A 26-year-old night police reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Schieffer still lived at home with his widowed mother and siblings. His teen brother told him the grim news and Schieffer scrambled to work. Editors assigned him to the phones to assist the veteran reporters who were calling back from Dallas with details of the tragedy.
And then the young reporter took the most important phone call of his career. On the other end was a frantic woman who wanted a ride from Fort Worth to Dallas. It was the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, who moments earlier had been named on the radio as the chief suspect in the Kennedy shooting.
Schieffer drove Oswald’s mother to the Dallas jail and picked her brain along the way about the assassin’s background. Once at the jail, Schieffer fooled law enforcement authorities, and they simply assumed he was officially escorting Mrs. Oswald. Schieffer spent more time with the mother and eventually Oswald’s wife in a special holding area. Later, the family’s request to speak with Lee Harvey Oswald was granted by police. And the young Schieffer was positioned to get the scoop of the century. An FBI agent finally asked the reporter for identity and Schieffer was promptly booted to the media circus outside the jailhouse …
I had the pleasure of escorting Schieffer back to Washington after the veteran chief White House correspondent and moderator of Face the Nation gave his commencement speech at RIT. I was invited on the jet flight (provided by Rochester businessman and RIT friend and trustee John “Dutch” Summers) by Tim Busch, WROC-TV, Channel 8 (executive vice president of Nexstar Broadcasting Group) and RIT’s Barry Culhane, executive assistant to President Bill Destler. (In the photo above, Schieffer and I are shown chatting on the flight to Washington, D.C.)
As a former newspaperman and history buff, I was like a kid in a candy store listening to Schieffer enthusiastically talk about his news encounters over the past four decades, as well as where he sees the future of journalism.
Schieffer genuinely loved his day at RIT. He loved that we embrace our “inner geek,” as Student Government President Matt Danna put it, and the diversity of thinking on our campus. Schieffer commits to three commencement addresses per year. This year, along with RIT, he addressed The Citadel and Georgetown.
On the 45-minute flight down to D.C., Schieffer engaged the Rochester contingent as if he were telling his behind-the-scenes news stories for the very first time – like he was breaking a news story to the nation. Here’s a sample of Schieffer’s commentary, insight and personal style on the flight:
• LBJ: Standing 6’4”, President Johnson was an imposing man, who apparently had no problem cursing at reporters. And when he addressed the nation on live TV in 1968, LBJ astonished the world and the media with his decision to not seek another term as president.
• Gerald Ford was Schieffer’s favorite president from a personal standpoint because Ford could easily transform into “one of the guys.”
• The current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a story that is only going to get bigger, he predicts.
• He believes a stronger business model is needed to support journalism. You need a strong revenue stream to support having a professional reporting staff.
• Newspapers are still Schieffer’s number one source of information. He believes they will continue to rely less on print, and find new ways to deliver the news. Media that innovate will be the winners.
• Schieffer owns and enjoys reading a Kindle.
• Schieffer understands the value of Twitter, but leaves the Tweeting to his 24-year-old assistant.
With all due respect to all my former history teachers and professors, my 45 minutes with Schieffer was the history lesson of a lifetime.