“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.