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MacNeil and Lehrer remember the shock, special sorrow of JFK’s assassination

November 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, shocked this nation to the core and rattled the world.

Our own Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer were both on the ground in Dallas, covering the president’s visit that day. And although they wouldn’t formally meet for years, these two journalists crossed paths multiple times.

I talked with them recently about the day and its aftermath.

ROBERT MACNEIL: It was one of those days that a reporter finds himself musing about when he’s half-asleep sometimes on a plane. Your mind drifts as you prepare for the big story: What is likely to happen at this moment and that?

Sometimes, your mind drifts to the most extreme thing that could happen, and you hastily dismiss it because the most extreme thing never does happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The day started out drizzly and cool. For Robin MacNeil, it was a milestone: his first presidential trip as an NBC White House correspondent.

He was assigned to cover President John Kennedy’s speech in Dallas that afternoon, an anticipated rebuttal to the president’s conservative critics. City officials had beefed up security ahead of the visit. The previous month in Dallas, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was met by angry right-wing protesters, who spat on him and struck him with signs.

And thousands of anti-Kennedy flyers accusing the president of treason had been distributed downtown in the days before his arrival. Despite that backdrop, supporters turned out in droves outside the president’s hotel in Fort Worth that morning, where he was to give a speech before heading to Dallas.

It was a breakfast event for the Chamber of Commerce, and first lady Jackie Kennedy stole the show, receiving a standing ovation upon her arrival.

FORMER PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: A few years ago, I said that — I introduced myself in Paris by saying that I was the man who had accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris. I’m getting that — somewhat that same sensation as I travel around Texas.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERT MACNEIL: When we got on to the press plane, and the press plane flew to Dallas in seven minutes. At that time, the tradition on the press plane was, stewardesses, as we called them in those days, immediately left the gate, came down with a tray of Bloody Marys. And I had a Bloody Mary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On a seven-minute…

JIM LEHRER: A seven-minute…

ROBERT MACNEIL: Yes. And I was still — I was still tipping up the glass and the ice and the little lemon peel thing in it was bumping against my nose as we landed in Dallas. That’s how short it was.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Among the crowd waiting at Love Field was Jim Lehrer, then a reporter for The Dallas Times Herald.

JIM LEHRER: I was checking the telephone line back to the city desk downtown. And the rewrite man says, well, look, are they going to have the bubble top on the presidential limousine? Because I had done a lot of the advance stories in the newspaper about the Kennedy visit.

And the idea was, if the weather was bad, there would be a bubble top to protect the Kennedys from the rain. And it had rained that morning in Dallas. So, I put the phone down. I go down to the ramp. And there were six cars, six or seven cars, all the cars, the official cars in the motorcade. And the presidential limo was one of them, and the bubble top was up.

And the bubble top was a one-quarter-inch-thick Plexiglas, and it was designed strictly — it wasn’t bulletproof or any of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not bulletproof.

JIM LEHRER: No. A lot of people thought it was, but it wasn’t.

JIM LEHRER: At any rate, the Secret Service agent who was standing at the top of the ramp I happened to know. And I said to him, Mr. Soros, I see the bubble top is up. Rewrite wants to know if it’s going to be up during the thing.

And he looks up at the sky. I will never forget this. He looks up at the sky, and it’s clear. And he says, well. And he yells down at an agent with a two-way radio — who has got a two-way radio. And he says, check it downtown? What’s it like down town? The guy goes, blah, blah, blah, blah.

And then he says, clear downtown. And the agent that I’m talking to then yells to the other agents who are in charge of the motorcade, lose the bubble top.

So they take the bubble top down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Air Force One descended that morning with more than 2,500 people watching.

ROBERT MACNEIL: The Kennedys got out, and were a resplendent sight. And she glowed.

When she got off Air Force One at Love field with that — with the bright, brilliant sun that day shining on her gleaming black hair and the pink outfit she was wearing, the whole atmosphere was one of something glowing with extra light. Then they put a big armload of blood-red roses in her arms against the pink suit, and it was — the images and the color hurt the eyes.

And there were some students there holding the Confederate Flag and the Texas flag.

JIM LEHRER: There were also very positive signs. That people in the crowd were for the most part — because I — it’s amazing that you didn’t — what did you look like then? I don’t remember seeing you.

ROBERT MACNEIL: I looked about 50 years younger.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: The presidential motorcade started its journey toward downtown Dallas, the press buses not far behind. More than 150,000 people lined the 10-mile-long route.

ROBERT MACNEIL: It looked like a flooded river, and you wondered how the cars, how the motorcade could go through.

But the atmosphere was really extraordinary. I mean, it was — the radiance on the faces of the people, the absolute delight in seeing the Kennedys was so apparent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Then, tragedy. At 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time, shortly after the presidential limousine turned onto Elm Street to make its way through Dealey Plaza, President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally were struck.

You heard a shot?

ROBERT MACNEIL: There was a — there was a bang. And we all said, what was that? Was that a shot? Was that a backfire? And then there were two shots much closer together, bang, bang, very close.

And I said, those are shots. And I got up and said, stop the bus. And I got out of the bus. And the air was filled with the most incredible screaming. It just — it was like — it was like choirs all singing out of tune, and just the most amazing sound.

And, anyway, I looked, and there were people running up a grassy slope, the grassy knoll, as it came to be known, including some policemen. And there were people lying on the grass covering their children with their bodies. And I thought, they have seen some gunman, they’re chasing him, so I ran up the grassy knoll behind them. And I thought, oh, my God, I better call NBC, shots fired, you know?

JUDY WOODRUFF: The first building he saw was the Texas Book Depository, where a young man in shirtsleeves directed MacNeil to a telephone inside.

ROBERT MACNEIL: It wasn’t known if the shots were aimed at the president. Repeat: It is not known if the shots were aimed at the president.

This is Robert MacNeil, NBC News, in Dallas, Texas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After recording a short NBC radio spot, MacNeil had to figure out a way to get to the hospital.

ROBERT MACNEIL: I stopped a car that came along. It was a young man delivering cake boxes or something. I said, the president’s been shot. I will give you five bucks if you drive me to Parkland Hospital. Five bucks was five bucks then.

I kept punching him on the shoulder, saying, never mind the red lights, never mind the police.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Outside Parkland Hospital, a stunned crowd had begun to gather and was absorbing the news.

ROBERT MACNEIL: There was a visiting room there, and there were two coin-operated phones on the wall. And I grabbed one of them, and I had it for the rest of the afternoon. And various interns and doctors and people would hold it for me as I went off to find other stuff.

FRANK MCGEE, NBC anchor: We are expecting momentarily a telephone call — that’s why I’m seated near this telephone here — from NBC’s Robert MacNeil.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With NBC anchors Frank McGee and Chet Huntley on the other end of the line, MacNeil spoke in phrases which were repeated by McGee and patched live into living rooms around the nation.

ROBERT MACNEIL: And last rites of the church have just been administered.

FRANK MCGEE: And last rites of the church have just been administered.

ROBERT MACNEIL: That’s all for the moment, Frank.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thirty minutes after the planned start of the president’s speech at the Dallas Trade Mart, acting White House Press Secretary Mac Kilduff made the announcement from a makeshift briefing room in a nurses’ classroom.

MAC KILDUFF, acting White House Press Secretary: He died of gunshot wounds in the brain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hours later, back at Love Field, Secret Service agents loaded President Kennedy’s casket on to Air Force One.

Shortly afterward, Vice President Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office aboard the plane, with Mrs. Kennedy at his side.

Meanwhile, Lee Harvey Oswald has been apprehended at the Texas theater in Southwest Dallas after police discovered empty rifle shells by the sixth-floor window of the book depository where he worked.

It wasn’t until years later in the book “The Death of a President” that historian William Manchester would identify that young man in shirtsleeves, the one who told MacNeil was to find a phone, as Oswald himself.

Unknown to Manchester, in a report not published by the Warren Commission, the Secret Service concluded that Oswald had actually talked to Pierce Allman, a Dallas radio reporter. But it has always been a what-if moment for MacNeil.

ROBERT MACNEIL: When they talked about a connection with the book depository and a man being arrested after a policeman had been shot and that he worked in the book depository, I thought, oh, my God, that’s where I went, and I wonder if.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back at Dallas police headquarters, Oswald was hauled in for questioning.

LEE HARVEY OSWALD, suspect: I didn’t shoot anybody, sir. I haven’t been told what I’m here for.

JIM LEHRER: I was there when they — just as they brought in Oswald. And I wrote his name down. I still have the notebook. I’m one of those people who asked, hey, did you shoot the president?

ROBERT MACNEIL: I was also in the police station that evening and doing reports for NBC.

And I saw Oswald paraded back, and when he said, “I didn’t kill anybody. I’m just a patsy”

JIM LEHRER: And the guy standing next to me, who I didn’t know at the time, is Jack Ruby. It wasn’t until Sunday, when he shot Oswald, and I saw the picture and I said, holy smokes.

MAN: There is Lee Oswald. He’s been shot. He’s been shot. Lee Oswald has been shot. There’s a man with a gun. It’s absolute panic, absolute panic here in the basement of Dallas police headquarters.

ROBERT MACNEIL: NBC was on the air when it happened. And my friend and colleague the late Tom Pettit was the one who said, he’s been shot, Oswald’s been shot.

And somebody at NBC had the wit to say, go live at that moment when Oswald was brought out.

MAN: He is not — lying very pale.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oswald was rushed to the hospital, but died less than two hours later.

What about the — the Oswald piece of this, the person who was behind it. Been so many theories since then about whether it was one person, whether it was not. Does your having been there, been so close to what happened given you a strong feeling one way or another?

JIM LEHRER: I ran down every conspiracy theory. And I had covered the Warren Commission stuff and all that.

And I came away with this view, Judy, that I was unable to — in my own mind, looking at it professionally, I was unable to conclude that there was a conspiracy. I was always prepared to entertain the possibility that Oswald didn’t act alone. Now we sit here 50 years later. No story has developed that, to my satisfaction at least, that shows beyond any — that goes beyond showing the possibility, real possibility, that there was a conspiracy.

ROBERT MACNEIL: All I can contribute to this is the question in my own mind, what made me run up the grassy knoll after getting out of the bus? Why did Dallas policemen run up there?

Because somebody thought they heard something up there over the overpass at the top of the grassy knoll and where various conspiracy theories have posited another gunman. And the single-bullet theory, all this sort of stuff, I assume that Dallas policemen were as experienced as anybody could be in hearing gunshots echoing off buildings in an urban atmosphere.

Somebody heard something that made them run up there. And that’s all I can contribute. I haven’t seen anything that is real evidence of a conspiracy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in Washington, just minutes after Oswald’s death in Dallas, President Kennedy’s flag-draped casket entered the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

The following day, an estimated one million people lined the streets of Washington as the state funeral procession wound its way from the Capitol to the White House, to St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and finally to Arlington Cemetery.

ROBERT MACNEIL: For three days, all — it’s — all my emotions were frozen.

And I was, oh, God, what a story? How do I do this? What do I do — where do I go next? It wasn’t until the funeral on Monday — and I was still in Dallas. And with the NBC crew, I went up to the top of the grassy knoll, and there was a small little gathering of flowers and notes and things where it had happened, sort of like beginnings of what became a worldwide form of mass grieving.

And while we were filming, an old man came along, and he sat down near where I was on a kind of stone bench. And he took out a transistor radio and put it down. And at that precise moment, the Black Watch Highland Regiment and Band were passing a microphone in the parade.

And I simply burst into tears. It was just the sound of the bagpipes and everything, my own cultural background.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were Canadian.

ROBERT MACNEIL: It was so strange.

I had only a few days before in the South Lawn of the White House watched as the same Black Watch Regiment and Band paraded up and down, while President and Mrs. Kennedy sat on the South Portico with their children in their laps watching this. And I had two children at that time exactly the same age, a girl and a boy, the same age as Caroline and John-John.

And I don’t know whether that contributed, but it all just flooded out of me suddenly.

JIM LEHRER: In our case at The Times Herald, every one — every one of us worked around the clock for two, three days.

And then, when the funeral that walked down Pennsylvania Avenue and all that, and, suddenly, everybody was just running and then every — and then, suddenly, everything was absolutely silent in our newsroom. And we all started crying.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Yes. Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Same thing.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: And it was just — it was disbelief.

What I took away and have taken away — and it still overrides everything that I have done in journalism since — what the Kennedy assassination did for me was forever keep me aware of the fragility of everything, that, on any given moment, something could happen. I mean, my God, if they could shoot the president…

ROBERT MACNEIL: And that president.

JIM LEHRER: … that president, just like that on a beautiful sunshiny day, my God, three — three — three rounds fired at 15 seconds changed the course of history, that, if it could happen once, it could happen again and again and again.

And when I later became city editor of that same newspaper, I had a rule, that every phone that rang in that newsroom got answered, because you never knew who was on the other line.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think — just to wrap that up, what do you think is the long, the enduring view of the people of Dallas about what happened?

JIM LEHRER: Well, at first, there was — there was shame and embarrassment and grief for what had happened and that it had happened in their city and all of that.

But, in some ways, it was a marching-off spot, too, for a lot of people in Dallas, who had tolerated intolerance and said, we’re not going to do that anymore. And it made a big change, made — in a lot of people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Seven years after the assassination, city leaders asked if Lehrer would write an inscription on a Kennedy memorial in Dealey Plaza on behalf of the people of Dallas.

JIM LEHRER: It probably is the most memorable, lasting words I have ever written in my life or ever will write.

“It is not a memorial to the pain and sorrow of death, but stands as permanent tribute to the joy and excitement of one man’s life, John F. Kennedy’s life.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: A half -century after his death, the Kennedy Memorial in Dallas continues to honor the life of the 35th president of the United States.

President Obama has ordered all flags flown at half-staff tomorrow in honor of President Kennedy.