In a riveting novel rooted in one of American history’s great “what ifs,” Jim Lehrer tells the story of two men haunted by the events leading up to John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
November 22, 1963. As Air Force One touches down in Dallas, ambitious young newspaper reporter Jack Gilmore races to get the scoop on preparations for President Kennedy’s motorcade. Will the bubble top on the presidential limousine be up or down? Down, according to veteran Secret Service agent Van Walters. The decision to leave the top down and expose JFK to fire from above will weigh on Van’s conscience for decades. But will it also change the course of history?
Five years after the assassination, Jack gets an anguished phone call from Van’s daughter Marti. Van Walters is ravaged by guilt, so convinced that his actions led to JFK’s death that he has lost the will to live. In a desperate bid to deliver her father from his demons, Marti enlists Jack’s help in a risky reenactment designed to prove once and for all what would have happened had the bubble top stayed in place on that grim November day.
For Jack, it’s a chance to break a once-in-a-lifetime story that could make his career. But for Van the stakes are even higher. The outcome of a ballistics test conducted on the grounds of a secluded estate in upstate New York might just save his life—or push him over the edge.
A page-turning historical novel with the beating heart of a thriller, Top Down could only have sprung from the fertile imagination of Jim Lehrer. Drawing on his own experience as an eyewitness to the events described, one of America’s most respected journalists has crafted an engrossing story out of the emotional aftershocks of a national tragedy.
Praise for Top Down
“Lehrer (formerly the anchor of PBS’s NewsHour) draws upon his experiences as a reporter in Dallas on November 22, 1963, for this unusual take on the Kennedy assassination. . . . A refreshing change from the usual conspiracy thrillers about the J.F.K. assassination.”—Publishers Weekly
“A nice fictional counterpoint to the [many] nonfiction books coming out this year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination.”—BookPage
“PBS newsman and veteran fiction writer Jim Lehrer asks an intriguing question. . . . What if the Secret Service agent who decided not to equip the presidential limousine with its bubble top ended up blaming himself for John F. Kennedy's assassination? . . . It’s a promising plot, especially as a cultural take on the event that rocked the country a half-century ago.”—Associated Press
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Top Down is Jim Lehrer’s twenty-first novel. He is also the author of three nonfiction books and four plays. His work in journalism began as a newspaper reporter in Texas. He then worked for more than forty years in public television and is currently the executive editor of PBS NewsHour. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his novelist wife Kate. They have three daughters.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"Where Were You?" There it was--the most universal of questions we ask one another following an epic public event.
Now it was the title for a fifth-anniversary discussion at the National Press Club in downtown Washington. On that November 1968 noon hour, the complete question for the discussion was, of course, "Where were you on November 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated?"
I was delighted--excited, frankly--to be one of the three panelists invited to speak. And proud to be a club member because this was truly the center of my universe. The bureau offices of my newspaper, The Dallas Tribune, were on the fifth floor of the press club building on 14th Street, two blocks from the White House.
I had told my own story before. It seemed that everyone in America had at least ten times over. But this was the first time I did so in such a public way. More than three hundred people--most of them fellow journalists--filled the room.
The two other panelists spoke before me. The first speaker was a wire service man who had been on the Washington news desk that November day. He talked about the emotional exhaustion of the conflicting pulls of duty and grief that gripped everyone taking in, writing, confirming, packaging stories from and throughout the world.
The second, a Washington-based network television correspondent who had been in the Dallas motorcade press bus, recalled the scraps of his and others' frantic searches for what had actually happened. Was Kennedy really hit? If so, where? Was he dead? Where did the shots come from? Had anybody been arrested? What was Jackie doing crawling back on the trunk of the limo after the shots were fired? Where could I find an eyewitness? Where could I find a telephone?
Perhaps I should have felt intimidated as the youngest and least experienced journalist of the three. But I felt that I matched the other two speakers for interest and delivery. My dad, also a newspaperman, always said I had "a gift of gab," a trait my mother saw as a good thing that could someday lead me from print to television. ("Mark my words, Jack," she said more than once, "you could be another Chet Huntley.") But I had absolutely no interest in ever being on television. I was a print man. I was a writer.
But I did spend more time than usual on exactly what to wear to the press club event. Brainy newspaperman was the look I was going for with my brown-and-black wool sport coat, gray slacks, and button-down blue oxford cloth shirt with solid dark brown tie. Back in Dallas I always wore a tie, but it was more often than not loose from the collar. That kind of style was okay for a local newsroom but not for a Washington correspondent. I did it up tight with a smart military half Windsor.
The other press club panelists spoke mostly from notes, while I had written out my story, which I read almost word for word after practicing several times in front of the bathroom mirror at my apartment.
When it was my turn at the podium, I began: "I was working as a reporter for an afternoon newspaper, The Dallas Tribune, on November twenty-second, 1963. My assignment was to cover the arrival of President and Mrs. Kennedy at Love Field, stay at the airport until they came back after a motorcade through downtown and a noon luncheon at the Dallas Trade Mart, and then report on their departure . . ."
In detail I told how I, at the behest of a rewrite man downtown just before the Kennedys arrived on Air Force One, had asked a Secret Service agent about the bubble top on the presidential limo. Was it going to be up or down when the motorcade went through downtown Dallas? It was strictly a weather issue and the early-morning rain had ended. The agent, Van Walters, after having some other agents check the situation, ordered the bubble top off the car. The early-morning rain had ended. I was there when Agent Walters gave the order. There was some loose speculation afterward among law enforcement people and others, which I reported, that the bubble top, if it had been there, might have prevented the assassination--or at least the death--of Kennedy.
I returned to my seat at the discussion table to what I felt was a dramatic silence. From my perspective, the audience had pretty much hung on my every word. It may sound like a lot of bravado, but I swear I even saw some wetness in a few eyes. Clearly, the agent's what-if suffering for having made the bubble top decision touched the audience.
A young man from the fourth row shouted out:
"What happened to that Secret Service agent--the one who ordered the bubble top off?"
"I don't know," I answered. "I lost track of him."
And that was how it all began.
"I don't know. I lost track of him."
My words were quoted in the small Associated Press account of the event that went out to newspapers everywhere, including my very own Dallas Tribune. I hadn't expected any press coverage, but I was delighted by the piece. The Tribune had promoted me to its Washington bureau in late 1964 and, as the low man on the totem pole, it would definitely help to make a little here-I-am noise with the hometown editors.
It was just after eight o'clock Saturday morning--four days after the press club panel. I was in the bureau office putting the final touches on a Sunday story about the coming of new post offices in seven "fast-growing" Texas towns and cities. Under the leadership of Lyndon Johnson, the federal government was seen--and duly reported by the Tribune--as very much a growth industry in Texas.
"Are you the Jack Gilmore who spoke about the bubble top--the one quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday?" It was a woman--a young woman under some stress, it seemed by the sound of her voice--on the phone.
I confirmed that I was.
"Mr. Gilmore, I'm Marti Walters, and that Secret Service agent who you wrote about, Van Walters . . . well that was--is--my father," she said. "I must speak with you--in person, as soon as possible."
There was an undeniable urgency in her voice. When I was slow to respond she said, "We're talking life or death here, Mr. Gilmore. My father's life is at stake."
How could I pass up a summons like that? The Kennedy assassination had been the most important story of my journalistic life at that point and probably always would be. I had spent months on the Tribune team covering the post-assassination investigation and the unending aftermath developments, including the Jack Ruby trial. I had become the Tribune's go-to reporter on the assassination, and even now from my desk in Washington I still considered myself such five years later.
Without hesitating, I agreed to Marti Walters's suggestion that we meet for Sunday brunch the next morning at a restaurant in the Washington Union Station.
"I'll be coming down on the train from Philadelphia," she said. "I'm short and skinny."
Trying to be funny, I replied, "No problem. You'll know me because I'll be the handsome one with the marine crew cut."
But funny was obviously not Marti Walters's thing as I was met with silence. "I'll be wearing a brown-and-black-checked sport coat," I said, soberly.
"I'll find you," said Marti Walters.
secret service agent talks of death in dallas!
To my knowledge, in the five years since the assassination no Secret Service agents had said much of anything to any reporters about what happened that day in Dallas.
Visions of headlines and glories danced in my head.
I saw right away that Marti Walters was just a kid. She couldn't have been a day over twenty years old--if that. Clearly a college girl. Her self-description was right on. Small, almost skinny, short brown hair. Intense. But a happy face--much like the one on a high school girlfriend my mother described as "a blooming rose." Pretty in a no-makeup sort of way.
We had no trouble recognizing each other. There was not only my coat and the crew cut, there was also . . . well, I knew I had a bearing about me that often drew attention. Just under six feet, solidly built, good moves. Clearly on the way to somewhere. That's the way I saw myself, at least. And yes, so did my mother.
We went to a corner table at a café that advertised "Food of the World," which seemed to mean Greek and Italian versions of scrambled eggs and toast.
As soon as we sat down and without any sort of greeting, Marti got right down to it. "The first thing is that you must understand and accept that everything I'm about to tell you is what you reporters call off the record--way, way off the record."
"I'm not sure I can promise that . . ."
She held up both hands in a kind of open-palm wrestler pose. Stop right there, said her move. "You have to!" She said it with a force that didn't match her size, age, or demeanor. But I felt it. This kid meant business.
But before I could go ahead with a response, Marti Walters dropped her hands and her head with them. When she looked back up at me a few seconds later, there were huge tears in her eyes. Softly, imploringly, she said: "Please, Mr. Gilmore. Please. I need your help. Promise me first and if it ends up leading to a story you want . . . well, we can talk about it then. Please."
She really was just a kid, sad and hurting about something very real. Although I believed in the sanctity of off-the-record, I also knew that there were ways to work through and around it--even ethical and responsible ways--in certain situations. One thing at a time.
"Okay," I said. "Off the record it is."
Her face showed gratitude and relief--as well as purpose. She was ready to get on with it.
"My dad believes he's responsible for the death of John F. Kennedy." She said it just like that. No preamble, no setup.
She must have seen something on my face. Shock, disbelief. Hopefully, she didn't see my imagined headline: agent believes kennedy death his fault. I couldn't help myself.
"I know, I know--but hear me out, please," she said.
There was no question I'd hear her out . . . and that I had been right to wear the good sport coat.
"My dad's guilt about that day has made him sick, at first mentally and now physically. If something is not done to reverse his decline, he will die."
Here was what she had come to say. And now she had said it.
"Because of the bubble top?" I asked with an incredulity I was unable to disguise.
"Yes. He thinks that if the bubble top had been on the limousine, then Oswald--or whoever did the shooting--might not have taken the shots."
"But that bubble top was not bulletproof," I said. "It was just quarter-inch-thin plastic."
"I know that. You know that. But Dad believes Oswald might have thought it was bulletproof and might have decided not to shoot. He thinks that even if he did fire the shots, the glare from the glass might have disturbed his aim or might have somehow deflected the shots. Whatever, however, he thinks Kennedy would have lived."
I recalled mentioning this theory at the tail end of a Tribune story about the many agonies of Secret Service agents charged with protecting Kennedy. I also reported, briefly and in passing, the counter possibility.
I said to Marti, "Some people also thought it was possible the Plexiglas might have shattered into a hail of sharp shards that could have killed not only Kennedy but also Jackie, the Connallys, the two Secret Service agents--"
"I know, I know," Marti interrupted. "But I want to know what you know that might make a difference--what you know that I might use to convince Dad to come to his senses about this."
My reporter mind went racing again toward imagined headlines such as kennedy agent sick from guilt. believes bubble top could have saved jfk.
I shrugged. I wasn't quite sure what she was getting at.
"What did you say at that panel last Tuesday?" she asked impatiently.
"I told the story of Love Field . . ."
"And the bubble top?"
"Do you have a copy of what you said?"
I smiled, nodded, and pulled a copy of my presentation out of my pocket. I unfolded the two sheets of single-spaced typed paper and handed them to her.
"Read it to me--out loud, please," said Marti. She was beginning to annoy me.
I showed no sign of it, though, asking Marti if she wanted a drink. A Bloody Mary? A glass of wine maybe? This kid was about to jump out of her skin with anxiety. She needed a sedative of some kind, it seemed to me, because all she'd had to drink so far was coffee, with a couple of refills. All coffee was doing was make her nerves--and impatience--worse.
She shook her head. No drink, thank you. Start reading, thank you.
"How about a cigarette?" I asked, taking out my pack of Kent filters and offering her one.
"I don't smoke--never have, never will," she said as if she were the surgeon general of the United States.
Now I had a problem. I had been smoking since I was eighteen. It was a habit that began when I was going to college, went big-time while I was a marine, and was now an integral part of my life as a newspaperman. I couldn't imagine coming up with a creative thought, much less a coherent sentence on a typewriter, without the company of a cigarette. I did not know of a single person in the Tribune newsroom or the Washington bureau who didn't smoke.
"I guess then that you'd prefer I didn't . . . smoke?" I asked. That was maybe the first time in my life I had actually said such a thing to anybody--except for my mother back home in Salina, Kansas.
"They're your lungs. Your life you are endangering," Marti said.
I slipped my Kents back into a pocket and prayed for the strength to survive for a while without a cigarette. But for how long? Fifteen minutes? An hour?
Too much was at stake here, I decided. I pointed in the general direction of the restrooms, excused myself, and went away for a few crucial minutes--long enough to take several fulsome puffs from a Kent.
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