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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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November 22nd, 2013
04:37 PM ET

Covering the JFK assassination: How America's 'charmed life ended' on November 22, 1963

Legendary journalists Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer were in Texas the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, working as reporters for The Dallas Times-Herald and The Star Telegram.

Many "what if" moments surround that day, Lehrer recalls one particular decision that haunted a man for years.

"It had rained that morning in Dallas, so they had the bubble top up, but it cleared. A Secret Service agent made the decision to take the bubble top down," said Lehrer, who authored "Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination," a fictional book.

That decision was in keeping with the orders of the president, who always wanted the top down unless there was a weather emergency.

"He didn't want people saying, 'Oh my God, there's the president under glass,'" said Lehrer.

Even though the Plexiglas bubble top was not bullet proof, and the agent was just following orders, he felt guilty about that decision for years, thinking the top could have saved Kennedy's life.

Bob Schieffer learned about Kennedy's death from his brother. At the time, he was a police reporter for The Star Telegram, on the late night shifts. When Kennedy was shot, Schieffer was sleeping.

His brother woke him up and told him to get to the office.

"I was in a total fog, I got up, got dressed. I hadn't been assigned to cover this story, I was pretty upset about it - went down to the office and was just trying to help out answering the phones on the city desk," said Schieffer.

That's when a woman called in, asking if anyone could give her a ride to Dallas.

"I almost hung up the phone, and I said, 'Lady, we don't run a taxi here. Besides, the president's been shot.' She says, 'Yes I heard it on the radio, I think my son is the one they've arrested,'" Schieffer recalls.

The young reporter wrote down her address very quickly, and then Schieffer and one other reporter drove to Fort Worth, Texas, to pick her up.

"There she stood on the curb, Lee Harvey Oswald's mother. And she immediately began talking about the impact it would have on her, I mean the president had not been dead two hours," said Schieffer.

"'No one will feel sorry for me, they'll give money to my son's wife, but they'll forget about the mother and I'll starve to death,'" Scieffer recalled Marguerite Frances Claverie saying at the time.

Some of the things Harvey's mother said were "so bizarre," Schieffer decided against including them in his story, out of a sense of sympathy for her.

"On reflection, I should have, I think we would have gotten a better picture earlier of exactly who Lee Harvey Oswald was," said Schieffer.

Lehrer actually questioned Oswald at the police station. Oswald had been slightly injured during his arrest, news stations wanted to make sure the cops weren't roughing him up, said Lehrer.

"He walked down the hallway, and he was right there. And I said, 'Did you kill the president?' And he said, 'I didn't kill anybody!'" said Lehrer.

Lehrer quickly wrote down his answer in a notebook, misspelling Oswald's name in the process.

"We'd never seen anything like this, television had never covered a story the way they covered this – wall-to-wall," said Schieffer.

Hanging over the events was a feeling of uncertainty, worries, even of the start of World War III, said Schieffer.

In the crowded police station, Lehrer remembers passing by an FBI agent, who mused out loud, to anyone listening, "Things won't ever be the same, will they?"

"I stopped for a minute, and just shook my head. And I realized, that's exactly right," said Lehrer.

"Everything changed, we all became aware of the fragility of it all, and we as reporters, we as Americans, we as citizens of the world, you think – if he could kill the President of the United States, one guy," said Lehrer. "Changed the course of history, my God, what else could the change, what else could they do."

"We had lived kind of a charmed life as Americans up 'til then, and that charmed life ended November 22nd, 1963," said Lehrer.

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