TOPICS > Politics

Bob Schieffer on the Kennedy Assassination

November 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

BOB SCHIEFFER: I’m Bob Schieffer, and in those days I was the night police reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

INTERVIEWER: What kind of coverage did the Star-Telegram plan for the president’s visit?

BOB SCHIEFFER: Oh, it was big news. It was big news. Because in those days, for one thing, presidents didn’t travel nearly as much as they do now. And so, we had done stories for days, advance pieces on where the president would stay, the local community leaders. Redecorated the room where the president would spend the night when he came to Fort Worth.

They moved in people from the art museums, moved in pieces of art. They had almost a little studio made for Mrs. Kennedy. There were enormous preparations. There was a big breakfast the morning that Kennedy was shot in Fort Worth given by the Chamber of Commerce at the Hotel Texas.

There were thousands of people that turned out the night before, when Air Force One landed at Carswell Air Force Base and again on the day that he spoke at the Chamber of Commerce, that morning. There were thousands of people massed outside the Hotel Texas just to get a glimpse of the president.

INTERVIEWER: Were you disappointed you weren’t out there covering it?

BOB SCHIEFFER: There is nothing for a reporter that’s worse than having a big story taking place in your town and you’re not assigned to it. I was the night police reporter, but I was told that the political reporters would be handling this story and that my job would be to go right down to the Fort Worth police station, like it was every day. So I was really out of sorts that I wasn’t assigned to the task force that was covering the president when he came to Fort Worth that day.

INTERVIEWER: What JFK said to his wife when saw the Dallas Morning News ad. Had you heard the story?

BOB SCHIEFFER: I don’t know that story. I do know there was such an ad that appeared that morning in the morning papers in Dallas, but I don’t know that story.

INTERVIEWER: When news of the assassination came in, you were sitting on the desk. Is that right?

BOB SCHIEFFER: What happened was that because I was the night police reporter, I didn’t get off till 3:00 in the morning, so I was actually asleep when the president was shot in Dallas. My brother, who was in high school, and our mother had given him permission to miss school that day so he could go down to Fort, to downtown Fort Worth and stand outside the hotel and see the president. So he actually shook hands with the president as he got into his limousine to prepare to leave for the trip to Dallas.

I was asleep, when it happened. My brother woke me up. He said, “The president’s been shot. You’d better, better get to work.” Well, I was just completely stunned. I mean, number one, I had been asleep. Nothing like this had ever happened. I mean, it was not just that the president had been shot. We didn’t have the kinds of violence that we’ve kind of become accustomed to now. This was just something totally out of left field that had happened.

I got dressed, and by the time I got to the Star-Telegram it had come over the radio that the president had been — that he was dead. And I remember, it was just as I was parking my car, and I just, I really lost it. I mean, I, I just couldn’t believe that something like this had happened, that it had happened in our state.

By the time I got to the city room every phone in the place was ringing, and I just picked up the phone. The, the city editor had literally panicked when news came of the president being shot. He had sent everybody in the city room to Dallas and there was nobody there to answer the phones on the rewrite desk.

So I just answered a phone and a woman said, “Is there anybody there who can give me a ride to Dallas?” And I said, “Lady, you know, the president has just been shot, and besides, we’re not a taxi service.” And she said, “Yes, I heard it on the radio.” She said, “I think the person they’ve arrested is my son.” And it was Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother.

INTERVIEWER: So you dropped everything and gave this woman a ride?

BOB SCHIEFFER: So when she said, “My son is the one I think that they’ve arrested,” I forgot that part about not being a taxi service, and I said, “Where do you live?” And so, another reporter and I, Bill Foster, went to her home on the west side of Fort Worth and we drove her over to the Dallas Police Station that afternoon.

It was a very interesting ride. I sat in the back seat. The other reporter, Bill Foster, drove. And she was making these outrageous statements — statements that were so outrageous that I didn’t include some of them in the, in the story I wrote the next morning for the Star-Telegram. The reason being that I thought she was just under such emotional stress, I couldn’t believe.

I mean, she would say things like, “Everyone will feel sorry for his wife, but they won’t feel sorry for me and his wife will get a lot of money and I won’t get any and I’ll starve to death.”

And I learned a great lesson. What I learned was that you have to be very careful about censoring yourself. I think probably had I put some of those quotes in the paper people might have had a better understanding of what kind of person she was and, and through that, might have had a better understanding of what kind of person Lee Harvey Oswald was.

We got to the police station. Bill Foster went to park the car, and I took her into the police station. And the rules of the road in those days were, at least for us at the Star-Telegram, if people didn’t ask, we never told people who we were. In fact, I always wore a snap-brim hat so I’d look like a detective. Our view of the First Amendment was, everyone has a right to talk to the Star-Telegram, even if they don’t know they’re talking to the Star-Telegram.

So I just walked up to the first uniformed Dallas policeman that I saw and I said, “I’m the one who brought Oswald’s mother over. Is there anyplace we can put her so these reporters won’t talk to her?” And he said, “Well, let me see what I can do,” and lo and behold, found a little office off the burglary squad. Asked if that would be all right. I told him I thought it would.

And we put her in there and then I would go back and forth out into the hallway, gather up the information that our reporters, and by that time we had I think 16 reporters on the scene, gather up the stuff that they had, and go back and use the phone in that little room to phone it in. So this was a great advantage to us, because we were churning out these extra editions.

As nightfall came, she asked if she could see her son, and so I went to Captain Will Fritz, who was the chief of homicide, and asked. I said, “His mother would like to see him. Is that possible?” And he said, “I think so.” So, they took us, his mother, Mrs. Oswald — by this time I believe his, his wife was also there — and his wife, me.

We all went into this holding room off the jail. And I’m thinking, “My God, they’re going to bring him down and I’m going to have this big exclusive. If I don’t get to interview him, at least I’ll get to hear what he and his mother has to say.” And finally, for the first time — and mind you, we’d been in the police station for hours — for the first time, someone said, “Who are you? Who are you with?” And it turned out it was an FBI agent, and I said, “Well, who are you?” And he said, “Are you a newspaper reporter?” And I said, “Well, aren’t you?”

So, I tell the story, at that point, I think, I received the first legitimate death threat of my life, because he said, “I’m going to kill you if I ever see you again.” I guess he was overstating it, but he might not have been, because he was pretty mad. Anyway, I excused myself, and so I never actually got to interview Oswald. But what an adventure. And it just underlines how different things were in those days.

In those days, if you looked like you belonged someplace — we didn’t have all these security gates and press passes and all of that stuff — if you looked like you belonged, you usually got in.

INTERVIEWER: There wasn’t the mistrust of journalists that there is today. Is that accurate?

BOB SCHIEFFER: Oh, I think that’s absolutely correct. I mean, oh, as the night police reporter at the Star-Telegram, I worked with the detectives; they worked with me. I overlooked the little stuff. They uh, helped me, gave me tips when there’d be what they thought would be a good story, a murder or something. I’d ride to the scene with them in the detectives’ car.

You’d have three people wearing snap-brim hats questioning people rather than two. Most people didn’t know that one of those people happened to be a reporter. But it was a much more informal arrangement in those days. In some ways that’s not good, but in some ways it, it worked pretty well.

INTERVIEWER: When did you make the transition to broadcasting? Did the events of the assassination make you realize that this instant medium had advantages over print?

BOB SCHIEFFER: You know, I’m not sure that it did. Covering the assassination was the most dreaming story from an emotional standpoint that I had every covered. It was not until 9/11 that I ever felt again the way I felt in the aftermath of that. I was — when I say I was so drained of emotion a couple of weeks after the assassination, I was back at my job on the police beat and I’d gone to this horrible automobile accident.

And this, this family had been decapitated when their car ran under a truck loaded with pipe. And as I watched these gurneys uh, with these corpses being rolled by me, I realized I had no emotion at all. I had no emotion to give. It had all just sort of drained away during this adrenaline-driven period when we were all covering this horrible event, the assassination.

So, not until 9/11 did I ever find myself feeling that way again, and it took me a while to sort of restock, I think, the emotion in my body. And that’s one of the things that, that reporters go through. A big event like this happens. It hits you, and then all of a sudden your reporter training kicks in and you start working as a reporter. It’s not until it’s over that you really realize what, what a toll it’s taken on you, and it really does take some time to regenerate that.

The way I switched from newspapers to broadcasting was in 1965. The Vietnam War was heating up, and I had just made up my mind I wanted to cover the war. And so, I talked the newspaper into sending me to Vietnam. I went there. I covered the war. I covered young people from Fort Worth who were in the military services.

I came back to Fort Worth and the local television station invited me out to talk about the war. And I did, and after, after this little talk show that I was on, they, they offered me a job, and it was $20 a week more than I made at the newspaper so, so I took it. I was making $135 a week at the newspaper.

That took me to $155, and I just felt like that was so much money that I had to take it. And so I, I was one of the first print journalists who got into TV for the money.

INTERVIEWER: Did you take ribbing from your friends? Or by that time did people start to take television seriously?

BOB SCHIEFFER: When people began to take television seriously was at the assassination. Up until that time most people got their news from newspapers. From, from that weekend on, when all of America was sitting around its television sets watching this horrible event take place, from then on television became the dominant media.

But when I switched from, from the newspaper to television, there were those who said, “Well, who does he think he is?” and, you know, “This is not something to be taken seriously.” But I’d decided by that time that that’s, that’s kind of what I wanted to do.

INTERVIEWER: Did you find with the Kennedy assassination that weekend that the local media were a bit defensive at the out-of-towners coming in?

BOB SCHIEFFER: Well I suppose in a way we were defensive because immediately after this happened people were convinced this was some sort of a right-wing conspiracy as it were. It turned out to be a very left-wing killer, a nut who had done this, and so I suppose in a sense all of us who lived in Texas were a little bit defensive of that.

But I have to tell you, those of us who were covering the story, this story was so overpowering we didn’t have time to think about very much of anything. But we were trying not to get scooped, basically, is what we were doing in those first hours and days after it happened.

INTERVIEWER: Looking back is there anything you would change about your performance?

BOB SCHIEFFER: I don’t know that there is. And I don’t know, when a story like this happens, I mean, I was a lot younger in those days. I had a lot more energy in those days than I do now. I think what you do — I’ve always been convinced that journalism is not very complicated — you go to the story, get as close to it as you can, you report as much of it as you can, and that’s about it. And I don’t know what else we could have done.

There are a lot of things — I suppose with all of the mysteries that came up after this, was there a second gunman, all of that kind of thing, we were not all, we didn’t know about those things then. But, you know, in the beginning when this thing happened, they closed off the borders with Mexico because in the first hours after this happened we didn’t know if this was something that the Russians had done.

We didn’t know if the United States was about to go to war. We didn’t know any of that. I mean, all of these questions were being raised. It was a pretty scary situation all around.

INTERVIEWER: Some of the journalists we talked to commented that they felt that they needed to continue communicating information to allay fears so there would be no runs on the bank or panic on the street. Was that in your mind at all?

BOB SCHIEFFER: I suppose in a larger sense that’s what was in the back of our minds, but basically, we were just trying to find out what this was all about. I mean, it, you know, the president of the United States had been murdered, and as a police reporter I was trying to get the who, what, when, where, why and how. And it was a brutal story.

I mean, you know, people sometimes forget that Lee Harvey Oswald shot a policeman at point blank range when they closed in on him in the movie theater. This was a very brutal killer. Was there somebody else involved? There could have been. I don’t know. I have an open mind about that. So far I have not seen any evidence that convinced me that there was, but there, there might have been. One of the things since then that, you know, people have asked me is how did Lee Harvey, I mean — one of the things that people have asked me since then is, is how could Jack Ruby have gotten into the Dallas Police Station and gotten close enough to Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot him? He got in the same way that I got into the Dallas Police Station.

People just assumed I was a policeman because I looked like I belonged there. The same way Jack Ruby looked like he belonged in the police station, and so he just walked in. It’s hard for us in this day of security gates and identification and all of the things that we go through now, it’s hard for us to understand that that was possible, but it was. That’s just how it was in those days.

INTERVIEWER: What about the challenges of extra editions, stopping the presses, keeping up with changes in a story that continued to revolve so rapidly over a few hours?

BOB SCHIEFFER: Well, by the time that I got to the Star-Telegram that day on the day that Kennedy was shot, people were lined up around — the Star-Telegram took up a city block in Fort Worth — and people were lined all around the building waiting for the next edition of the Star-Telegram to come out.

In those days people really didn’t believe things until they saw it written down in black and white. These days we tend not to think things were official until we’ve seen them on television. But in those days it was the printed word that told you, “This is official.” And people would line up, and they would, when they got an edition, they’d get back in the line so they could get the next edition.

I mean, we just kept churning them out. Every time there was something new, they would stop the presses and re-plate the front page.

Now, the Sunday that Jack Ruby shot Oswald was an entirely different situation. Our managing editor — his name was Loren McMullen — decided to put out an entirely new paper Sunday afternoon, a Sunday afternoon extra. Now nobody’d ever done that. This was different than what happened the day that Oswald was shot where you were re-plating the front page. And he did.

We all got together, we worked hard. They put together the whole thing including new want-ads and got a Sunday afternoon extra on the streets, and we took great pride in this, and delivered it to Dallas and got it on the streets of Dallas before The Dallas Morning News got the first edition of its newspapers on the street that Sunday afternoon. They just went ahead and put out their, their Monday morning paper, which, you know, you normally get late in the evening.

We got on the streets with our extra hours before the Dallas News and the Dallas Times Herald got on the streets with their, with their Monday morning papers. And the real irony of it was the Dallas News photographer had taken a photo of Ruby shooting Oswald, and it was a copyrighted photo. We had put that copyrighted photo with the proper credit line on the front page of the Star-Telegram and got on the streets with it hours before it came out in Dallas’ own newspaper.

And to us, that was a real scoop. I was so excited about it that when the delivery truck got to Dallas from Fort Worth, I got a bundle of the newspapers myself and sold them down at Dealey Plaza. Some of them I gave away, but we were just so proud of getting on the street with that story.

It, it was one of the last of the great newspaper extra battles that went on. These days, of course, you wouldn’t do that because you have cable news. You have news going on around the clock on uh, on television, but it was, we thought that was quite a scoop.

INTERVIEWER: And the Dallas Morning News folks are still mad about it. A lot of people began their careers in a major way with this story. Did you think this was the genesis of American’s fascination with news and people’s desire to really sort of make a life of this?

BOB SCHIEFFER: Well, big stories always make reporters. Uh, it’s like in a rodeo. If, if you ride a horse that doesn’t buck, you’re not going to win the bucking bronco contest. But a reporter who’s at a big story and does a good job at it, that’s been a boost for many, many careers throughout the history of journalism. And I think a lot of people went on to good careers after that story, because this was a story unlike anything that anybody had covered in modern times.

And so, the people who were there, and naturally, I think it probably did help their careers, just as later in Vietnam we saw a generation of reporters that came to be well-known. INTERVIEWER: Do you think that local Dallas and Fort Worth newspapers and television did a commendable job based on their lack of experience in covering a story of this magnitude?

BOB SCHIEFFER: Sure, I think they did a great job. I mean you know, this was something like, unlike anything any of us had ever covered. But you’re absolutely right. I mean, the reporters of my generation, and I’m not sure this is any longer the case, all started working at little radio stations, small newspapers. We all had the reporting experience. You get it at one place, you get it at another place. These days I’m not sure that’s always the case.

One of the bad things that’s happening to young journalists today, in my view, is that they get out of college, they go to work at a small station. And the one who turns out to be the best broadcaster, they make him or they make her the anchor. And so they don’t do much reporting after that.

They’re in the studio, and then after they’ve done that and gotten kind good at reading the Teleprompter, they go to work at a bigger station. And then the same thing happens, and they go to work at a bigger station. And after ten years, they have this tremendous amount of experience at reading Teleprompters, but you look back and discover they really haven’t covered very many stories.

Now you can make it that way, but I always believed that it is better if you’ve had some experience covering stories in person, on the scene. You just learn more when you are the one who has to go to the hospital emergency room or you’re the one that has to go talk to the cops, when you’re the one that has to write that bad story that everybody at the police station is going to hate you for writing, but you’ve got to show up the next day and cover the news. That’s how you learn to be a reporter, and that’s how you cover a beat. And I’m sorry to say I don’t think as many young people today are, are getting that kind of training.

INTERVIEWER: Is there anything that people never ask you with regard to the Kennedy assassination that you sort of always wanted to talk about?


INTERVIEWER: You wish people would shut up about it?

BOB SCHIEFFER: No, no. I, still find it a, you know, a fascinating, a fascinating experience. I mean, just, just the whole experience of, of how it could have happened, why it happened, what did drive Lee Harvey Oswald? Was there a connection with Castro? All of these questions — I suppose they’ll always be there. But they may be questions we’ll never know the answer to.

INTERVIEWER: Thank you so much.