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Jim Lehrer returns to haunting ‘what if’ in novel on the JFK assassination

October 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
What if the glass bubble top on the car in which President John F. Kennedy was riding in Dallas had not been removed by a Secret Service agent? The NewsHour's own Jim Lehrer explores that idea in "Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination." Jim joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his personal experience that inspired the book.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: What if the glass bubble top on the car in which President John F. Kennedy was riding in Dallas had not been removed by a Secret Service agent?

That’s the premise, based on real events, for our own Jim Lehrer’s newest book, “Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination.”

I talked to him recently.

Jim Lehrer, welcome back to the NewsHour.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you Judy. A pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it’s nice to be able to talk to you on the other side of the table.

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JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes, a little — a little strange for me, but it’s great.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you were there on November 22, 1963. You were a reporter for The Dallas Times Herald. You were covering the day President Kennedy was coming there. You were at the airport when it all happened.

And, yet, it’s 50 years later. You’re writing this book. How did that happen?

JIM LEHRER: Well, I was haunted by the events of that day.

And it had to do with the bubble top. I — we had an open telephone line with our rewrite desk at The Times Herald, because it was — the Kennedys were coming in to Dallas right on our deadline. And they wanted to keep the story updated and all of that.

And just before the cars — I mean, the airplane was to arrive, Air Force One was to arrive at Love Field, the rewrite man said to me, is the bubble top going to be up? And I said, well, I couldn’t any see. Anyhow, to make a long story short, I went down to the ramp where they had the cars parked. And I could see the bubble top was up on — there were six cars. And one of them was the presidential limousine.

And I saw the bubble top was up. So I said to the Secret Service agent, you know, our rewrite wants to know, are you going to leave the bubble top up? The reason the bubble top was up was because it had been raining that morning in Dallas. But now it was clear.

And he said, well, it’s clear here. And he — anyhow, he hollered at an agent to find out if it was clear downtown. And the agent said in his two-way radio, clear downtown. So the agent then looks at the other agents and says, lose the bubble top.

But what happened for me was, the agent who made this decision and who had talked to me, I ran in to him at midnight that night after the assassination had occurred in the Dallas police station. And he had been in a meeting. And he came out of the meeting. And I was standing there.

And he came over to me and said, tears in his eyes, said, oh, Jim if I just hadn’t taken the bubble top down, the theory being that if the bubble top had been up, even though it wasn’t bulletproof, it would have — could have deflected the shot. Oswald might not even have taken the shots, because it could have been an expectation that it was bulletproof.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you said it’s haunted you. Do you really mean that?

JIM LEHRER: Well, haunted in this way.

It’s the old what-if story. This is a what-if book. I mean, it’s a what-if story. What if they had left the bubble top up, and would John F. Kennedy have died on November 22, 1963?

Well, there are thousands of people who had some piece of the decision to do something that affected — for instance, there were people in Dallas who argued against having a motorcade. There were other people who argued in Washington against Kennedy going to Texas at all on this political trip, all kinds of stuff. And they’re all after it, oh, what if I hadn’t done this? This is one of those stories.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is told from the perspective of a newspaper reporter.

It’s also very much about this agent and what happened to him.

JIM LEHRER: That’s right. Yes. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much in the real world, do you know, have these agents been tormented by that?

JIM LEHRER: Well, first of all, let me say that that part of the story is completely fictional in terms of the agent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

JIM LEHRER:  But it is the story of this agent who had made the — my story, the fiction story. And it drove him — it drove him to a state of depression, what would now be called PTSD.

One of the reasons that I finally ended up deciding to write this book was that I did know that there were many, many Secret Service agents involved in that Texas trip, some of them right there in Dallas. Some of them were elsewhere who were involved. And many of them suffered various ailments as a result of what happened on November 22.

Some of them did have serious mental problems. Some of them had serious drinking problems. There were some suicides. There were all kinds of — but things that were never really reported at the time, because the Secret Service didn’t want it out. And the families didn’t want it out. The agents themselves didn’t want it out.

They didn’t want to talk about it, because most of those agents are gone now. But, even within the service, active agents do not talk about the Kennedy assassination.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was it easier to write about this with the passage of time, do you think?

JIM LEHRER: Oh, certainly. Certainly, it was.

If I had written it earlier, it probably would have been a different book. Also, I became interested in PTSD and what trauma, either being part of a trauma, it doesn’t — you don’t have to be the person who is traumatized by the action itself, but just to observe it, just to be part of it, what it can do to somebody, how it can change the way you think, it can change the way you live for the rest of your life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it harder to write a novel about something, an incident about which so much has already been written, or is that even a factor?

JIM LEHRER: Yes, it is. Absolutely, it is.

In fact, I was reluctant, almost decided not to do it. I thought, my goodness. And then my publisher said, oh, yes, go ahead, and could come out just for the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. And that gave me — made me a little uneasy, frankly. It seemed like — and then I realized, well, I will go ahead and do it.

And it — and there have been — I mean, there are scads and scads of books. This may be — mine may be the only book that’s ever been written about the Kennedy assassination that is not about a conspiracy theory of some kind.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: There’s no conspiracy stuff in mine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Although you do refer to that in there.

JIM LEHRER: I refer to it in passing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In passing.

JIM LEHRER: But it is — what really surprised me, Judy, is, 50 years later, it is for some people still a fresh event.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we all remember where we were on that day.

JIM LEHRER: Absolutely. Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Lehrer.

The book is “Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination.”

Come back and see us more often.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, ma’am. Will do.