TOPICS > Politics

Jim Lehrer on the Kennedy Assassination

November 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: On November 22nd, 1963, I was a newspaper reporter for the Dallas Times Herald. On that, I was the federal beat reporter. But, the coming of President Kennedy to Dallas was an all-hands type project because, number one, he was the president of the United States. Number two, we were an afternoon newspaper. He was going to be in Dallas for a very short time. He was coming in right at our deadline time of several of our editions, so all of us were involved one way or another in the president’s visit.

My assignment that day was to go to Dallas Love Field [airport], and report on his arrival from Fort Worth, and then stay at Love Field and report on his departure. What he was coming in to do was a luncheon and then leave. And my job was to [cover] that.

And I arrived at Love Field that morning. It had been raining that morning. I went to an open telephone line by a fence, which was supposed to be right where the planes were going to come in from Fort Worth.

INTERVIEWER: Did JFK breaking protocol and approaching the fence strike you as unusual or extraordinary?

JIM LEHRER: Everything about it struck me as extraordinary because I was on the phone, for one thing, giving notes to the rewrite man, a man named Stan Weinberg, who was on the phone with me.

And the idea that the president would come over and shake hands with people and all that, yes, I found all that terrific, ’cause that was right by where I was.

INTERVIEWER: Then a Secret Service agent asked you about the weather?

JIM LEHRER: That was before the president arrived. It had been raining that morning and I was checking if the president’s plane had not left Fort Worth yet, and I was checking the phone line out with the rewrite desk downtown. And the rewrite man, Stan Weinberg, said, “Look, I’m going to be writing this story under pressure later.” He said, “Do they have the bubble top on the president’s car?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know. I can’t see his car.” They had had the motorcade parked down a ramp that was out of my sight. I said, “Let me go look and see.”

So I walked down to the ramp. Because I was the federal reporter I knew the local Secret Service agents, and, in particular, the Secret Service agent in charge of the Dallas office. And I went over to him. I could see the motorcade and I could see that the president’s car had the bubble top on because it had been raining, but it had stopped. At any rate, I said to the agent, “Rewrite wants to know whether the bubble top’s going to be on or not.” He said, “I don’t know.” And he looked at the sky and then he hollered at another agent, “Why don’t you check down, downtown, see if it’s quit raining?”

So he got on the radio and he said, “Yeah, it’s clear.” So this agent said, “Take the bubble top off.” And then I went back to my phone and said, “Well, the bubble top won’t be on. It will be off.”

And, of course, once the president was shot, what came to my mind, as it did to everybody else’s mind, had the bubble top been there, even though it wasn’t necessarily bulletproof in a full sense, it might have deflected the thing and maybe the president would have survived.

That night, my day was taken up by — once we got the word that the president had been shot, and I got through.

How I got through, I do not know. I got on the phone and got through to the city desk. The city desk told me, “Go by Parkland Hospital and then go to the police station.” I went by Parkland. There were many, many people already there, and so I went to the police station and I stayed there all the rest of the day and all through the night.

Around midnight that night, there were all kinds — it was just bedlam. I mean, there were all kinds of — it was back in the days when reporters had access to everything. So there were no restrictions. We were everywhere, and there were all kinds of cops and FBI agents and Secret Service agents and deputy sheriffs. The place was just crawling with people. And, there was a meeting down in the end of the corridor in the police chief’s office. This is about midnight. And we knew a bunch of suits were in there, you know, agents and officials. I was just standing outside waiting for the meeting to break up and the meeting broke up. The agent in charge who had taken the bubble top off earlier saw me and came over to me, and with tears in his eyes, he said, “Jim, if I just hadn’t taken the bubble top off.” And I said, “Well, you know…”

There are all kinds of people who made decisions or did things leading up to that day that they have had to live with. People who urged there even be a motorcade — at first there wasn’t even going to be a motorcade. The president was just going to come in, do the luncheon and get out. There were political people who said, “Wait a minute. You’ve got the people of Dallas need to see you.”

Remember, at that particular time Kennedy was not popular in Dallas at all, and the political people thought it would appear like he was afraid to be seen in all of that. So they talked him into — not him personally but talked to his folks into doing a motorcade. Those people, a lot of whom I knew, later had similar comments of, “Oh, my goodness, if I hadn’t just, if I hadn’t talked them into the motorcade.” All kinds of stuff like that.

But that day, as I say, I was there all night at the police station. And I was there when they brought in Lee Harvey Oswald. I was there when they brought him into this news conference in the middle of the night.

And the man sitting next to me at news conference was Jack Ruby, whom I did not know but I, when, when later, you know, two days later when he shot Oswald and I saw his picture, I thought, “Oh, my God, there he is.”

So then I spent — because I was the federal reporter — I spent the next six months doing nothing but assassination stories, covering all the investigations and checking out every conspiracy theory and everything there was to cover that I could get a hand, get a hold of I covered.

Also, you should know from my point of view, is that I have not kept up with this. I mean, I did for a while, but that is — I am not an assassination buff and I haven’t followed everything, so anything that’s come out in the last few years, I’m rusty on. This is not something that’s overwhelmingly interesting to me.

INTERVIEWER: While it hasn’t consumed your life, it has so for others. Do you know why?

JIM LEHRER: Well, I think why it didn’t consume me is that it consumed me very intensely at the time. I mean, I spent six months doing nothing but assassination stories. And there were a lot of reporters doing the same thing. Nobody believed — nobody believed — that Oswald acted alone.

And we all knew that if we were going to win a Pulitzer Prize or whatever we had to prove that there was a conspiracy. So that’s why everybody worked and worked and worked.

And even when the Warren Commission came down there and then came up with their report, there were still all kinds of questions and all of that.

But in my case, fortunately, as a journalist, as a reporter, I had to move onto other things, and I eventually started covering politics, and became the political writer for the newspaper and started writing a little political column in addition to the street stuff. Then I became city editor, and then I went into public television, and my life just moved on professionally from that story. It made a lasting impression on me. I will — the details of what happened over that day, some of which I got wrong.

INTERVIEWER: Wrong? Like what?

JIM LEHRER: I’ve recounted them, for instance, I always had the color of Kennedy’s shirt wrong, and I was right there, I saw him — I was maybe two or three yards from him as, when he came to the fence line at the airport. So I did see him close up. And, I remember, well, yes, he had on a blue-striped shirt. Or maybe it was a red-striped. Anyhow, I had it wrong, and I had it in my memory wrong for years, until I finally was reading something, you know, from the autopsy or something, and somebody said, “No, no, no, no. It was a red-striped shirt instead of a blue.” Whatever, I had it wrong.

But what I remembered I remember intensely even to this day. But I did move on professionally.

JIM LEHRER: While I have not been consumed by the story since then, there are a couple of things that I remember that evening.

I don’t know what time it was exactly — you know, ten, eleven o’clock, midnight, whatever — and I was talking to an FBI agent, an agent whom I had known as a result of covering the federal beat. He and I were standing at the end of a hallway, we were smoking and all that, and we kind of looked at each other and said together, “Nothing like this will — we’ll always remember everything that happened tonight — everything that happened to us today. This will be with us forever.”

And I remember saying to him, “I can’t imagine ever covering a story more important than this, more, more stunning than this.” I was just a kid reporter at the time.

Looking back on it the other day, I was asked at an open forum — a question-and-answer thing at a college function — what was the most important story I’ve ever covered. And I said without thinking: the Kennedy assassination. And the reason — that doesn’t mean more important in, you know, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11 — there are all kinds of important stories. And I went ahead and explained that, for me, as a on-the-scene reporter, there’s been nothing like that that’s happened to me since. And it’s almost, I knew it at the time, that nothing like this would ever happen to me again as a reporter, and it’s been true.

INTERVIEWER: Do you feel lucky to have been there?

JIM LEHRER: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I feel lucky to have been there. I hate what happened. I hate the tragedy of what happened. I feel that as a professional, I’m delighted I was there in that sense. But I hated it that the president was killed. I hated it that it happened in my city, a place that I lived and loved. And Dallas caught hell for it as a city and all the people in it, including me. If you lived there, you were tainted by the assassination. There’s no question about it.

But as a professional, I think it helped me grow. It helped me understand the magnitude of what journalism can be.

You know, I’ve often said that one of the great things about having a career in journalism is one — I’ve been in it now almost 40 years — is that it has made it possible for me to bear witness to all the major events of the last 40 years, one way or another, and do something to participate in the news coverage of these major events. The Kennedy assassination was a major event in my lifetime. And I was there functioning as a professional. And, I’m grateful for that.

INTERVIEWER: The argument has been made that by their overwhelming presence journalists became an inextricable part of the story. Would you agree with that?

JIM LEHRER: I don’t recall any specific incident where the reporters, either by television or print, influenced the outcome.

Some have argued that, and I don’t know enough about it to know whether they’re right or wrong. I don’t recall, even though I probably wrote (chuckles) stories about it at the time, that it was the desire of the Dallas Police Department to show Oswald, you know, to show him in public that caused them to take him through the basement and allow all the reporters to be there that made it possible for Jack Ruby to shoot Oswald.

But that was a decision made by the police, not by the reporters.

I mean, let’s say they’d said, “No, we’re not going, you’re not going to be able to see Oswald.” Sure, people would have raised hell about it. But some people could argue, “Well, it was the pressure from the media.” The media was not a word they used at that time. It would have been the “press.” It was the pressure from the press that caused them to bring him out in a way that resulted in his being shot.

I think that’s a thin argument, to tell you the truth, and I don’t recall anything else about the argument. Now, that’s a major thing, let’s face it, but I don’t recall anything else that — looking back on it — that I would say, “Oh, my God. This wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for us” — meaning “us” the reporters.

INTERVIEWER: Do you feel your work as a journalist is a contribution to history?

JIM LEHRER: Well, it is a contribution to history, but it isn’t history.

And that distinction always has to be made. As I said, I’ve been in this business nearly 40 years now, and there are many, many stories I have reported. On the day I wrote them and reported them, they were as true as I could possibly ascertain. But subsequent events proved that they weren’t true at all. So if somebody went back and looked at my account of a certain trial or a certain crime or a certain decision by a mayor or by a political figure in Dallas or later nationally or anywhere since I’ve been in Washington and go look back at everything I have done and say, “Okay, well, now this is history.” Forget it. It’s not history at all. All it would serve is as a tip sheet, as a place to begin, not a place to end your research.

Everybody says, “Oh, well. It’s all in, in the newspaper clippings and all of that.” The only thing that’s in the newspaper clippings or on the video library is somebody’s idea of what were the facts and what the truth was at a particular moment in time. And it could change within hours or minutes or days or months after that story was done. So I do not see myself as, when I’m functioning as a journalist, as also functioning as a historian. I’m only functioning as a journalist.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve been working on the national level for decades. Evaluate the performance of the Dallas-based journalists that weekend. Exceptionally good job or not as well as they could?

JIM LEHRER: I think, generally speaking, we did a good job. Everybody was involved. It was a very emotional thing. Because it was our city, the people whom we were covering — the District Attorney, the sheriff, the police chief, detectives, assistant district attorneys, the U.S. attorney, Judge Sarah Hughes — all these people who we knew personally, professionally, because we’d been covering them, suddenly were national and international figures.

That was a stunning discovery to realize that the people who once we’d just, you know, walk into the sheriff’s office or walk into the district attorney’s office or whatever — now the whole world now knew who Henry Wade was. The whole world knew who Bill Decker was. The whole world knew who all those folks were. Will Fritz, the Chief of Homicide, Chief of Detectives, I guess that’s what his title was. All those folks that all of us reporters knew, now the whole world knew them.

I think as my main knowledge about the local coverage for the two newspapers, I was working for the Times Herald, and we were competing against The Dallas News, so I was very aware of what we were doing.

I was very aware of what The Dallas News was doing, and we were competing really all-out to cover the story better than the other one and to try to get every kind of scoop, every kind of little piece of information we could get, and calling in every chit we had with every law enforcement officer, every FBI, everybody we could get. With that element, it really made the blood flow, and whether the end product was perfect, I couldn’t attest to that, but I think generally speaking the readers of those two newspapers were well served.

I don’t think we at the Times Herald, and I don’t recall anything at The Dallas News, where anybody went over the top on anything — took something weird, and ran with it, some theory or some piece of disconnected evidence and tried to make a heavier meal out of it than it required.

I don’t remember anything that looking back on it that, “Oh, my God. That was embarrassing.” Doesn’t mean we got everything right. And I wrote scads of stories during that time. I bet if I went back and looked at them, I would say, “Oh, my God. Did I do that?” You know, I’m talking about reports, just stories, reporting just simple accounts of certain things, interviewing people who said they thought this or saw that or whatever. But I don’t recall anything that I’m embarrassed about either for myself or my colleagues on either newspaper.

INTERVIEWER: After your transition from print to television, did your perception of the value of the media change?

JIM LEHRER: You’re talking about going to television?


JIM LEHRER: No, that was all, that was all kind of by accident. I went directly from print to public television. I never worked in commercial television. That came about … I was city editor of the Times Herald, and I had written a novel. And the novel was made into a movie, and I decided to write full time, and — not that the movie paid us that much money, but it was enough, you know, in our crazy world. My wife Kate and I thought we could live for a long time on $45,000, which is what it was.

Being city editor of an afternoon newspaper, particularly the Times Herald then, was hellish work. You know, 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., six-and-a-half days a week. I mean, it was hell. We had little kids, and the paper was not terribly well run at the time. We didn’t have many resources. By the time you covered all the luncheons that somebody higher up wanted covered, you had very few reporters to cover the news. It was tough going.

So, I decided to write full time, and the public television station, KERA, and my friends, Bob Wilson, who’s the manager, and Ralph Rogers, who’s chairman of the board, asked me if I would come and work couple days a week as a consultant.

And so eventually out of that we started an experimental news program with a grant from the Ford Foundation that was seeded by a grant from the Wiley Foundation in Dallas, and suddenly I was on television, and I didn’t know what in the world I was doing. I had never appeared on television except once or twice. Some little local “Meet the Press” type panel shows.

And I’ve been in television ever since, but it wasn’t a result of an “okay, now, I am now going to change the direction of my professional life.” It was nothing like that at all. It just happened, and it was a blessing. I mean, I have been fortunate by just the set of circumstances. I was lucky is what it boils down to. And to be able to do what I’ve been able to do since I went into public television and then I came to Washington in 1972. I mean, I’d look what stories I have covered, the opportunities I have had to be present again at major events and to be a participant as a journalist in stories that have changed the face of the world at a given moment or for a given decade — or who knows, for a given century — it’s been terrific.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think that what happened that weekend gave birth to something that is better now than it was then, or have we slipped in a way that just demands information?

JIM LEHRER: Well, those 72 hours were 72 hours of one of the most momentous stories that had ever happened in our country. And it was a national outpouring of grief, a national outpouring of curiosity and interest.

It had every element of a major event in the history of the United States of America. To take that and say, “Well, now that justifies having news 24 hours a day,” doesn’t work for me. I mean, what has happened now is the definitions of news are the OJ trial.

The OJ trial was on the air a lot longer than the Kennedy assassination and the aftermath and whatever. The OJ trial was not news. It was news about four times over a period of several months, but some of the cable news networks took the position it was news every day all day.

That flows out of an entirely different motivation or drive than what drove the networks in 1963 to stay on the air as long as they did.

This is an entirely different world, and I don’t, I don’t see any connection at all except that the idea that people will watch television when something matters has been — that’s true. And that’s what happened in 1963, and the networks realized that they had the ability to put millions of cameras around and pick up every event, every step along the way during the during the Kennedy funeral and the funeral march, everything.

That showed the way, but I don’t think that — there was nothing like that after that for years and years and years because there was no event like that for years and years and years. So I think all that did, if there’s any connection at all, it demonstrated that the skills and the equipment and the technical possibilities were there. Editorially there’s no connection at all between what happened in 1963 and what’s happening now on 24-hour news.

INTERVIEWER: Thank you. Appreciate it.

Photos courtesy KERA, The Dallas Morning News, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza