Jim Lehrer, the former longtime anchor of PBS NewsHour, was a young reporter in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated. On that fateful November day in 1963, Lehrer was at Love Field. He had been assigned to cover JFK’s arrival at the airport and his departure after a motorcade trip through Dallas. Lehrer draws on that experience for his latest novel. He imagines what happens to the Secret Service agent who made the decision to take the bubble top off the president’s limo. Diane speaks with Jim Lehrer on the “what if’s” 50 years after Kennedy was shot, and his thoughts on politics and the media today.

Guests

  • Jim Lehrer former executive editor and anchor of PBS NewsHour; author of two memoirs, four plays and 21 novels. He has moderated 12 presidential debates.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from TOP DOWN by Jim Lehrer. Copyright © 2013 by Jim Lehrer. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Transcript

  • 11:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. President Kennedy's assassination nearly 50 years ago changed the nation in profound ways. Novelist and former PBS anchor, Jim Lehrer, was a young Dallas newspaper reporter assigned to cover Kennedy's arrival and departure. Lehrer was there when a secret service agent ordered the bubble top removed from the presidential limo. In Lehrer's 21st novel, he imagines the devastating effect that decision had on a fictional secret service agent and his family.

  • 11:07:38

    MS. DIANE REHMThe book is titled "Top Down," and author Jim Lehrer joins me in the studio. You are welcome to join the conversation. Call us on 800-433-8850, send us your email to drshow@wamu.org, send us a tweet, or follow on Facebook. Jim Lehrer, how good to see you.

  • 11:08:06

    MR. JIM LEHRERPleasure to be here, Diane. Always a pleasure.

  • 11:08:08

    REHMJim Lehrer, you've outdone yourself this time. Both a play and the new novel. Tell us first about that play, "Bell."

  • 11:08:19

    LEHRER"Bell." Well, "Bell," as in Alexander Graham Bell, and it was a one-person play. The actor Rick Foucheux, Washington actor, played Bell, and it was done by the National Geographic Society.

  • 11:08:34

    REHMThey asked you to write that play.

  • 11:08:35

    LEHRERYeah. They called me and asked me if I would write it -- would I write a play about Alexander Graham Bell, and I said sure. All I know about him is I think he invented the telephone.

  • 11:08:46

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:08:47

    LEHRERSo I started from scratch. And so I took a couple of weeks and did some research on him before I said yes I would do it, and I just found out that he was a fascinating man, and he -- the telephone thing was only one of many things about him. So anyhow, I wrote this play, and I was pleasantly surprised every step along the way. It was one of those golden moments for me when everything worked. I felt good about the play, I had a terrific -- Rick Foucheux is a great actor, Jeremy Skidmore was the director. He was superb.

  • 11:09:23

    LEHRERAnd they brought the best, the production people, the graphics people, every aspect of the theater, and they did a great, great production.

  • 11:09:34

    REHMAnd just to be clear, this is a one-person play.

  • 11:09:39

    LEHREROne-person play, 75 minutes long, no intermission.

  • 11:09:41

    REHMWow. Wow.

  • 11:09:43

    LEHRERAnd Rick had to do -- and the way I wrote it, I wasn't sure whether it was going to work, but it was going back and forth in time, you know, to the present after he's dead, and talking about the cell phone and Smartphone.

  • 11:09:58

    REHMExactly. And the connections between what he did and what we see now.

  • 11:10:03

    LEHRERYeah. I had great fun doing all that.

  • 11:10:05

    REHMI'm glad.

  • 11:10:06

    LEHRERAnd it worked. There was standing room only for most of the productions and reviews were good. As I say, it was a golden thing.

  • 11:10:15

    REHMTerrific.

  • 11:10:16

    LEHRERAnd I'm not used to all that kind of thing.

  • 11:10:18

    REHMCongratulations.

  • 11:10:19

    LEHRERThank you. Thank you, Diane.

  • 11:10:20

    REHMWell, it was something you took on after you ceased being the on-air anchor for the "NewsHour."

  • 11:10:30

    LEHRERThat's right.

  • 11:10:31

    REHMWas that a difficult decision for you?

  • 11:10:33

    LEHRERWell, it was difficult -- no. Actually, bottom line, the answer is no, it wasn't difficult at all. The time had come for me to go. The time -- I felt that way, I still had, I felt, some fertile time and fertile moments and fertile things to do with my life. I had spent nearly 40 years doing the daily show on PBS in its various forms, and it was a time for new voices, new ideas, and it was also time for new ideas for me. And so it took two-and-a-half years for me to -- after I made the decision to get it done because the one thing I did not want to do was to create chaos as often happens when some person is a kind of face and voice and person on a television program, the lead person.

  • 11:11:27

    LEHRERI wanted to make sure that the transition went smoothly, and it did. And so by the time I actually left, any anxieties that I had about leaving were gone because I phased it in. So I went, you know, three days a week, then I went to two days a week…

  • 11:11:42

    REHMGood.

  • 11:11:42

    LEHRER...and I went one day a week, et cetera.

  • 11:11:43

    REHMRight.

  • 11:11:44

    LEHRERAnd so by the time I finally left, I was completely at ease, and since I left, I have been even more at ease about it. I do not -- sure, I still care about the news. Sure, I still care about Billy Bob and Sammy Sue Wa-was, the people who do things...

  • 11:11:59

    REHMCan't help but do that.

  • 11:12:01

    LEHRERI know. That will never go.

  • 11:12:02

    REHMRight.

  • 11:12:03

    LEHRERBut I don't -- I do not miss going on television every day and having to get ready to go on television every day.

  • 11:12:08

    REHMI understand that.

  • 11:12:10

    LEHRERI just don't miss that.

  • 11:12:11

    REHMAnd I must say the selection of Judy Woodruff, Gwen Ifill to be the anchors, I'm very happy about that.

  • 11:12:20

    LEHRERYeah. I am too, and it's working very well.

  • 11:12:22

    REHMAbsolutely.

  • 11:12:23

    LEHRERYeah.

  • 11:12:23

    REHMNow, you begin your new novel "Top Down," with this line. "Where were you?" And we all know what you're talking about.

  • 11:12:37

    LEHRERAbsolutely. Absolutely.

  • 11:12:38

    REHMAnd you were there.

  • 11:12:39

    LEHRERI was there. Well, I was at Love Field, and I was working for the Dallas Times Herald which was the afternoon newspaper in Dallas. And the Kennedys were only going to be in Dallas two, three hours, and it was right on our deadline for our afternoon newspaper -- several deadlines. And so the entire city staff was involved in the coverage. I was the federal reporter. My assignment that day was to cover the arrival of the Kennedys at Love Field and then stay there and cover the departure.

  • 11:13:10

    REHMAnd what happened that day is so seared in all of our minds, but what you've done with this novel is to create a fiction around the secret service officer who in your novel is the decision maker, the one who says, take the top off the limousine.

  • 11:13:43

    LEHRERYes. And that was important because -- for all kinds of reasons. The only reason it was an issue was because it had been raining in Dallas that morning, and the secret service, along with everybody else who is involved in presidential visits, of course, did not want the Kennedys to get wet in a motorcade

  • 11:14:02

    REHMOf course not.

  • 11:14:08

    LEHRERExcuse me, Diane. I have a cold a little bit and I'm coughing a little bit.

  • 11:14:10

    REHMThat's all right, Jim. I know the feeling well.

  • 11:14:12

    LEHRERYeah. We know -- we're in this together. But at any rate, the -- so they had the bubble top up. They were prepared because it had been raining in the morning, and the secret service had already put the bubble top on the car, and all it is -- well, was, is a quarter-inch Plexiglas. It wasn't bullet proof or whatever. Six pieces of Plexiglas put together by snaps, and -- but a lot of people thought it was bullet proof, even some of the secret service.

  • 11:14:41

    REHMAnd they thought that had that been on there, the president would not have been hurt.

  • 11:14:48

    LEHRERAbsolutely right. Here's -- there were two theories. One theory was that if the bubble top had been up, Oswald might not have even taken the shots because there was this expectation by some that this was -- it was bullet proof. If Oswald had gone ahead and taken the shots, even with the bullet -- with the glass up, even though it wasn't bullet proof, it could have deflected the shots, and -- or it could have hit these little metal rims that held the six pieces together, and it could have deflected it some way. That was one theory.

  • 11:15:17

    LEHRERAnother theory was that if he had gone ahead and shot and the bubble top had been up, that glass would have splintered into shards that -- and it would have killed everybody in the car, both the Kennedys, the Connellys, as well as the two secret service agents in the front seat. But nobody made a big to-do about it, and I was a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald, and I spent six months after the assassination almost full time covering the investigation and all the stuff about the assassination.

  • 11:15:49

    REHMAnd whether there was a conspiracy.

  • 11:15:52

    LEHRERA conspiracy. And everybody was looking for -- there were 2,000 reporters looking for a conspiracy because nobody believed that one person did it alone, and there were no Pulitzer Prizes to be one by proving that only person had done it. So everybody was looking for conspiracies and I was one of them. The thing that stuck in my mind, and the reason -- and it took all these years, 50 years for me to write the book, was the simple thing that when I was preparing to cover the story, the Air Force One -- they sent word that Air Force One was about to take off from Fort Worth.

  • 11:16:31

    LEHRERIt's only a 20-minute flight. And I had an open telephone line right by the fence where the Air Force One was going to come in to talk to the city desk downtown, and the rewrite man said to me, well, it's -- we were testing the phone. He said, by the way, they're going to keep the bubble top up. He didn't know whether it was up, down or -- and I said, well, I can't see. The cars are down a ramp. And he said, would you mind, Jim, going and seeing, and I said why? And he said, well, because we're going to be writing a story under deadline and I'd just like to know whether the bubble top is up when it goes through downtown Dallas and all that.

  • 11:17:01

    LEHRERSo I put the phone down. I went down there and I could see the cars, there were six of them, down this ramp, and of course, one of them was the presidential limousine, and the bubble top was in fact up. I was the federal reporter. I knew the secret service agents that were assigned in Dallas at least, and the head guy in Dallas was standing there at the top of the ramp. And I said to him --- I said, Mr. Sorrells (sp?) , I see the bubble top is up. Rewrite wants to know whether you're going to take it down or not.

  • 11:17:28

    LEHRERAnd he looks up at the sky, and he says, well, it's clear, isn't it? And he yelled at a couple of other agents who one of them had a two-way radio, and he said, check and see if it's clear downtown, what it's like downtown. So the guy comes back -- in a few minutes he comes back and says, clear downtown. So this agent then turns to the other agents who are standing around the cars and says, okay, lose the bubble top. Then I spent hours -- the next 12 hours at Parkland Hospital and then at the police station, and at midnight that night, to end my story, at midnight that night I was there along with -- Diane, I don't have to tell you. It was absolute chaos.

  • 11:18:09

    REHMChaos.

  • 11:18:10

    LEHRERAnd I remember every second of it. I mean, there were all kinds of agents and cops and reporters with all kinds of accents, and we waited -- somebody said, well, there's a big meeting going on -- well, I'll finish this story in a minute.

  • 11:18:22

    REHMAll right. And the book we're talking about, Jim Lehrer's 21st novel, is titled "Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination." Short break, we'll be right back.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMAnd Jim Lehrer is my guest. He is of course the former PBS News anchor of the "McNeil-Lehrer News Hour" which then became the "PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer" and is now the "PBS News Hour." His 21st novel is about the Kennedy assassination. It's titled "Top Down" and focuses on the family as well as the agent himself. The agent who said take the top off the convertible in which President Kennedy and his wife and Governor Connelly and his wife were riding on the fateful day of the assassination.

  • 11:20:57

    REHMJust before the break, Jim, you were talking about what was happening at Parkland Hospital.

  • 11:21:04

    LEHRERParkland Hospital and then the police station. The police station where I ended up and spent the next 24 hours was a scene like nothing I will never forget.

  • 11:21:16

    REHMThat curse.

  • 11:21:18

    LEHRERAnd I was saying before the break, you know, there are all kinds of law enforcement people and reporters and patients jammed. And everybody -- there was this mix of grief and of horror, of disbelief and, oh my God, who did it and why. And oh my God, it happened in -- you know, it was just incredible. At any rate, at midnight, that night of the assassination, somebody told me there was a meeting upstairs on the third floor of the police station of city hall.

  • 11:21:50

    LEHRERIn the police chief's office. And so I went up there. The door was closed. But I knew there were people in there. So I just hung out, sat outside the office. And the door finally opened after a while. And in came five or six men in suits. And one of them was the Secret Service agent, the man I knew and talked to at the ramp. And he sees me and he comes over to me. And he was an old man, about 42 years old or so.

  • 11:22:15

    LEHRERAnd I may have imagined it, Diane, I don't know. But it seemed to me like he had tears in his eyes. He came over to me and he said, whispered to me, Jim, I just had them take it down the bubble top.

  • 11:22:28

    REHMOh.

  • 11:22:29

    LEHRERAnd, of course, I'm thrown back in my own, I tell you, if I just hadn't made the call, if I just -- but it, you know, it would -- no matter what, the bubble top would have been taken off because the bubble top was strictly a weather situation. It was never a design in any way to protect the Kennedys or any other president.

  • 11:22:48

    REHMAnd it wouldn't have.

  • 11:22:49

    LEHRERIt wouldn't have. It was not -- and Kennedy had said many, many times, he didn't want the bubble top up.

  • 11:22:55

    REHMI know. He wanted it down.

  • 11:22:55

    LEHRERHe wanted the people to see him. What's the point of having a motorcade and being out in public...

  • 11:22:59

    REHMEven though it was Dallas where he knew that people disliked him.

  • 11:23:05

    LEHRERYeah. But, you know, that gave him probably, you may not have read a little bit about this, he was even more determined, you know, and so were the people around him to demonstrate that John F. Kennedy goes where John F. Kennedy wants to go. And he's certainly not afraid of a few people, of a few right wing nuts and all that sort of stuff. And the fact of the matter is, he was well received in the motorcade.

  • 11:23:30

    LEHRERI mean, people cheered. I was there when he arrived at Love Field. There were a couple of people with some anti-Kennedy posters, but for the most part it was a very warm reception that the Kennedys received. But that incident that I just told you about, that's all read. The fictional part of the book is that I then later imagined based on some stuff I did hear and did know about what effect this had on all of the Secret Service agents who were involved...

  • 11:23:59

    REHMWho were there.

  • 11:24:00

    LEHRER...in that visit.

  • 11:24:01

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:24:01

    LEHRERAnd there were all kinds -- some of them had really serious problems afterward. You know, for a Secret Service agent, there's nothing worse than losing the president. I mean, that is the ultimate awfulness. And some of them never got over it. And even though they had no personal -- for instance, Clint Hill. Clint Hill is the famous Secret Service agent. A guy who is Jackie Kennedy's -- assigned to Jackie Kennedy.

  • 11:24:26

    LEHRERHe was on the running board of the car right behind the presidential limousine. And when the shots were fired, he jumped up and climbed up. Pushed Mrs. Kennedy back and all of that. Well, Clint Hill, for 25 years, Clint Hill suffered serious mental problems, drinking problems or whatever because he heard a shot and he looked up to the right. And he always believed that if he had not looked to the right, which would be natural because that's where the shot was, to his right.

  • 11:24:54

    LEHRERIf he'd immediately jumped off the car and gotten -- he could have gotten there in time to push both Kennedys down so the second shot...

  • 11:25:00

    REHMAnd take the shot.

  • 11:25:01

    LEHRERYeah. Twenty-five years later, his wife forces him finally to go back to the scene in Dallas and Clint Hill realizes that would have been -- it would never -- it chances your outlook, changes your own mental attitude and helped him recover from all of his problems because he realized he could, it wouldn't have happened.

  • 11:25:19

    REHMSo what you have done is to create this fictional account of what happens when the daughter of the Secret Service agent calls you on the telephone.

  • 11:25:35

    LEHRERCalls a fictional reporter.

  • 11:25:36

    REHMA fictional reporter...

  • 11:25:38

    LEHRERRight.

  • 11:25:38

    REHM...who sort of reminds me of a young Jim Lehrer and says you have to help me, my father's life is at stake.

  • 11:25:49

    LEHRERYeah. The fictional story is the man became mentally disturbed, mentally ill and that mental illness in modern day turns to we call PTSD -- and posttraumatic stress disorder. And as often happens, it can get so severe that it becomes a physical ailment as well. And that was what his daughter, this agent's daughter, why she was in a state of panic just five years later. Five years, so it'd be 1968.

  • 11:26:24

    LEHRERAnd her father was on the verge of death. And there was nothing anybody seem -- could do about it. And she was desperate. And this reporter was on a -- of all things, he was at a where were you symposium at the National Press Club.

  • 11:26:42

    REHMRight.

  • 11:26:43

    LEHRERAnd there were all reporters who covered the story and one of these was this guy, one of the fictional reporter and she heard what he had said, read what he had said and she called him and then they -- she wants his -- she wanted his help. And the book is essentially the story of how the two of them try to save the life of her father.

  • 11:27:10

    REHMAnd what you're telling me, however, is that this did happen in real life to a number of those people.

  • 11:27:22

    LEHRERThings like that did, as far as...

  • 11:27:23

    REHMThings like that.

  • 11:27:25

    LEHRERThings like that. The Secret Service, I have great respect for the Secret Service.

  • 11:27:29

    REHMAnd I.

  • 11:27:29

    LEHRERI have great respect for those individuals. You know, they -- to think about that, Diane, and I did and I thought about it a lot, the natural instinct when somebody points a gun at you and shoots at you is you dock or you run or you do what. A Secret Service agent is taught to instinctively go toward the shooting. And that takes training beyond -- a lot of people can't do that. And anyhow, I just learned to have terrific respect for them.

  • 11:28:03

    LEHRERAnd what they did, though, you know, usually when something like this happens and it's understandable in real life, there was the tendency to punish these agents. You know, transfer them all to Butte, MT or get them out of sight. And Jackie Kennedy was so concerned about this, she went to see then-President Lyndon Johnson and said, Mr. President, please intervene and make sure these agents are not punished and hurt in any way.

  • 11:28:35

    LEHRERIt was not their fault. They should not be -- and so Johnson ordered the Secret Service, leave those guys alone. But in the process, I discovered in the course of getting -- in preparing to write this novel, I discovered that the agents themselves never ever talked about this. They never -- some of them just kind of disappeared. Some of them take their own...

  • 11:29:00

    REHMDo you think they never forgave themselves?

  • 11:29:03

    LEHRERNever. Some of them never did. And they were -- they were even unable to talk about it among themselves, much else do anybody else. Some of them did have to have treatment. But nobody knew about it and it was never -- and there were no stories about it. There are no reporters like me around who knew about it at the time. I didn't know about it at the time. Nobody told anybody what's going on.

  • 11:29:28

    REHMAnd in your novel, the daughter sees marks on her father's forehead on either side and realizes ultimately he's had shock there.

  • 11:29:42

    LEHRERHe's had shock treatment. Yeah, and she was afraid that they were going to do a lobotomy and it was just -- this was in the '60s. They were beginning to do some treatments using pharmaceuticals and all that. But it was a long, long way from really being perfected in any way. And they really did not know what to do. And the analysis was not that helpful. And also here again it had not been perfected as a cure for this kind of thing.

  • 11:30:19

    REHMJim, you know far better than I that there are still many people who believe that President Kennedy's assassination was the result of a conspiracy, that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone. That Jack Ruby was placed in there to kill Lee Harvey Oswald so he couldn't talk. What was your conclusion after all of your own investigation?

  • 11:30:58

    LEHRERIt's complicated. I spent, as I say, six months or even longer believing all of that what you just said, it had to be -- it just seems so obvious that one guys couldn't have done that. And it had to be a conspiracy. You know, one crazy guy just could not get away with killing the president of the United States. Just remember, the Kennedy assassination was the first of our horrors in our country.

  • 11:31:27

    LEHRERAnd so it was -- disbelief was there for everybody, particularly among reporters. And our job is to test everything or whatever. So what -- I went at my reporting or the idea that there had to be a conspiracy. The only issue was, what kind of conspiracy? So I checked out every one of them, as did everybody else. And it was all said and done, I came away with a conclusion after several years, after a few years that there may have been a conspiracy.

  • 11:32:02

    LEHRERAnd -- but it's not provable and that the lone gunman stands alone as the probability at this point. However, I always personally believe that one day, you know, when they still had the old wire machines with the bells ringing and all that sort of stuff, that one day I was going to hear the bells ring and there was -- there's going to be a bulletin, somebody on a death bed or whatever who said, okay, I'm going to tell my story.

  • 11:32:31

    REHMI did it. Yeah.

  • 11:32:33

    LEHRERNow, here we are 50 years later and nobody, there's been no death bed confession. There's been no piece of evidence, at least that I'm aware of, that has really destroyed the one man, one gunman thesis.

  • 11:32:52

    REHMJim Lehrer and his new book is titled, "Top Down." You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." As we think about all of this 50 years later, I wonder from your perspective both being there and as a newsman how you believe that assassination changed our nation?

  • 11:33:22

    LEHRERWell, I believe it changed us in ways that were permanent. And there are a very few things in history that have been so profoundly changing, frankly. It's changed American journalism beyond -- it's nothing like what it was 50 years ago.

  • 11:33:42

    REHMHow so?

  • 11:33:44

    LEHRERWell, first of all, journalism suddenly got serious. Up to that point, it was all kind of soft and easy and, you know, there wasn't any, you know, yeah, there were wars to cover and all that. But everything was, you know, okay. And suddenly the fragility of our lives came right into the newsroom and everybody who was in the newsroom. From that point on, I know for myself and for everybody who was a journalist at that time never ever, ever ignore the phone call.

  • 11:34:18

    REHMNever ever, ever went through 10 minutes without thinking, oh my God, something -- and what happened within the next several months and the next few years, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Martin Luther King was assassinated. We had a terrible war called Vietnam. We had a terrible scandal called Watergate. One awful thing after another. And it all began with John F. Kennedy.

  • 11:34:44

    LEHRERAnd that's part of journalism. But also, I think it affected everybody not just the journalists because the journalists were -- but look what it did to television, television news. Television news was really soft. Yeah, there were network news programs but, you know, it was basically a kind of a slow approach to things. And television news came alive and stayed on, it's been alive ever since because of the Kennedy assassination.

  • 11:35:11

    LEHRERThat was the first time we had a shared experience in America and everybody sat in front of a television set for hour after hour after hour. And we've been doing it ever since whether there's been a tragedy, whether it's a natural -- it's Katrina or whether it's 9/11 or whatever, it's -- and it all began with the Kennedy Assassination.

  • 11:35:33

    REHMAnd to see Jack Ruby kill Oswald on television...

  • 11:35:39

    LEHRERLive television.

  • 11:35:40

    REHMI shall never forget that as long as I live.

  • 11:35:43

    LEHRERIt's extraordinary. And that's where all of that stuff happen. And once that happened, you never put live television or the import of television, never got back in the bottle, never will be and never will, never will.

  • 11:35:58

    REHMDid you see Jacqueline Kennedy the day of the assassination?

  • 11:36:04

    LEHRERI saw her, yes. Yes. I saw her when she got out of the plane and I was right there by the fence, that's where my spot was when they came by.

  • 11:36:13

    REHMDid you see her after the assassination?

  • 11:36:16

    LEHRERNo, no. No, I did not.

  • 11:36:17

    REHMYou did not?

  • 11:36:18

    LEHRERI did not.

  • 11:36:19

    REHMDo you believe the stories that have come out since that LBJ, Lyndon Johnson, wanted the swearing in to take place on that plane immediately so that Jacqueline Kennedy could be present and legitimize his swearing in?

  • 11:36:48

    LEHRERWell, you know, there are a lot of theories about that. And I think there's pretty good evidence that that's true. I mean, he was, like everybody else, was in a state of shock. And he probably -- and what I've read and what you've read and everybody's read -- is that he -- part of his thinking was if she was there, there would be a continuity. The American people would see that the orderly transition during this awful, awful, awful tragedy. And she symbolized it and it makes sense to me.

  • 11:37:25

    REHMJim Lehrer. And when we come back, time to open the phones for your calls, comments. I look forward to speaking with you.

  • 11:40:00

    REHMAnd welcome back. Newsman Jim Lehrer is with me. He is also, as you well know, a prolific writer. He's come onto this program with many of his novels. His latest, his 21st is titled "Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination." And Jim, before we open the phones, I want to ask your assessment of the current deadlock in Washington and what you think it's doing to our country.

  • 11:40:41

    LEHRERWell, I have been actively engaged in journalism in Washington for 40 years. And I can assure you I have never seen anything like this. The government of the United States is designed and normally functions as the body that protects the American people from calamity. In this case, it's created a calamity for the people of the United States. It's never , never happened before. Yeah, sometimes people, they make -- congress or the president makes mistakes in judgment and whatever but -- when they're confronted with a crisis or whatever.

  • 11:41:18

    LEHRERBut this seems completely manmade -- man and woman made by the people who are in charge of the government. And it's hard for me as a professional reporter, but my goodness, it must be even more difficult for the ordinary folks out there in the country saying, why would they do this? And I don't have an answer to that. I honestly am -- I'm as confused and puzzled as everybody else is.

  • 11:41:49

    LEHRERAnd -- because I don't see what anybody has to gain by -- because the whole -- look, if they had followed -- if the founders of this country had followed the processes that are being followed right now by the congress of the United States, and in some ways the President of the United States, we'd never have a United States of America. They'd compromise on everything. That's what they brought the -- that's what -- the principle of the founding was based on you have people -- a varying degree have varying opinions. They argue about it and then they reach an agreement and move on for the better good.

  • 11:42:29

    LEHRERFor some reason, these folks whose jobs were created by those people who were willing to do it, these people who now have these jobs are not willing to do it.

  • 11:42:41

    REHMThere is some blaming Republicans, Ted Cruz, Speaker Boehner saying that it's the Republican party against itself where others are blaming Democrats in the White House. Where do you come out on this?

  • 11:43:01

    LEHRERWell, I'm not in the blame business. I blame everybody. I think that anybody who has any part of this and has not done something to stop it, has not actively worked to avoid this is guilty, guilty as charged. And it's not just Republicans on the very right or just the president or just -- you know, it's everybody involved in this. I mean, this is a collective enterprise called democracy. And it means everybody's got to be involved here.

  • 11:43:35

    REHMAnd that's what's scaring me so, how democracy hailed as this wonderful form of government is now being looked at around the world.

  • 11:43:48

    LEHRERExactly. How in the world are we -- any of us wes going to look at the rest of the world and lecture them about, hey you ought to do it our way. You know, you ought to be like us. You ought to be like the greatest democracy in the world, the United States of -- who in the world would want a government functioning like that? And so I think we've lost the high ground deservedly so. And if we don't do something about it quickly, it's going to be really hard to get it back.

  • 11:44:20

    REHMAll right. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Simian (sp?) in Rochester, N.Y. You're on the air.

  • 11:44:33

    SIMIANGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:44:35

    REHMCertainly.

  • 11:44:36

    SIMIANMr. Lehrer, first of all, I'd like to congratulate you on your latest book. And my question is this, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan said famously after the Kennedy assassination, we'll never laugh again, or it may have been, we'll never be young again, but it was one of those. And I wonder if you could address yourself to the broader political, cultural, psychological legacy that the Kennedy assassination has had. Not just for journalism, but for our country since that tragic day in Dallas.

  • 11:45:09

    REHMThanks for calling.

  • 11:45:09

    LEHRERYes, thank you. I agree with you on -- I can't remember exactly what it is that Moynihan said either, but it was something along those lines. I think it affected everybody who was alive that day because, as I said earlier, it was the first time this kind of thing -- my god, somebody could fire three rounds in 15 seconds and change the course of history. That means -- that just shows how fragile it all is. And that's all in our state of mind. It's been in our state of mind ever since. And that is a huge change for us all. And I think we were all affected that way. And since the fragility that we now have that came to us because of that.

  • 11:45:53

    REHMHere is a question on your play. It's from Michael. He says, "In during your research for the play about Alexander Graham Bell, did you read the book "The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret" by Seth Shulman? He makes a very compelling case that Bell stole the invention. Your play raised the issue of whether others beat Bell to the invention. But Shulman's evidence is very compelling."

  • 11:46:29

    LEHRERWell, I glanced at Shulman's book. I did not read every word in it. I read a lot of stuff about these allegations.

  • 11:46:36

    REHMI'll bet.

  • 11:46:37

    LEHRERAnd my conclusion, right or wrong -- and I'm certainly no expert. I came into this with no knowledge, so what my knowledge was acquired since -- as I began writing the play, but my conclusion was that Alexander Graham Bell stole nothing. And that he, like all inventors -- certainly there were things that came before him that used properly then in his devices that later ended up being the telephone. But he didn't steal anything.

  • 11:47:15

    LEHRERAnd he certainly didn't steal anybody's secrets or -- and I thought that -- and all of this went to court. There were 547 legal challenges against him. Won every one of them.

  • 11:47:26

    REHMWow.

  • 11:47:27

    LEHRERAnd he had all kinds of evidence and there were all kinds of -- I went to the Supreme Court in five of the cases. And that was good enough evidence for me. But I am certainly not -- I'm neither a judge nor an expert.

  • 11:47:40

    REHMAll right. To Oklahoma City, Barbara, you're on the air.

  • 11:47:46

    BARBARAYes. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:47:48

    REHMSure.

  • 11:47:49

    BARBARAMy father who just passed away last year at the age of 90 was an FBI agent and present at the time Kennedy was assassinated. He was also one of the first to Parkland Hospital. He -- my father was about the same height and weight as John F. Kennedy. And he -- when they did the Warren reenactment -- Warren Commission reenactment, my father played the part of Kennedy during the reenactment. And he even wore the back brace.

  • 11:48:22

    BARBARAHe always told me nobody really knew that John F. Kennedy had such back problems. And he wore the back brace and the jacket Kennedy had on with the bullet holes. And he, like you were saying before, he was asked hundreds of times over the years, was it a conspiracy, was it not? And he always just said it was not a conspiracy. And I will admit he didn't talk about it much. And I guess I just needed to make those comments and I appreciate you letting me do that.

  • 11:48:55

    REHMAbsolutely. And I'm so sorry about your loss, Barbara. Thanks for calling. Any comment, Jim?

  • 11:49:03

    LEHRERWell, just a quick thing. The back brace, there is some evidence -- well, not evidence but there's a story -- the reality is a back brace kept him from falling over when you hear the first shot. Remember the first shot went through his neck. And some people say, well if he hadn't had that back brace he would've -- that would've knocked him forward and that second shot that killed him when it hit his head might not have happened. Who knows? It's another one of these what ifs.

  • 11:49:35

    LEHRERAnd my guess is that I know -- or I knew this woman's father because I covered the federal beat and I knew all the FBI agents in Dallas at the time. I knew them well and I really liked them.

  • 11:49:49

    REHMAll right. To Bill in Alexandria, Va. You're on the air.

  • 11:49:56

    BILLGood morning and thank you for taking my call, Diane.

  • 11:49:57

    REHMSure.

  • 11:49:59

    BILLMr. Lehrer, in your investigation of the Kennedy assassination, did you ever run across the Zapruder film?

  • 11:50:07

    LEHREROh yes, absolutely.

  • 11:50:09

    BILLAnd did that not clearly show Kennedy's head snapping backwards and the top of his skull going over the front of the car?

  • 11:50:18

    LEHRERYeah, yeah, yeah.

  • 11:50:19

    BILLAnd how does that explain the shots from the rear?

  • 11:50:25

    LEHRERWell, I mean, look, I'm not going to get into all of that. The Zapruder film has been analyzed by better people than me. And I saw a lot -- I've seen it many, many times but you have to take everything with everything else. And I don't think the Zapruder film in and of itself proves very much one way or another about all of that. I'm not going to get into the -- as I say, I'm not an expert on all of that.

  • 11:50:53

    REHMThat is what set off a lot of that controversy and still does.

  • 11:50:55

    LEHREROh, sure. Oh, sure. Oh, sure. Yeah, oh yeah.

  • 11:51:01

    REHMSo let's now go to Kirk in Pensacola, Fla. Hi there, you're on the air.

  • 11:51:09

    KIRKThank you. The -- I just wanted to know what Jim Lehrer could tell us about the driver of the presidential limousine, whether he had his training up to date. He was secret service. And I was just wondering, was he not trained to hit the accelerator at the first inclination that the president was in danger?

  • 11:51:39

    LEHRERWell, his name was Roy Kellerman. No, Roy Kellerman was the guy on the right. I can't remember the name of the -- they're both secret -- they were both secret service agents, the two guys in the front seat. And what he -- under best of circumstances he should've floor-boarded the car immediately...

  • 11:51:58

    REHM...immediately.

  • 11:51:59

    LEHRER...and he didn't. He waited for a few counts and there are some who say those two counts had cost Kennedy his life. There are others who say that's nonsense. It was a natural thing -- he didn't know exactly what had happened.

  • 11:52:11

    REHMHe didn't know what happened.

  • 11:52:13

    LEHRERNo. He didn't know those had been shots. And so he reacted. But the car essentially slowed down almost to a stop and that's when that -- that's the reason that those shots were able to -- they were able to get the shots off. Because, I mean, everything happened -- remember we're talking 15 seconds here or less when all this stuff happened. And if he'd had different instincts or if he'd done this and that -- I don't think it was a case of training so much as it was he just -- you know, he just did what -- what was natural and then chum, they said go and then he went. And during that time before that is when the second shot hit Kennedy's head.

  • 11:52:51

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Jim Lehrer, I want to ask you about that last debate you moderated. Your wife urged you not to do that.

  • 11:53:06

    LEHRERThat's right. She said that I would get hurt. And I said, honey, what do you mean? How am I going to get hurt? And she said, we're in a new world now. We're in a 24/7 world and everybody -- there's a lot of people who are going to criticize you for things that -- they're going to criticize you unfairly because criticism is...

  • 11:53:24

    REHM...the name of the game.

  • 11:53:25

    LEHRER...the name of the game right now. And I promise you you're going to -- I didn't believe her. And I said, oh well, I can handle it. And of course she was absolutely right. I did get hurt. And I don't mean get hurt -- I didn't get hurt personally. I mean, I felt very good about that debate when it was all said and done and I still feel good about it. But for some people there'll always -- you know, you can't do these kinds of things, particularly somebody that's high visibility as that and not be criticized.

  • 11:53:51

    LEHRERIt's just in the new world the criticism is more severe, it's more personal.

  • 11:53:55

    REHMOh, absolutely.

  • 11:53:56

    LEHRERAnd it was devastating and that's what Kate was talking about. And she was right.

  • 11:54:02

    REHMIt's funny that people like yourself who have been held in such high regard for so many years can do one thing and people just slam.

  • 11:54:17

    LEHREROh, I know, question your motives, question everything.

  • 11:54:20

    REHMAbsolutely.

  • 11:54:20

    LEHRERAnd, of course, I wasn't used to that and I didn't like it. You know, I'm like everybody else. I don't like criticism.

  • 11:54:28

    REHMAnd one final thing I wanted to talk about, the effects on the daughter and the wife in your book, in your novel, the daughter and the wife of the Secret Service agent. I mean, this really penetrates deeply.

  • 11:54:48

    LEHRERWell, those two women were hurt almost as badly as the agent himself. They suffered with him and they suffered -- you know, there is a transference that goes with love. And when somebody you love is hurt, you get hurt too. And that's what happened to both of them. And it was the -- and then in the wife's case -- in other words, the mother's case -- the mother of the daughter, I mean, she became -- she had a lot of problems of her own because of this.

  • 11:55:18

    REHMShe turns to alcohol.

  • 11:55:19

    LEHRERShe turned to alcohol. And the daughter just became obsessed. And if she hadn't been able to do something, who knows what would've happened to her.

  • 11:55:29

    REHMSo this lives on -- the assassination lives on because we are in the 50th anniversary year. I have to tell you at the time of the assassination, my husband John Rehm was working for the White House. So we got a call that night and were told to come to the White House where in the East Room President Kennedy's coffin lay with the honor guard around. It's one of the most difficult times of my life. Never ever forget it and neither will you.

  • 11:56:18

    LEHRERNever, never. Those things are there forever.

  • 11:56:23

    REHMAnd well they should be.

  • 11:56:25

    LEHRERThey should be. Absolutely they should be.

  • 11:56:27

    REHMJim Lehrer. His new novel of the Kennedy assassination is titled simply "Top Down." And Jim Lehrer, congratulations on all you do and continue to do.

  • 11:56:45

    LEHRERThank you, Diane. Same to you.

  • 11:56:45

    REHMWhat a pleasure to have you here.

  • 11:56:47

    LEHRERThe pleasure's mine.

  • 11:56:49

    REHMThanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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