Robert MacNeil’s Encounter With Lee Harvey Oswald… And History!

Nearly everyone in North America and Great Britain is familiar with journalist Robert MacNeil. A native of Canada, he was the executive editor and co-anchor of PBS’s long-running MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour. He also worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Reuters News Agency, NBC News, and the BBC. And yet most viewers remain unfamiliar with a compelling moment involving MacNeil on November 22, 1963.

Covering President Kennedy’s visit to Dallas, MacNeil and his compatriots from the White House Press Corps had been riding aboard a chartered Continental Trailways bus, located far behind Kennedy’s Lincoln Continental in the presidential motorcade. The bus was proceeding down Houston Street, moving directly toward the Texas School Book Depository when MacNeil heard what he recognized as gunfire. While several Secret Service agents positioned in a follow-up car behind JFK were uncertain whether the sounds were a police motorcycle backfiring or firecrackers blasting, Robert MacNeil’s conclusion was precise – someone was shooting at the President. As several of his colleagues were discussing the source of the explosions, MacNeil shouted to the bus driver, “They were shots! Stop the bus! Stop the bus!”

The driver opened the door and MacNeil jumped off as the bus slowed to negotiate a sharp left turn from Houston Street onto Elm Street, where bullets had just struck President Kennedy and Governor Connally in an area called Dealey Plaza. Although JFK’s vehicle had moments earlier sped from the scene, MacNeil observed bedlam everywhere. Women were screaming, a couple had sprawled over their young children, spectators gathered in front of the book warehouse, and others were trailing a motorcycle officer to an area where a long grassy knoll adjoined the abutment of a railroad overpass. Instinct told the NBC reporter to follow the cop. Standing behind the patrolman at the top of the knoll, nothing suspicious was found; nevertheless, MacNeil sensed the gravity of the situation.

He needed to call NBC immediately and surveyed the plaza, desperate for a telephone. The nearest building was at the top of Elm and Houston where he had departed the bus. It took but a minute to sprint up to the front steps of the Texas School Book Depository. Just as he stepped inside the building, a man was preparing to exit. Frantic, MacNeil exclaimed, “Where can I find a phone?” The man standing before him pointed to a gentleman using a telephone in the lobby a few feet away. “Better ask him,” the fellow said as he continued out the door. Frantic, MacNeil discovered a vacant line in an unoccupied office, and within seconds he was in contact with the NBC Radio news desk in New York City. His breakneck speed resulted in the United Press International’s teletype machines clicking the first news of shots having been fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. The time was 12:34 CST, one minute before JFK’s limo reached Parkland Hospital’s emergency overhang.

MacNeil later recollected: “It was about a year and a half later that I got a call in New York from William Manchester who was writing The Death of a President. He said he had gone carefully over the ground to find out who had been in the Book Depository before and right after the shooting. He had seen a statement I had made to the FBI. He had traced my call through the telephone company to 12:34, four minutes after the shooting, and he was convinced that I had spoken to Lee Harvey Oswald. Could I tell him anymore about it? I couldn’t; it was possible, but I had no way of confirming that the young man I spoke to was Oswald.

“Then Manchester asked if I knew about the statement Oswald had made to the Secret Service. Oswald had told them that as he left the Book Depository, a young Secret Serviceman with a blond crewcut had rushed up the steps and asked him for a phone. Since no Secret Serviceman had entered the building, Manchester concluded that Oswald had mistaken me for one. I could only say that it was possible. I am blond. My hair was very short then and I was wearing a White House press badge he might have mistaken for Secret Service ID. But I had no way of proving it.

“‘Well,’ Manchester said, ‘ I’m ninety-five percent convinced that it was you and I’m going to do some checking.’

“Evidently he overcame his five percent of doubt because he states flatly in The Death of a President that at 12:33 p.m. Oswald ‘leaves Depository by front entrance, pausing to tell NBC’s Robert MacNeil he can find a phone inside: thinks MacNeil is a Secret Service man.'”

Of Manchester’s discovery, MacNeil added, “It is titillating but it doesn’t matter much.”

* * *

The incident is intriguing. The very thought that this distinguished journalist had undoubtedly spoken with Lee Harvey Oswald only minutes after the assassin/sociopath had taken the life of one of the most inspiring presidents in American history, is tantamount to an individual bumping into John Wilkes Booth in the alley of Ford’s Theatre immediately after he shot President Lincoln. In retrospect, Robert MacNeil’s laconic encounter with Oswald was beyond titillating – it remains a thoroughly gripping moment in time!

Pungky Dwiasmoro Hiswardhani

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