Reporters on the scene in Dallas 50 years ago recall details of President Kennedy’s assassination with a vividness that is still fresh today, as is their shock then that such a horrific event could happen in America. No one alive in 1963 had experienced a shooting on such a scale, and the terror and confusion that marked that November afternoon played out in the way the news was gathered and dispensed.
The border with Mexico was closed. People worried the assassination might signal the start of World War III. In Fort Worth, home to a Strategic Air Command base, people feared they’d be among the first targets in a nuclear exchange. Kennedy had just stared down the Russians over missiles in Cuba. Maybe the U.S. would have to bomb Havana.
“There was no Miranda rule, no PR people. We dealt directly with the cops,” said Bob Schieffer, then a cub reporter working the night shift police beat at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He was still asleep when his brother woke him to say the president had been shot. With most of his colleagues dispatched to Dallas, Schieffer was left to answer the phones when a woman called asking for a ride to Dallas.
“Lady, we don’t run a taxi service here, and besides, the president’s been shot,” he said, almost hanging up on her. “I know,” she replied, “I think it’s my son they’ve arrested.” The caller was Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother. At the National Press Club panel “Where Were You When Kennedy Was Shot?” this week, Schieffer said it was “odd but not unbelievable” that Marguerite Claverie Oswald would call the newspaper. The Star-Telegram had done stories about Russian defectors, and newspapers then were a bigger part of the community than they are today.
Schieffer commandeered a Cadillac that a colleague was reviewing for a local car dealer, and together they fetched the assassin’s mother and drove her to Dallas. Mrs. Oswald was carrying a blue travel case, the kind you’d put a bowling ball in, he said, and she complained incessantly about how everybody would feel sorry for her son’s wife, they’d give her money, and she, the mother, would be left to starve. Schieffer didn’t use all of her quotes. “I gave her the benefit of the doubt,” he said. She’d just been told her son shot the president.
At the police station, nobody questioned him, assuming he was a detective when he asked for a holding room, “someplace we can put her where reporters won’t bother her,” he said. “I was only 26,” he added by way of explanation. “So they found me a little office.” He helped arrange for Mrs. Oswald to see her son. As he ushered her into a room where Marina Oswald was waiting, “a guy standing over in the corner says, ‘Who are you? Son, get out of here,’ and I think he meant it,” Schieffer chuckled. “It was the biggest interview I almost got, and one of the greatest adventures any reporter could have.”
Radio reporter Sid Davis was in the first press bus, eight car lengths behind the presidential limousine. The bus was directly under Oswald’s sixth-floor window when the shots rang out. Reporters could see the limo speed off, and they shouted at the bus driver to keep up, but he couldn’t. Davis ran into the street waving his portable Olivetti typewriter in the air. A kind soul recognized he was a reporter, picked him up, and drove him to Parkland Hospital. He saw the agents trying to clean the back of the president’s car. “Don’t look,” Time columnist Hugh Sidey told him. “It’s too horrible.”
The priest who gave Kennedy last rites told reporters, including Davis, that the president was dead and that he had told Mrs. Kennedy her husband’s soul had not yet left his body. “I knew a priest would know if a person is dead,” Davis said, adding, “There is no way any human being could survive that wound.” But he didn’t broadcast the information, waiting instead for the official announcement several minutes later from a teary-eyed Malcolm Kilduff, the ranking press secretary on the trip.
Jim Lehrer’s story on the security surrounding the president’s visit had featured a map of the motorcade route and had run on the first page of the Dallas Times-Herald that morning. A copy was later found among Oswald’s effects. Lehrer, then a young reporter, recalled now the informality in the police station, where they were moving Oswald from one office to another, “and I went right to Oswald. ‘Did you kill the president?’ ‘I didn’t kill anybody,’” he replied. “I wrote that down,” Lehrer said. Asked if he believed him, Lehrer said, “Not my job to be judge and jury.”
The police brought Oswald out “so people could see they weren’t beating him up. He had some scars from when they arrested him. They wanted to show there were no new scars,” Lehrer recounted. “I stood next to Jack Ruby. I didn’t even know who he was.” The Dallas Times-Herald was putting out new editions every 60 or 70 minutes, and Lehrer got a tip from an FBI agent that a Secret Service agent had been killed along with Kennedy. He called it in, but the tip turned out to be wrong, a mistake that bothers Lehrer to this day. “In today’s world, that would have gone out like that,” he says. A Rewrite man on his own spiked the story after talking to Parkland. “I saved your ass and your job,” he told Lehrer.
A lot of careers were made that day, and the desperate need for a phone was a recurring theme. “If you didn’t have a phone, you didn’t have a story,” said Schieffer. UPI’s legendary Merriman Smith, first with the story, sat in the front seat of the wire car next to the phone. As the motorcade sped to the hospital, he filed the bulletin that would go around the world, and after each phrase asked that it be repeated back to him. He wouldn’t give up the phone to the AP columnist in the back seat, ensuring a tussle. Back in Washington, Smith showed off his bruises at the National Press Club bar.