This Just In: What I Couldn't Tell You on TVby Bob Schieffer
In Bob Schieffer's own words, from the JFK assassination to the World Trade Center attacks, "I got to see most of it and came to know many of the major figures of those four decades because I am a reporter. I became a reporter because I always wanted to see things for myself and make my own judgments about them. Those events I covered have become part of our history and you already know most of them. But I want to tell you about the parts that didn't get on television or in the paper, the serious parts and the not-so-serious parts, the good times I had, and the presidents, senators, correspondents, big-time crooks, and small-time swindlers I came to know. Here are the stories I tell my friends, and they are the stories I want to share with you."
Schieffer is not only broadcast journalism's most experienced Washington reporter, but one of its best natural writers. This Just In is filled with great behind-the-scenes tales and surprising scoops based on dozens of brand-new-and sometimes startling-interviews. Smart, witty, and insightful, these are the stories you'll want to share with your friends.
Author Biography: Bob Schieffer has been at CBS News since 1969, where he is one of the very few correspondents to have covered all four major Washington beats: the White House, Pentagon, State Department, and Capitol Hill. He is now CBS's chief Washington correspondent, and anchor and moderator of Face the Nation.
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In those days, I was the night police reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the newspaper in the town where I grew up. I was twenty-six years old, made $115 a week and worked the late trick, 6 P.M. to 2:30 A.M.
I hung out with cops, emergency-room nurses, barmaids and other creatures of the night. Like most young reporters who covered crime, I considered myself a superb investigator, more cop than journalist. I wore a snap-brim hat, hoping I'd be mistaken for a detective, and when someone made that mistake I never corrected him. The stories I covered were an endless series of car wrecks and murders, the hours were awful, the pay was low, even by Texas newspaper standards, and I thought it was about the best job anyone could ever have.
But when I heard that President Kennedy was coming to Fort Worth, I wasn't entirely happy about it. In those days, presidents didn't travel nearly as much as they do now, so it was big news for my hometown, but bad news for me. Kennedy's visit would cause no interruption in my regular schedule. The political reporters would handle Kennedy. They would not need any help from me. For a reporter, there's nothing worse than being in the middle of a big story that someone else is covering, and I was more than a little irritated.
Kennedy and his entourage flew into Fort Worth late on a Thursday evening and, assignment or no assignment, once we put the paper to bed early Friday morning, I hustled over to the Press Club, which was being held open after-hours to accommodate the traveling White House press corps. The party was well under way when I got there around 2 A.M., and for me this was as good as it got. There I was, chatting up reporters I had known only for their bylines, Merriman Smith of UPI, Tom Wicker of the New York Times, Bob Pierpoint of CBS and a dozen more.
Kennedy had come to Texas to heal some quarrels in the Democratic Party and to raise money for the '64 campaign, and the tour had started in Houston and San Antonio. After a Thursday-night speech in Houston, he had flown to Fort Worth to spend the night and attend an early-morning Chamber of Commerce breakfast before taking a ten-minute flight to Dallas for a parade and luncheon speech. The tour was to end with a huge fund-raising dinner in Austin. Governor John Connally had convinced Kennedy that only in Austin, the state capital, could you count on getting people from the rest of the state to come to a fund-raiser. People from Houston wouldn't go to San Antonio for a fund-raiser, Connally told Kennedy, and people from Fort Worth damn sure wouldn't go to Dallas. He was right about that. When Amon Carter was running the Star-Telegram, he made a point of taking a sack lunch when he had business in Dallas, claiming he did not care for the city's restaurants. Dallas repaid the courtesy when Fort Worth built an airport between the two cities and named it Carter Field. Dallas residents declined to use the airport, in large part because of the name, and the airport eventually failed. (There was and is such a rivalry between the two cities that the only project they ever cooperated on is the current airport. Planners were careful not to name it after anyone from either city.) The visiting reporters had no interest in our airports, of course. What they did want to know about was a local after-hours joint called the Cellar. The Cellar had no liquor license, but if you were a friend of the owner, a former stock-car racer named Pat Kirkwood, the drink of choice, Kool-Aid spiked with grain alcohol, was on the house. It was not the drinks, but the fact that the Cellar's waitresses wore only underwear, that had given the place some notoriety and the notoriety had apparently spread as far as Washington. Hippies and free love would descend on San Francisco, and Kirkwood always claimed his place was a forerunner of what was to come. Whatever the case, Phil Record, the Star-Telegram night city editor, and I were appointed to guide our visitors to it.
It seemed a good idea at the time and must have been quite an evening. I remember that we stayed long enough for some of the easterners to see their first Fort Worth sunrise. A group of off-duty Secret Service agents joined us, and in months to come, there would be congressional hearings into whether the visit had left them as alert as they should have been the next day in Dallas.
Having no assignment the next day, I could afford to sleep late, which was my normal practice, anyway. I was the oldest of three children and my father had died when I was in college, so I still lived in my mother's house, helping her to make a home for my brother, Tom, and my sister, Sharon. Tom had been ten when Dad died and Sharon fifteen, but by the time Kennedy came to Texas, Tom was in high school, and it was Tom who shook me awake, shouting, "Kennedy has been shot-you'd better get to work!"
Tom had been allowed to miss school that day, and he and Mother had driven into town early to see the president as he emerged from the Chamber of Commerce breakfast. As Kennedy walked out of the Texas Hotel and toward his car, Tom had been one of the last people in Fort Worth to shake his hand. Within hours and before they had returned home, Kennedy had been shot.
I dressed as quickly as I could, grabbed my black felt snap-brim Dick Tracy hat, and roared off in my two-seater Triumph TR-4 sports car. As I parked in the lot near the Star-Telegram office, the radio confirmed the worst: The president was dead. It was as if someone had hit me with a hammer. At once, I was stunned, hurt and embarrassed. Stunned, because such violence was unthinkable in those days; hurt and embarrassed, because it had happened in our home state. Why did something like this have to happen, and why did it have to happen in Texas?
As I made my way inside, lines of people two and three across were already surrounding the Star-Telegram building. The Kennedy assassination would be the first story that the entire nation would watch together on television, and because of it television would soon replace newspapers as the place where most Americans got their news. But when Kennedy was shot, people still really didn't believe the news unless they saw it written down in black and white, so hundreds waited outside the Star-Telegram for the special editions that rolled off the presses. "The truth was, we couldn't print them fast enough," said one of our editors later. "People would stand in line to buy one edition, then go to the back of the line to buy a copy of the next one." They were the last of the great newspaper Extras and they would come to symbolize the end of the newspaper era.
Inside the city room it was bedlam. When the flash that Kennedy had been shot had hit the wires, an editor had dispatched so many reporters to Dallas that there was no one left on the city desk to answer the phones, and they were all ringing. Nonetheless, one of the editors told me to get to the police station. A man carrying a load of dynamite in his car had been arrested leaving Dallas County and was being brought to the Fort Worth jail. He was the best suspect so far in the Kennedy shooting.
I managed to get to the police station just as he was being brought down the back stairs. Early in my police reporting days, I learned a trick from the cops. People will sometimes blurt out the truth if they are surprised by the question, so I jumped in front of the handcuffed suspect, who was between two detectives, and shouted, "You son of a bitch, why did you do it?"
"Well, I didn't," he said, as the cops hustled him into the lockup.
In a matter of hours, it would become clear that the poor man had done nothing and knew no more about the assassination than the rest of us. He had stopped for gas at a service station between Dallas and Fort Worth and mentioned to the attendant what he had heard on the radio, that the president had been shot. The attendant hadn't heard about it and called the cops, figuring the only person who could have known about the shooting was the one who had done it. When police stopped the man's car and found the trunk loaded with dynamite, it was enough for them, too. As the afternoon wore on, it was determined that the man was exactly who he said he was, a demolition contractor who was en route to a construction job. Had it happened today, it would have triggered dozens of lawsuits against the city and the police and at least the threat of one against me; but the police apologized, and the man said no problem and went on his way.
When I got back to the city room, the confusion was worse than ever. By now, a dozen Star-Telegram reporters were on the scene in Dallas, but when they called in, there was no one on the city desk to answer the phones and take down the stories they were trying to call in.
I hadn't even removed my hat when I settled behind a typewriter and picked up one of the ringing phones. In all my years as a reporter, I would never again take a call like that one.
A woman's voice asked if we could spare anyone to give her a ride to Dallas.
"Lady," I said, "this is not a taxi, and besides, the president has been shot."
"I know," she said. "They think my son is the one who shot him."
It was the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, and she had heard on the radio of her son's arrest.
"Where do you live?" I blurted out. "I'll be right over to get you."
Why she called the Star-Telegram that day remains a mystery. She had lived a vagabond life during most of Oswald's childhood, but she had eventually settled in Fort Worth, and when Oswald had defected to the Soviet Union, Star-Telegram reporters had interviewed her. We would also later learn that sometime before the assassination, she had worked briefly as a governess in the home of Star-Telegram founder Amon Carter's son. The family had had no idea she was the mother of a defector, but had discharged her because the children complained that "she was mean."
Whether those connections prompted her call, we never knew, nor did I know any of that as I began to think about how I was going to get her to Dallas. Somehow, taking her there in a two-seater open sports car just didn't seem quite right. Which led me to the desk of Bill Foster, the paper's automotive editor. For years, local car dealers had furnished the auto editor with a new car and gas to fuel it. It was offered and accepted without embarrassment, with the understanding that the auto editor would "road-test" the car and write up the results in his Sunday column. Not surprisingly, the reviews were usually favorable. When Bill told me he was driving a Cadillac sedan that week, I said, "Come on, I'll explain as we go and you're gonna like it."
We found Mrs. Oswald on the lawn of a small home on Fort Worth's west side. She was a short, round-faced woman in enormous, black horn-rimmed glasses and a white nurse's uniform. She carried a small blue travel bag. I got into the backseat with her and Bill drove. She was distraught, but in an odd way. I would later come to believe she was mentally deranged, but for most of the trip she seemed less concerned with the death of the president and for her son than with herself. She railed about how Oswald's Russian-born wife would get sympathy while no one would "remember the mother" and that she would probably starve. I marked it off to understandable emotional overload and I couldn't bring myself to use her self-serving remarks in the story I filed later that day. I probably should have. She would later be so brazen as to tell a reporter for Life magazine that "Mama wants money," and years later she was still saying the same things. As she had predicted, the world showed her little sympathy and she supported herself in the end by selling Oswald's clothing to souvenir hunters.
The drive to Dallas took about an hour, and when we reached the police station, Bill let us out and said he would join us later once he had parked the car. Hundreds of reporters had converged on the station, most of them in a hallway where the detective offices were located. Since I was wearing the Dick Tracy hat, it was easy for me to pass for a plainclothesman. There was a uniformed cop behind a counter in one of the offices so I approached him and said, "I'm the one who brought Oswald's mother over from Fort Worth. Is there someplace she can stay where she won't be bothered by all these reporters?"
The officer guided us to a small space that seemed to be some kind of interrogation room and said, "How about this?" I said thanks, settled Mrs. Oswald in and went into the hallway to see if I could help our guys. By then, there were seventeen of us on the scene, but the problem was finding phones to call in what we had found out. Other reporters were having to walk several blocks to find phones. I began to gather up what our team had collected, and called it in from the office the police had given to Mrs. Oswald and me. Never once did anyone ask me who I was. As the evening wore on, Oswald's wife was brought to the police station and an officer asked me if we would mind if they let her share the room. I told them I saw no problem. The only difficulty for me was that she seemed to speak no English, only Russian.
Toward dark, Oswald's mother asked Detective Captain Will Fritz if they could visit Oswald. Fritz agreed, and led us into a holding room below the jail. The group included Oswald's wife, his mother, an FBI agent and me. I couldn't believe it. Oswald was being brought down from his cell. I would soon be face-to-face with the man who was being charged with killing our president. Whatever Oswald said, this would have to be the story of a lifetime. An exclusive interview with the man who had just been charged with killing the president. We had only been there a few minutes, but to me it seemed an eternity and I could feel my hear beginning to beat faster, when the FBI agent casually asked, "And who are you with?"
I had watched veteran interrogators bluff their way with a suspect by answering a question with a question, and in my best imitation I sort of half snarled, "Well, who are you with?"
The agent seemed a little edgy now. "Are you a reporter?"
Now I was really pushing it: "Well, aren't you?"
It was at this point that I believe I received my first official death threat. The embarrassed agent said he would kill me if he ever saw me again. Or at least that seemed to be what he was saying. I was already leaving as he said it.
It would be the biggest story I almost got but didn't, and I went back to the crowded corridor and blended in with the rest of the reporters. For the next two days, I would just be part of the crowd.
from This Just In: What I Couldn't Tell You on TV by Bob Schieffer, Copyright © 2003 by Bob Schieffer, Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of the Penguin Group (USA), Inc., All Rights Reserved, Reprinted with Permission from the Publisher.
Meet the Author
Bob Schieffer has been at CBS News since 1969, where he is one of the very few correspondents to have covered all four major Washington beats: the White House, Pentagon, State Department, and Capitol Hill. He is now CBS's chief Washington correspondent, and anchor and moderator of Face the Nation.
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