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Covering the JFK assassination

NBC White House Correspondent Robert MacNeil shares his first hand account the hours proceeding the assassination. Did he have a premonition that someone was going to shoot the president? Why did he run up the Grassy Knoll? And did he really run into Lee Harvey Oswald?
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NBC White House correspondent Robert MacNeil heard three shots. Without thinking, he stopped the press bus, jumped out, and ran up the Grassy Knoll. He raced towards the nearest building — the Texas Book Depository — to find a phone to file his report. Read his experience covering President Kennedy that fateful day. Did he have a premonition that someone was going to shoot the president? And did he really run into Lee Harvey Oswald? Read his own words, below.

It was my first Presidential trip. Normally, the senior correspondent Sandy Vanocur would have covered the trip. But there was a big meeting called about Vietnam in Hawaii, and Sandy went to that. I, as the number two White House correspondent, got the Texan trip.

I’d been a number of times from Washington to Hyannis during the summer. But this was my first time on a big trip, where the White House sort of mollycoddles you, and does the arrangements for the trip.

In Fort Worth, President Kennedy came out to make a witty little speech. It was a really hard-hitting speech against his right-wing opponents, chiefly, the Goldwaterites. His hair was still damp from the shower. He was sorry Mrs. Kennedy wasn’t there, “but she takes a lot longer to get herself together than I do.” It was very gracious.

Later, he went around the crowd and I went around with him. You could be very close to him in those days because the Secret Service didn’t keep you back. I walked all around the crowd with him, as he shook hands. The crowd was wild. He went all around the sort of borders of the crowd, and they were just ecstatic and wild.

When it finished, I walked just behind him, as he walked into the hotel. He took a clean white handkerchief out of his rear pocket, and wiped the hand that had been pressing all this flesh. I noticed the handkerchief came away very dirty from his hand from all these people he’d shaken hands with.

He said to whichever politician was with him, “Well, that wasn’t bad.” He stuck the handkerchief back in his pocket. And he went into the hotel, and inside the lobby of the hotel, there was a huge crowd— filling every crevice of the lobby, except for a pathway that had been made by a couple of velvet ropes that were holding them back.

I mean, there are politicians who create excitement, and there are politicians who create magic. And Kennedy, by that time, had created an aura that created that kind of magic.

Where's Jackie?

He went into the breakfast. He suffered through some of the indignities of politics. They gave him a pair of Texas cowboy boots, and they gave him a beautiful cowboy hat. He would not put it on, because he would never put on a funny hat.

I was standing at the back of the room and next to the kitchen entrance. And there was Jackie and a couple of aides. People kept turning around from inside asking, “Where’s Jackie? Where’s Jackie?” since they could not see her.

He made the speech, something like, “When I went to Paris, some people said I was the man who accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris. I’m beginning to feel that way in Texas.” And people laughed. And people still asked, “Where’s Jackie? Where’s Jackie?” The whole room was sort of buzzing because she was conspicuously not there.

She was standing in the door of the kitchen. When she finally she made her entrance, she had a big mischievous grin on her face. And out of this great delay, she got the kind of maximum applause by going in very late.

The NBC cameraman began to pack up his camera after this and said, “Well, even if nothing else happens, we’ve got a story with Jackie.”

And something else did happen of course.

Pink Suit

When we left Fort Worth, we all went out to get in the press bus to go to the airport. We were going to the press plane before the Air Force One. In the bus, the reporters all are saying, “What color was Jackie’s suit?”

Everybody likes to have some kind of consensus, about these things. “Was that red? Was that pink?” Maryanne Means of the Hearst paper said, “It was pink.” So everybody said, “OK. She said it was pink, it was pink.” We take the woman’s word for what color it was.

We went out through Fort Worth. And I think every high school band in creation was out there twirling batons and playing mightily as we went by. We got to the press plane, which was a Pan Am charter, as I recall.

In those days the tradition was the minute the doors closed in the plane, the stewardesses (as we called them then) came down the aisle with a tray full of Bloody Marys. The press tradition was you took a Bloody Mary. We didn’t have to, but most of us did. I was also typing some notes for the next piece I was going to have to do.

Getting out of the plane, it was incredibly bright sunlight — so much that my eyes ached and I didn’t have any sunglasses.

Air Force One arrived. They unrolled the carpet, and put the stairs up. When the Kennedys came out of the door, it was like a blow to the eyes. The color was so amazing.

We’d seen Jackie’s suit inside the breakfast at Fort Worth, but here it was in the full glare of this sun. This incredibly pink suit with the dark blue lining turned out. Her same color hat, this very glossy hair, and her very luminous eyes — it was like a blow to the eyes. And then she came down the steps, and they handed her this huge bouquet of blood red roses. The roses— the color of buds was just astonishing. I’ll never forget the impact.

Then they went to get into the limousine. I raced for the first press bus. I got on the first seat at the front. Then we drove into town. On the way in, on the outskirts of Dallas, the crowds were very thin just individuals, a few clusters of people. I remember one man standing alone on a sort of grassy hillside with a big placard saying, “I hold you, Mr. Kennedy, and your blind socialism in complete contempt.” A little harbinger of attitudes.

‘Joyous Crowd’

As we got a little closer in, the effects of having so little sleep, the heat, and maybe the Bloody Mary, I got a little sleepy and nodded off a little bit. And I had this kind of daydream. Well, what if somebody took a shot at Kennedy? What would I do? Well, I’d stop the bus and I’d get out. I’d run after the gun. And then I kind of shook myself and said, “Come on. Be sensible.”

I got my notebook back out, started looking at signs and things, and kind of woke up.

When we got into the built up area of downtown Dallas, we were on the long street that leads into Dealey Plaza. We could see because we were only about seven cars behind the president, we could see over all of the other cars.

You could see this line and these waves of people coming up to greet the car. It was like seeing a kind of sinuous weaving river of people. You wondered how the motorcade could go through it.

It could not have been a more joyous, enthusiastic crowd. And that was all remarkable, given all of the apprehension about how Dallas would receive him. We were all making notes about how spectacular and exuberant the crowds were.

We turned into Dealey Plaza. I looked at my watch and thought, “Well, I’ll have about half an hour before I have to do a radio piece for the news on the hour.”

And while I was just figuring that, there was a bang.

We all said, “What was that? Was that a shot? Was that a backfire?” I don’t know. You know a few of these things back and forth. And then there was bang, bang. Two very close together.

I said, “Those are shots.”

And I got up and said to the driver, “Stop the bus.”

And he stopped the bus and I got out. The door closed and the bus drove off.

Immediately, I was struck by the extraordinary sound. There were a million people screaming shrilly — a most amazing sound of high soprano wails. So I knew something had happened, but I didn’t know Kennedy was hit.

I ran around the corner. The motorcade is disappearing, the rest of it, under the dark underpass. And then I saw people running up what became known as the grassy knoll. There were some people crouched on the grass covering their child with their body.

But there were policemen and others running up the grassy knoll. And I figured, “Well, they’re chasing the gunman.” So I ran with them. When I got to the top of the grassy knoll, there was a crowd there. And everybody looked.

The policeman went over to the fence, so I went over to the fence with them. And there was nothing there. There were empty railroad tracks stretching away. No people in sight.

The Texas Book Depository

I figured, I better tell NBC about the shots. I ran looking for a phone. The first place I came to that looked as though it might have a phone was the Texas Book Depository. I ran up the steps. A young man in shirtsleeves came out and I said, “Where’s the phone?”

He said, “You better ask inside.”

I went inside, and there was another young man on a phone in the lobby.

I said, “Where’s the phone?” He pointed to an office. I got a phone in the office. One of those black telephones with four Lucite buttons. I got NBC in seconds.

The guy on the NBC news desk [answered] and I said, “MacNeil in Dallas. Urgent. Urgent.”

I did a bulletin: “Shots were fired as President Kennedy’s motorcade passed through downtown Dallas. People screamed and laid down on the grass. People chased an unknown gunman up a grassy hill. It is not known if the shots were directed at the president.”

I ran outside. A policeman stopped me, asked me who I was. And I was just telling him when a little black boy came up and said to us, “Mister, I seen a man with a gun right up in the window there.” And then a woman came up and said, “He wasn’t hurt, was he?” And I said, “I don’t know.” And the policeman said, “He was hurt bad.”

He took me over to his motorcycle. And the radio was saying “severe head wounds,” and “Parkland hospital.” And I thought, “Oh my God. I’m supposed to be covering the president. He’s been shot. And here I am and he’s miles away.”

It was absolute pandemonium around the Texas Book Depository. All of the cars that were backed up—blocks and blocks and blocks on all of the streets leading into Dallas were standing on their horns, so there was an incredible din. And the air was full of sirens.

There were police cars screaming up, running over the flower beds, bumping up right to the door of the Texas Book Depository. Motorcycle policemen were running up over the curbs, driving up. It was an amazing noise.

Reporting to Huntley

I ran three streets away before I found any traffic moving. I stopped the first car that came along. I opened the door and said, “If I give you five bucks will you take me to Parkland Hospital?”

Five bucks was money in 1963. The young man said yes. I moved over beside him in the seat and started punching him on the arm saying, “Drive faster. Drive faster. NBC’ll pay your fines. Never mind the red lights. Go through the red lights.” And we did. We got up to 60, 70, 80 miles an hour. Police cars couldn’t have cared less. They were all screaming by the other way. I stopped at a gas station. I ran in, got a phone.

I did another bulletin for NBC on the fact the president had been hit and taken to the hospital and then drove on. He got me to the hospital a few minutes after the pool car had got there.

I ran into the emergency room. I got a fill in from the guys on the pool. Bob Clark and others. I ran into the emergency room area. And there was Merriman Smith of the United Press at the nurse’s station with the phone dictating the story to the UP, which won him the Pulitzer prize that day. And there are three nurses clinging to him, onto his arm, saying, “You can’t use this phone,” trying to wrench it away from him. He just ignored them and went on dictating.

I went looking for a phone. Outside the swing doors of the emergency room there was another pair of swing doors and a little waiting room, and there were two payphones, unused. I got one of them and I had it for the rest of the afternoon, on to NBC all that time.

There are some comic scenes which they occasionally show where Chet Huntley and Frank McGee are trying to patch my voice through on the air, and they can’t do it. So they’re holding a hand microphone up to the earpiece on the telephone. Finally it doesn’t work, and so McGee says, “Look, you just say a sentence and I’ll repeat it.” And that’s what I did, and that also gave me time to think.

I was there when Lyndon Johnson arrived. It’s amazing how different the Secret Service was then. Because Robert Pierpoint, the CBS White House Correspondent, and I were behind these swing doors. When the Secret Service came through, they told everybody to go out. And Pierpoint and I just ducked down behind the glass and the swing doors. And then we held onto our phones. He was talking to Cronkite. I was talking to Huntley.

He was saying, “Walter, you can’t say the President of the United States is dead until we know he’s dead.” Stuff like that. I was saying similar things. I’d interviewed the priest who’d given him the last rites, and people were saying, “Well, if he’s had the last rights, he must be dead,” and so on.

Then when we looked through the cracks and we saw Lyndon Johnson coming out surrounded by Secret Service men. And we both burst out through the swing doors. And Johnson looked terrified. And so did the Secret Service, until they recognized us.

Johnson just bulled his way past us. We were going, “Mr. Vice President, what you can tell us?”

Later, Malcolm Kilduff, the number two White House press secretary who’d been covering their trip instead of Pierre Salinger, came to find us. And just said, “Come with me. There’s gonna be a news conference. Come with me.”

The news conference

It was very nice of him to come all of the way to get me and Pierpont for the news conference, but we were then the two leading networks. We had to follow him all the way around the outside of the hospital. Over fences, up little bits of lawn, across flower beds, all around the perimeter of the hospital to get to the nurse’s teaching classroom where the press conference was.

And we kept saying, “Mac, tell us, for God sake, when did he die? Tell us? What is it?”

Finally, we come into the classroom. It’s full of press. All of the cameras are set up. And we were the only ones who weren’t there. But he had come to get us. He stood behind the desk, the teacher’s desk. And he was blinking back, trying to stop crying. He put his hands down on the desk like this pressing to try and control himself. And he said, “At 1:25 PM Eastern time today, President John F. Kennedy died of a gunshot wound in the head.”

Pierpoint and I raced out of that room all the way around the hospital again —the whole perimeter of the hospital, down these slopes, across fences, over curbs-running, running, running. Both of us—I mean both of us—got to our phones at about the same time. And he was panting and I panting to Huntley, and he to Cronkite that the president was officially dead.

I mean you can’t imagine any of that happening now. Everyone would have cell phones. There’d be live cameras. The whole thing would be live.

Later, Jackie came out with the blood still on her skirt and her hand on the coffin. And we saw her drive off. NBC told me to stay in Dallas, because they had plenty of people back in Washington. And so, I stayed there.

Did I meet Oswald?

I learned that this guy who worked at the Book Depository had been arrested. I went down to the jail that night. I saw Oswald several times. But nothing clicked in my mind to recognize him. But 18 months later back in New York, William Manchester, who was finishing the book “The Death of the President” said he’d been over the ground minutely second by second. He timed my call to four minutes after the shooting and so on. He was convinced that it was Oswald I had asked for the phone on the steps. Could I confirm it?

And I said, “Well, no, I can’t.” And he said, “Well, Oswald was interviewed by the Secret Service that evening. And he said as he left the Book Depository, a young blond crew cut Secret Service man ran up the steps and asked him for a phone.”

Well, I was young, blonde, short hair, grey suit, press badge. And so Manchester says in the book that Oswald mistook me for a Secret Service man. All of that is intriguing. But what intrigues me more is the unconscious activity of having a little daydream that then programmed me unconsciously to do what I actually did when the shots were fired — that is to stop the bus, get out, and chase.

The other thing that intrigues me is why did they run up the grassy knoll, so that I ran up the grassy knoll? Of course an ingredient of many of the conspiracy theories that there was another gunman on the overpass. Somebody heard something there that made them, including the policeman, run up there. Why? What? I don’t know.

I assume that Dallas policemen are pretty experienced at hearing the echoes of gunshots off tall buildings and everything. And while I have never heard any concrete evidence that would contradict the finding of the Warren Commission that Oswald did it alone, that remains the only question I can ask from my own experience.

Robert MacNeil was interviewed by producer Ainslie Binder.

MSNBC commemorates the assassination of John F. Kennedy on it’s 40th anniversary. Hosted by Chris Matthews, the show includes interviews with Sen. Hillary Clinton, Gerald Ford, Jay Leno, Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Jr., among other pop culture icons and politicians. Airs Frirday, January 2, 9 p.m. ET