On that fateful day fifty years ago, newsman Jim Lehrer waited at Dallas’ Love Field for Air Force One to arrive with President and Mrs. Kennedy. He was assigned to cover the arrival and to stay there until Air Force One left. Love Field had an open telephone line by the fence where he could talk to Rewrite. Copy then was called in by phone, and the Times-Herald, an afternoon newspaper, was on deadline, adding to the time pressure.
“My big episode came when the rewrite man told me while we were testing the line that Air Force One had just left – it was coming from Fort Worth (a short flight), and he wanted to know if the bubble top was up on the limo,” Lehrer recalled. After eyeballing the five or six cars waiting, he could see it was up.
“It wasn’t there for protection or security, it was there for weather,” he explained in a conversation with The Daily Beast. “Kennedy was adamant, he didn’t want people to think he was something under glass, not to be touched.”
It had been raining in Dallas, but by late morning it had cleared. Lehrer spotted a local secret service guy he knew and asked him, “Are you going to keep up the bubble top?” The agent had a two-way radio connecting him with other agents downtown. “He checked with them – it wasn’t raining – and he made the decision to take the bubble top down,” says Lehrer.
The president was in Dallas to deliver a luncheon speech, and would only be on the ground for a couple hours. The next thing Lehrer knew, “I got a call from the city editor telling me to go to Parkland Hospital, and then to the police station, and stay there for the next day.” At midnight at the police station, Lehrer encountered the agent he had spoken to at Love Field. “He saw me, and he came over to me, and my recollection is he was upset and said, “Oh my God, if I just hadn’t taken off the bubble top.”
There was not a lot written about the decision to remove the bubble top at the time, “not even by me,” says Lehrer, who wrote about it “just in passing.” But the brief episode and conversation stayed with him for many years, and form the basis for Lehrer’s new novel, Top Down, which examines the implications of that single decision on the man who made it, the reporter who was there, and finally on Kennedy’s eventual fate.
“If it was up, Oswald might not have taken the shot. He might have thought it was bulletproof. Or the quarter inch Plexiglass might have deflected the bullets. Or the glass could have shattered into shards and killed everybody,” says Lehrer.
When he decided to expand his real-life experience into a work of fiction, Lehrer went back to the Warren Commission report to see how it had treated the decision to take down the bubbletop. “They thought it was too bad that the bubbletop wasn’t up—people thought it was bulletproof—but nobody made a big to do about it. There was never any kind of re-creation to see if it would have made a difference.”
Top Down reenacts the shooting to imagine what might have happened if the bubbletop hadn’t been removed. “I thought about the guilt a lot of agents felt,” he said. He didn’t stay in touch with the agent he talked with in Dallas, but says he went on to have a normal professional life.
The agent in Lehrer’s novel is overcome by guilt, and becomes sick physically and emotionally. “That’s all fiction,” Lehrer says. First-person accounts that have been made public from agents in the president’s detail that day reveal their personal anguish, adding to the believability of Lehrer’s fictional account.
Top Down begins with a symposium at the National Press Club, five years after the assassination, which is 1968, with four reporters recounting their experience. A fictional reporter for an afternoon newspaper, i.e. Lehrer, tells the story of the agent whose decision may have changed the course of history. A newspaper story about the seminar appears, and the 20-year-old daughter of Lehrer’s fictional agent contacts him, saying her father is deathly ill, pleading with the reporter to help her make him well.
This is Lehrer’s 21st novel (he has also written three non-fiction books), and he says, “This is one of the most personal of my novels because it comes right out of an event I participated in. Every novel has some element of autobiography, but this one more so for me.”
He struggled with it, rewriting the whole book more than once. After one of those rewrites, he almost threw it away before deciding to give it one more try. He didn’t have the reporter in those initial drafts, a key element in the story. “I finally realized with help from my wife Kate, I needed a narrator, a reporter, and God knows I knew how to do that.”
Lehrer was born in Kansas but spent his formative years in Dallas, and says that’s where he is from. He’d been working as a journalist for four years when he covered the Kennedy assassination. He left Dallas in 1972 to join PBS in Washington, where he has had a long and distinguished career as a correspondent and anchor. When I reached him by phone on Friday, he was in Dallas for a symposium on the assassination’s impact fifty years later on the city, and to attend a meeting of the Ochberg Society, a global network to support journalists impacted by covering traumatic events.
For a long time, people in Dallas didn’t talk about the assassination, and now, he says, only five to ten percent of the population was there when it happened. “Some people don’t have any feel for it,” he says. “For me, I was only four years into journalism, and I learned that lesson the hard way, and I learned it early, just how fragile the world was. Everybody is vulnerable, even the president of the United States. Our institutions are vulnerable. There’s no such day you can say nothing is going to happen. We’ve had a lot of jarring events.”
The press club symposium in Top Down never happened, but on Monday in Washington, in a case of life imitating art, Lehrer will participate along with three other reporters in a panel at the National Press Club titled, “Where were you when Kennedy was killed?” Bob Schieffer, then a cub reporter with the Fort Worth Star Telegram, took a phone call from Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother seeking a ride to Dallas; Marianne Means with Hearst Newspapers was the only female reporter in the motorcade, and Sid Davis, a radio correspondent, was aboard Air Force One for the return trip to Washington to witness LBJ being sworn in. All witnesses to a moment in history that still has us all riveted.