They were there: MacNeil/Lehrer on Nov. 22, 1963

Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil who were both in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

“Why did I run up the grassy knoll? Because cops ran up there,” veteran journalist Robert MacNeil told an audience of approximately 500 people at the Newseum in Washington DC Tuesday night.

MacNeil was alluding to his actions in Dallas on November 22, 1963, when he was the White House reporter for NBC. He was joined at the Newseum by his longtime partner Jim Lehrer — they co-anchored The MacNeil/Lehrer Report for two decades — as part of the Newseum’s retrospective on the JFK assassination on its 50th anniversary.

Though another decade would pass before they met while covering Watergate, both men were in Dallas that fateful day to cover JFK’s visit and its horrific aftermath. Lehrer was a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald.

They offered fascinating anecdotes from their front row seats to history.

Lehrer said that there was palpable anxiety among the local journalism and political ranks in Dallas about the upcoming presidential visit, fearing that “some right-winger would do something.”

He was at Love Field that day, assigned to cover the arrival and departure of the president and first lady. He recounted a fateful conversation he had there that has haunted him ever since.

Lehrer noticed that the quarter-inch-thick plexiglass bubble, used in inclement weather, was still on the president’s limo as it rolled on to the tarmac. It had been raining that morning in Ft. Worth when Air Force One took off for the seven-minute flight to Dallas.

Lehrer approached Dallas-based Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels, saying his editor wanted to know if the bubble top would stay on for the motorcade through downtown. As Lehrer watched, Sorrels got on the radio and then called out, “Hey, it’s clear downtown. Lose the bubble top.” (MacNeil said that if the weather was clear, JFK always insisted the bubble top be removed.)

Hours later at the Dallas Police Station, a scene of “chaos and grief and disbelief,” Lehrer ran into Sorrels leaving a midnight meeting. Tears were streaming down the man’s face. Lehrer thought, “Shit, if I hadn’t asked the question….”

And what if the bubble top had been on? Would the assassin have stood down, assuming the cover was bulletproof? (It wasn’t.) Would the bubble have deflected a bullet, or would the bullet have shattered the bubble into a cloud of razor-sharp shards, potentially killing everyone on board? (Lehrer’s next book will be a fictional account of that day called “Top Down.”)

Meanwhile, MacNeil was in the front of the press bus, traveling seven cars behind the president.

As they turned onto Houston Street, with JFK’s limo already on Elm, MacNeil heard gunfire.

“Those are shots,” he said to the driver. As he jumped off the bus into Dealey Plaza, MacNeil said he was was greeted by “the most incredible screaming” as if emanating from “a thousand choirs.” On both sides of Elm he witnessed parents huddled on ground to protect their children.

He spied a policeman running up the grassy knoll, and he followed; the policemen jumped over the fence, so MacNeil jumped over the fence. All they saw were the parking lot and railroad tracks.

Desperate for a phone, MacNeil ran to the nearest building — the Texas Book Depository. He asked the first man he encountered where he could find a phone.  About a year later, author William Manchester told MacNeil that, given his reading of the chain of events that day, the man MacNeil had encountered was likely Lee Harvey Oswald. (Oswald later told authorities that a man he’d assumed was a Secret Service agent had run into the TBD looking for a phone.)

As a policeman stopped MacNeil, a man and young African-American boy approached the officer to say they’d seen a rifle protruding from a book depository window.

MacNeil then stopped a random car and paid the driver $5 to drive him to Parkland Hospital, saying NBC would pay any fines for running red lights. As he entered the hospital, he saw UPI’s Merriman Smith filing a story from the nurses’ station, much to the nurses’ dismay.

MacNeil and CBS’s Robert Pierpoint found an empty hospital room equipped with phones.

He recounted that the Secret Service had cleared out everyone except necessary personnel, but missed him and Pierpoint. Just then LBJ came sauntering by, and MacNeil ambushed him: “Is the president dead?” he asked. LBJ just blew by him and made his way outside.

Soon MacNeil and Pierpoint were tailing White House assistant press secretary Mac Kilduff as he took a circuitous route through the hospital grounds to a press conference; throughout the trio’s surreal jaunt Kilduff refused to reveal the president’s condition to the two journalists.

When Kilduff made the announcement that Kennedy was dead, he was shaking.

They returned to their secret room and MacNeil delivered the news to NBC anchors Chet Huntley and Frank McGee, while Pierpoint passed it along to Walter Cronkite. Before the announcement, MacNeil said he heard his colleague insisting to Cronkite: “Walter, Walter — you can’t say it until it’s official!”

MacNeil suggested to the Newseum audience that Cronkite had had some time to prepare for his seemingly spontaneous display of emotion as he announced the president’s death.

Lehrer arrived at Dallas Police headquarters just as Oswald was brought in — he initially called him “Lee Howard Oswald” in his notes. Oswald was standing right next to him, and Lehrer asked him if he’d killed the president; he denied it.

Both journalists are comfortable with the Warren Commission’s findings.

MacNeil said that while he assumed that seasoned police officers could tell where the bullets had originated from, the acoustics within Dealey Plaza made it difficult to say with certainty.

Lehrer said, “it all depended where you were” in Dealey Plaza when it came to which direction you thought the bullets came from.

Lehrer maintained that the press corps, of which he was a part, diligently dug into the matter after the assassination and would not have hesitated to report a conspiracy had there been evidence of one: “There were no Pulitzer Prizes to be won for saying Oswald acted alone,” he said.

Still, both he and MacNeil say they have not seen any “credible evidence” to alter their view that the Warren Commission was correct.

Saying he forgot “that fool’s name” that made the film “JFK” (Oliver Stone), Lehrer derided it as blaming everyone from the CIA to “the Boy Scouts of America.” He also said he’s been prepared for five decades for a deathbed confession from someone claiming to have been Oswald’s accomplice. That, according to Lehrer, has never happened.

Nevertheless, they acknowledged that a recent poll found that 81 percent of the American people believed there was a conspiracy.

Lehrer said that every journalist present that day came away knowing “that we live in a fragile world… that [the assassination] was the result of one person….”

In a Q&A, Lehrer agreed that Ruby’s actions spurred much of the conspiracy discussion; that Fidel Castro likely wasn’t involved, and that his “theory” was that Oswald did it because he “was about two-thirds nuts” and “hell bent on doing something.”

One questioner was Dr. Allen Childs, who was a doctor-in-training at Parkland that day. He’s published a book called “We Were There,” with essays from 44 Parkland physicians describing their experience on Nov. 22, 1963. He asked MacNeil and Lehrer if they knew the story of Dr. Ron Jones, who, according Childs, had been told by Warren Commission counsel Arlen Specter not to offer any testimony that would contradict the “single bullet theory.”

Neither had heard the Jones story. They also said they had never followed up with any Parkland medical personnel.

In closing, MacNeil said the day had “an enormous emotional impact on me.” A native Canadian, he had just moved his family, including two children the same age as Kennedy’s, to the United States from Great Britain. He fell into a depression, wondering “What is wrong with this country?”

On the day of JFK’s funeral, MacNeil was in Dallas broadcasting from Dealey Plaza where a procession of citizens were leaving flowers. Standing atop the grassy knoll, MacNeil watched an elderly gentleman approach the pergola with a transistor radio in hand. At that very moment the bagpipes from JFK’s funeral procession filled the air from the radio speaker. It was then, MacNeil said, that he finally lost his composure and broke into tears.


11 thoughts on “They were there: MacNeil/Lehrer on Nov. 22, 1963”

  1. “He also said he’s been prepared for five decades for a deathbed confession from someone claiming to have been Oswald’s accomplice. That, according to Lehrer, has never happened.”

    Not true. E Howard Hunt confessed on his deathbed in 2007. Yes, anything that man said has to be taken with a grain of salt. It certainly doesn’t prove anything. But to say a confession has never happened is categorically false.

  2. Marcus Hanson

    “About a year later, author William Manchester told MacNeil that, given his reading of the chain of events that day, the man MacNeil had encountered was likely Lee Harvey Oswald.”

    OK , but what does MR.MACNEIL think ?

  3. Anyone can repeat the sanitized government press release. Where’s the hunger and search for the truth? Time for both of these media types to RETIRE!!

  4. This story reminds me of my 1950’s University journalism classes. “In a story not yet concluded, stick to the facts.” It was Oswald who was charged by the police. Oswald – no one else. “Charged by the police.” Not found guilty by a jury of his peers, but still, the only person charged with that crime. Anything else is speculation. Both Mr. MacNeill & Mr. Lehrer reported the facts as they were made known at that time. As private citizens, they have the right to keep their opinions to themselves.

  5. Winston Smith

    Yup. Sadly you are right Gerry. I can’t think of any of the reporters at the time who covered the assassination that didn’t go along with the official story – and subsequently went on to do very well in their careers. Q.E.D.

  6. To add on to Winston’s “credible evidence” comment, there are more questions about Lehrer’s conclusions.

    First he says that there was “palpable anxiety among local journalism and political ranks in Dallas” about JFK’s trip. But shouldn’t Lehrer be suspicious that the “palpable anxiety” didn’t result in greater protection? If there was such great “anxiety” in Dallas why did the secret service take the trip so lightly and why didn’t the Dallas police take a more active role in protecting the president?

    Lehrer engages in a form of pop psychology that is reassuringly simple for lone nut theorists. He says Oswald killed Kennedy because was he was “hellbent on doing something.” But why be “hellbent on doing something” just to deny it? This contradiction doesn’t seem to cross his mind.

    Lehrer says every journalist present that day came away knowing that the assassination “was the result of one person.” This statement proves how close-minded journalists can be. How did they “know” before all the facts were in? He goes on to say: “The press corps diligently dug into the matter after the assassination.” The first statement directly contradicts the second. Why would they bother is they already made up their minds?

    I’m not saying Lehrer is part of a conspiracy but I can see by his attitudes how the media was easily taken along for the ride.


  7. On Lehrer’s theory that Oswald “was about two-thirds nuts,” the manuscript that George de Mohrenschildt was writing about his friendship with Oswald is pretty interesting evidence.…/HSCA_Vol12_deMohren.pdf
    The manuscript was never completed, because de Mohrenschildt shot himself (or someone helped him with that) the day he received his HSCA subpoena. But the manuscript (appended to the HSCA report) is a good read.

    I was surprised in several ways when I read it recently. First, de Mohrenschildt himself comes across as completely sane, and not someone likely to kill himself due to paranoid delusions. Second, he conveys some surprising attitudes for a White Russian whose father was detained and abused by Lenin’s regime before the family escaped. You would expect him to be offended by Oswald’s Marxist views, but he takes them as merely excessive zeal for social justice, partly admirable and charming. And third, Oswald himself appears more intelligent, measured, and sympathetic than in any other seemingly credible account I’ve read. He does not come across as remotely “two-thirds nuts.”

    I don’t know what to make of it, in part because it does not square with the account of Oswald’s brother Robert, who thinks Lee is guilty as charged and acted alone. (And to whoever made sinister insinuations about Robert the last time I raised this, you need to have some basis in evidence to suggest his brother isn’t giving a straight account.)

    I don’t think there’s any doubt that Oswald was an abusive husband and not much of a provider for his kids. But if he was just a deranged glory seeker, you don’t get that at all from de Mohrenschildt. And de Mohrenschildt repeatedly discusses the fact that he and Oswald both liked and admired Kennedy.

    If you accept the mainstream account of Oswald, it’s not hard to see why he would take a shot at Walker. But Kennedy? And de Mohrenschildt’s account makes that appear even less likely that Oswald would have come up with idea. But it leaves open the possiblity of some kind of outside manipulation.

    All in all, the manucript is a piece of evidence that deserves more attention.

    1. Mohrenschildt. Dude, read this man’s history instead of his last letter…then get back to me. First educate yourself on him. Your reply caused me to read the Warren Commission’s findings. Check out good work done by our Government…well good research work, however, not good protection work as they allowed this man citizenship AFTER HIS PASSPORT WAS FLAGGED! Possibly, this was the mistake that killed Kennedy. Don’t forget to read Warren Commission’s APPENDIX where you will find mohrenchilds letter. Hope to hear back from u.

  8. Winston Smith

    “Still, both he and MacNeil say they have not seen any “credible evidence” to alter their view that the Warren Commission was correct.”

    Are you kidding me?! Shame on both of you for going along with this shameful lie for 50 years.

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