehrer
I was to cover the arrival and the departure from Love Field airport. My newspaper was cheap, but they had sprung for an open line so I could call to rewrite. They even had a table for me to put the phone on. I got a call from rewrite and they wanted me to check to see if they were going to put the bubble top on the president's car since it had been raining. It wasn't bullet proof. It was 3/4 inch plexi-glass. I saw the car and it had the bubble top on. So I asked an agent in charge if they were going to keep it that way. He made some calls to agents downtown. They said it wasn't raining there. The agent said "lose the bubble top." I often wonder what would have happened if the bubble top stayed up. It might have deflected the bullets. Or it could have shattered the window and made shards of glass that could have killed Mrs. Kennedy and the Connollys (then Texas Gov. John Connolly and his wife, who were riding in the car with the Kennedys). What if? What if? The Kennedy assassination is filled with what-ifs.

MacNeil
Mrs. Kennedy had become politically engaged on this trip. She was wearing a bright strawberry ice cream colored dress. At the Dallas airport, someone gave her a bouquet of blood red roses. The sight of her   carrying that against that pink dress was incredible. At the airport, I boarded the 1st press bus, which was about 7 cars behind the president's. On the trip into the city, I kept looking at my watch to see how much time I had to file a story and deciding which quote from that morning's speech I would use. When we got to Dealey Plaza I heard a bang. Was that a shot I thought? Then I head bang, bang in quick succession. I was sitting in the front of the bus and I shouted at the bus driver to stop.  He opened the door and I ran out of the bus. There was all this incredible screaming. I saw parents lying down covering their children with their bodies. I saw police officers running across a grassy knoll. I ran after them. All we found (behind the knoll) was empty train tracks. I ran back and dashed into a building. (It was the Texas Book Depository). I saw a young blonde-haired man who was leaving and and asked him where's a phone. He said he didn't know, but another person directed me. I phoned NBC in New York. I said "There were shots fired, but it is not known if the shots were fired at the president." I went back outside. A small black boy was pointing to the building I had exited and telling officers "I saw a man in the window with a gun." I discovered the president had been shot and had been taken to Parkland Hospital. I thought "I'm supposed to be covering the president and here I am miles away." I raced down the street and flagged down a car. I offered the driver $5 bucks to take me to the hospital. Five bucks was five bucks in 1963. I remember I kept hitting him in the arm and telling him to go faster and disregard the red lights. I told him NBC will pay the fines. When I arrived at the hospital, the pool reporters filled me in. Inside, I saw Merriman Smith, who would win a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, phoning parts of a story in while the nurses kept saying "Sir, you can't use this phone". I found a room with a pay phone. Bob Pierpoint of CBS was on the phone next to me. I began telling my story to Frank Magee and Chet Huntley in New York. Communications weren't working properly, so they couldn't get me live on the air. Magee came up with a plan. I would say a sentence to him on the phone and he would repeat it on air for the audience.

Lehrer
I was eating breakfast at the airport. Suddenly, a waitress came in screaming "they've shot the president." I rushed to the phone and called my office. "We think he's dead. Get to Parkland (hospital)," they told me. I jumped in my car and drove to the hospital. When I got there, it was chaos. Nobody was in charge. Everybody was in charge.

MacNeil
The Secret Service and authorities cleared the hospital, but they didn't look in the room where Bob and I were. I went outside and I saw a white-faced Lyndon Johnson. I asked him "Mr. Vice President, is the President dead?" He walked right through me. Back on the phone, I heard Bob say "Walter, Walter (Cronkite), you can't say the president is dead before they announce it." Today, the whole world thinks Walter Cronkite announced Kennedy had been killed (because of the famous video footage of him removing his glasses and brushing away a tear), but he had time to prepare.

Lehrer
When I heard they had arrested the suspect, I rushed to the police station. I got there as they were bringing the suspect Lee Harvey Oswald in. I still have my notebook. Initially, I misspelled his last name in my notes. We were right there. I asked him if he had killed the president. Reporters were all asking him questions. The chaos was unlike anything I could have ever imagined. Everyone was wanting to know what had happened, but no one wanted to believe that it had really happened. We got a report that a Secret Service agent had also been killed. (That turned out to be false - it was actually agent Clint Hill who threw his body over the president and Mrs. Kennedy and was smeared with blood). Of course, we did find out that a Dallas police officer (J.D. Trippett) had been killed. We all stayed at the station all night trying to get any details we could.
People today can't believe the way things happened. But security just didn't exist at all like we have come to know it now.

MacNeil
As we waited, I began to think about a time sequence. I came to realize that Oswald, if he was indeed in the Book Depository, would have been exiting just as I came in looking for a phone. Years later, author William Manchester, who wrote the 1st comprehensive book on the assassination told me "I'm 95 percent convinced that the person you asked to use the phone was Lee Harvey Oswald".

Postscript
MacNeil and Lehrer kept filing stories on the assassination, but neither was present when Jack Ruby calmly walked forward in the police station and shot and killed Oswald, forever silencing the suspect and beginning what has been an ongoing debate on exactly who killed JFK. MacNeil was in Washington and Lehrer was in church in Dallas when Ruby pulled the trigger. It would be a decade before the 2 men would meet and form a news partnership that would last 20 years. Ironically, they discovered they had both been standing by the same fence at Love Field, just a few steps from each other, on that Dallas day, so long ago but still so dramatically remembered.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Last night's engaging Newseum discussion was moderated by current PBS correspondent Judy Woodruff, who now reports for the renamed PBS NewsHour. Woodruff  told the 500 Newseum members and their guests that being the moderator had special meaning for her. Twenty years ago this summer, MacNeil, who she calls Robin instead of Robert, had hired her as a reporter for the 1st ever hour-long news broadcast in America. "That made a huge difference in my life and my professional career and I thank you," she said.

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