WASHINGTON – Four journalists who covered the JFK assassination in Dallas recalled their experiences in a two-hour panel Monday evening at the National Press Club attended by a near full-house of more than 300.
In the discussion, none of the voiced any dispute with the Warren Commission conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin.
“No one has ever presented to me evidence that proved anyone else other that Lee Harvey Oswald was the shooter,” said Bob Schieffer, CBS News senior correspondent, “even though we still have no rational explanation why Lee Harvey Oswald did it.”
When asked about research concluding there were other shooters, Schieffer expressed concern that social networking on the Internet permitted citizen journalists to report eyewitness accounts that were not validated by a second source.
“It’s incredible what people will put on television,” Schieffer scoffed when asked about a documentary currently being broadcast on Reelz TV arguing JFK was killed by a shot fired accidently by a Secret Service agent riding in the “Queen Mary” Secret Service car trailing JFK’s limo.
In 1963, Schieffer was a cub reporter for the Fort Worth Star Telegram when he answered a phone call from Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother, Marguerite Francis Claverie, saying she just learned her son had been arrested for the murder of President Kennedy and she needed a ride to Dallas.
“To see a young and vigorous man like JFK gunned down by bullets fired by a madman registered an impact on my psyche,” Schieffer said.
Schieffer interviewed Oswald’s mother while driving her from Fort Worth to the Dallas Police. He said she complained throughout the ride that she and her son were “nobody” and that their story would be ignored in the sympathy that was certain to pour out from the nation for the rich JFK and his glamorous wife, Jackie.
“In my story I didn’t report everything she said,” Schieffer explained. “It was all so hard to grasp. I was in grief and much of what Oswald’s mother was saying was incredible to me, very self-pitying, almost incomprehensible.”
‘I might have saved JFK’s life’
On Nov. 22, 1963, PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer, then a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald, was assigned to cover the arrival of Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas.
“I guess I might be responsible for getting the bubble-top removed from the limo,” Lehrer recalled, explaining how he was asked by his editor to find out at Love Field whether JFK’s limo would have the bubble-top on for the motorcade to Dallas, or not.
“I went over to the limo and saw that the limo did have the bubble-top on,” Lehrer explained. “It had been raining that morning in Dallas, but the rain had stopped.
Going over to the Secret Service agent guarding the limo, Lehrer asked whether the bubble-top was going to remain on the limo. The agent called supervisors on his two-way radio.
Receiving the order to remove the bubble-top, the agent went to work immediately.
“I’ve often thought that if I never asked about that bubble-top, I might have saved JFK’s life,” Lehrer said. “Who knows, maybe the bubble-top would have diverted Oswald’s bullets, or maybe Oswald would not have shot at all, had he seen the bubble-top was yet on the limo.”
Sid Davis, a radio correspondent for Westinghouse, ended the day JFK was shot serving as a pool reporter on Air Force One. He witnessed Lyndon Baines Johnson taking the oath of office.
At Parkland Hospital after JFK had been pronounced dead, Davis asked Johnson if he was going to return to Washington immediately.
“I began, ‘Mr. President,’ and Johnson looked surprised,” Davis said. “I guess it was the first time anyone had called LBJ ‘Mr. President,’ and he just looked stunned.”
Davis told how Secret Service agents rushed LBJ out of Parkland Hospital once JFK had been pronounced dead.
“At that time, we didn’t know how many shooters there were,” Davis explained.
On board Air Force One, Davis told the audience the temperature inside the airplane was extremely hot because the airplane had not been started and there was no air conditioning.
“It must have been 100 degrees in there,” Davis recalled. “I counted 28 people who were crowded in that small space to watch LBJ take the oath of office.”
Davis observed Johnson was “in total control” as he placed phone calls to Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, both of whom, Davis said advised him to take the oath of office before Air Force One left Dallas.
“Once back on Air Force One, LBJ took charge, and he did it resolutely, with compassion toward Mrs. Kennedy,” Davis said.
Davis recalled that as the oath of office was being administered, Jackie Kennedy was on LBJ’s left and his wife was on his right.
It took 28 seconds to administer the oath, Davis remembered. LBJ kissed Mrs. Kennedy on her cheek and he embraced Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s secretary, but he warded off various Texas politicians, including Congressman Albert Thomas, who wanted to congratulate LBJ.
“LBJ didn’t want to turn the ceremony into a celebration,” Davis said. “Jackie had her wits about her, but she was very wide-eyed and unblinking.”
Davis explained Johnson had sent his secretary to the back of the airplane to ask Mrs. Kennedy if she would join him for the swearing in. She agreed, deciding she would remain in the bloodstained clothes she had worn during the assassination.
“Jackie said, ‘Let them see what they have done,’” Davis recalled, explaining why Jackie did not change clothes.
The fourth panelist, Marianne Means, a retired Hearst columnist who was the only female reporter on Press Bus No. 1 when Kennedy was shot, said very little.
In a wheelchair and speaking with difficulty, Means commented she observed JFK’s brain matter splattered as “little white dots” mixed with his blood in the back of the limo parked at Parkland Hospital.
“Half of Kennedy’s head was blown off,” she said, referring to the massive head wound that killed JFK.
Lehrer first to ask: ‘Did you shoot JFK?’
Among the other points of interest during the panel discussion, Lehrer disclosed that he was the first reporter at the Dallas Police Department on the evening of Nov. 22, 1963, to ask Oswald if he shot JFK.
“It was when Oswald was in the halls of the police station,” Lehrer recalled. “Oswald replied, ‘I didn’t kill anybody.’”
During questions-and-answers at the end of the program Monday night, Lehrer was asked if he believed Oswald when he denied shooting JFK.
“It wasn’t my job to believe him or to disbelieve him,” Lehrer answered. “I just reported what he said.”
Lehrer also added he felt very confused at that time.
“It was a mix of emotions I felt that night. I felt grief, and I struggled to believe that JFK was really dead.”
Lehrer told the group that it was his story in the Dallas Times Herald reporting JFK’s motorcade route that Oswald had in his possession when he was arrested.
Lehrer also commented that an editor at the newspaper saved Lehrer’s career when the decision was made to hold for verification an erroneous story Lehrer had telephoned in to the newspaper. Lehrer had reported that an FBI agent at the Dallas Police Station told him a Secret Service man had been killed in the shooting that day in Dealey Plaza.
“That taught me getting the story right is more important than getting the story first,” Lehrer said.
Partying with the Secret Service
Schieffer recalled that the night of Nov. 21, 1963, JFK’s last night alive, he and a group of other reporters had been joined until the early hours of the morning by Secret Service agents from JFK’s detail at The Cellar, an after-hours coffee shop in Fort Worth where the waitresses danced suggestively, wearing only their underwear.
“I was home in Fort Worth, asleep in bed, when JFK was killed at 12:30 p.m. local time in Dallas,” Schieffer told the group, noting that after the late night at The Cellar with the Secret Service agents, he needed rest.
Davis explained that at Parkland Hospital he first learned JFK was dead when he heard a Catholic priest say, “He’s dead alright. I just administered Extreme Unction (the Catholic Church’s “last rites”), and I told Jackie that I thought his soul had not yet left his body when I got there.”
Davis also confirmed that at Parkland Hospital he observed Secret Service agents cleaning up the blood and debris from the back of the JFK limo, actions that in effect destroyed valuable evidence that could have been preserved had the limo been treated as a crime scene under current law enforcement standards.
When the four panelists were asked if reporting on the JFK assassination had a positive effect on their subsequent careers, Marianne Means piped up: “It didn’t hurt.”
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